The end of the Anaconda
The academic research behind it has brought Fibersensing to the world. In 2010 the company breaks even and 2011 should be a profit year.
There are Fibersensing sensors in every continent except Africa. The products of this company, which was incubated by INESC Porto, can be found in the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, in railways for high speed trains in Holland and in the Curitiba dam in Brazil. This widespread success shows the real quality of the products developed and patented by Fibersensing. However, Sérgio Aniceto, Fibersensing’s CEO, claims that the true success is in the long-term contracts secured with well-known companies such as Siemens, Airbus, EDP, REN and Petrobras. “I have 20 sensors in the Brooklyn Bridge that are worth around twenty thousand Euros. One of the deals with Siemens could be worth seventy thousand Euros or 300 thousand for the deal with Airbus”. So what attracts these clients? Fibersensing creates sensors that monitor temperatures, strain, pressure, acceleration and displacement using FBG – Fiber Bragg Grating. “The conventional sensors normally have an electric cable connected to the unit that measures them. They are all terminals. The new technology is advantageous because along the length of the fiber optic there are various sensors creating a cleaner and simpler solution”, Sérgio Aniceto states.
The impact of these new monitoring systems is very clear in the aviation industry for example. Until now, multiple traditional sensors had to be used in aeroplanes; this great heavy bulk of cables was named after the anaconda. “With this new technology all of the different sensors are on one fiber and they can be kilometres or millimetres apart. The electric sensors need electricity, ours just have light. This means that there is no risk of ignition; I can put them under an oil well inside the fuel tank of an aeroplane. Our sensors are also immune to electromagnetic fields and radio interference.” Therefore, swopping the ‘anacondas’ for the newer technology means less weight in the aeroplane, more security and lower fuel expenditure for airlines such as Airbus.
Airbus is a recent client; they began working with Fibersensing just over a year ago. These clients show how the company’s strategy has changed; up until two years ago they were very dependent on the construction industry and public works market. “Civil engineering represented up to 78% of our invoicing until 2008 and prior to this it had been even more significant”, he explains. The profound break with the construction sector in both Portugal and world-wide forced Fibersensing to branch out in other directions. The area chosen by Sérgio Aniceto and his team of 32 workers was energy, from its generation to its transformation and distribution. In their client portfolio there are now aviation and space research companies. In 2009 Fibersensing worked with diverse companies in areas such as the production of wind power, companies involved in transporting electricity and firms linked to the exploitation of oil and gas. In 2009 these were the clients that made up 87% of its turnover. Sérgio Aniceto explains that in this market “the working conditions are better. In the civil engineering market there is no room to breathe”. He goes on to say that “in the energy market there is no competition for the conventional [sensors] which means that we can develop solutions such as those we offered to Siemens.” Furthermore, having secured this type of clientele means the possibility of “repeat sales, larger sales and five year agreements with planned deliveries.”
The years of academic research taken on by professors and students in the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto were really necessary to get to this stage. Three of the original researchers were the founders of Fibersensing and still work in the company: Francisco Araújo and Luís Ferreira, both with Doctorate Degrees, and Alberto Maia, a specialist in electrical engineering. The research and development led by these three specialists makes them different to the other foreigner companies in the same market.
Since the beginning, the Portuguese company has participated in scientific fairs throughout the world and these specialists have also given lectures in many different countries. “We are beginning to be recognised. When people realise that some of the well known companies are not solving certain problems and Fibersensing can, we start to get noticed”, states Sérgio Aniceto. “Airbus originally started working for one of our competitors. However, after a year and a half working with them, they realised that this company was not going to be able to achieve what Airbus had proposed”. Fibersensing has a strain sensor that does not require a temperature sensor to be coupled, unlike the rival’s sensors. This sensor is athermal and can regulate itself. When Airbus heard about this new product they contacted Fibersensing and after five months working with them, the contract was secured.
Sérgio Aniceto tells a similar story. “We have had clients who came knocking at our doors such as our biggest client at the moment, Siemens Power Generation. They needed a solution for their high power generators. They were working with a North American company, one of our partners and, at the same time, one of our competitors. The company was unable to solve the problem and so they handed it over to us.”
Although the technical quality of this company seems to be internationally recognised, this has not yet led to profits. “We have the most extensive range of sensors on the market. We have partners and competitors who have come to the conclusion that it is not worth developing new sensors; and so they come to us to use ours. This has introduced us to a larger international market” adds Sérgio Aniceto. Fibersensing reached this level of specialisation only after investing 5 million Euros into research, equipment and qualified personnel.
Last year an additional 500 thousand Euros were invested to allow Fibersensing to complete their range of sensors. Two of these products are still to be launched later this year. One of these new products is called Extended Temperatures. It is suitable for oil companies and companies using gas and wind power because it “will operate under extreme temperatures from -20 to 65 degrees, while current products vary between 10 and 50 degrees. This means that the sensor can work in an oil well in the desert or in the Arctic” explains Sérgio Aniceto. With this range of products on the market, Fibersensing aims to make 2011 the first profit making year. In 2010, the company managed by Sérgio Aniceto should register a turnover close to 2 million Euros allowing them to ‘break even’. This means that “for the first time the company should generate the capital gains necessary to sustain itself.”
This year Fibersensing will export 95% of its production. “This company was not born to compete in the home market, it was born to compete on an international level contracting ‘world-wide renowned clients.” Along with the innovative technology, this was one of the main reasons why Inovcapital, the state venture capital firm, became a major company shareholder in 2004.
This investment, under normal market conditions, would be at a “sales stage”.
However, according to Sérgio Aniceto, Fibersensing’s principal investor, “believes that the company may be worth a lot more in two years time than it is worth today”. The CEO adds that “Inovcapital was intuitive and recognise that the technology is very new, it needs to be promoted and the state of the market was not helping.” Furthermore, the investment into the growth of this company does not stop there. In order to respond to the demands and the new clients, they will need to recruit more production workers and take on new partners that, “in their geographic region promote, sell and install the solutions that we produce”.
Exame, 1 December 2010