FEATURE
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All the right moves

While its products are getting smaller, Avantes is growing as a company, as Warren Clark discovers

It has been an exciting time for spectroscopy, and Avantes is one company riding the crest of the wave. Since we last checked in with the Dutch manufacturer (Electro Optics, February/March 2009), Avantes has relocated to larger offices and made significant steps forward in both its product range and strategic direction.

Formed in 1994 as Top Sensor Systems, it was renamed to Avantes in 2000 when Benno Oderkerk and Luitzen Roosma discontinued the distributorship for Ocean Optics. The company has since muscled in as a big player in spectrometry in its own right. The sale of 51 per cent of its shares a few years ago provided an exit strategy for some of the shareholders at the time, but the company remains under the close watchful eye of Oderkerk and Roosma to this day, though the latter is approaching retirement later this year.

To this end, Oderkerk assumed the role of CEO in October 2011 (he was previously technical director), and employed a financial controller at the beginning of 2012 to share the task of driving Avantes forward once Roosma steps down.

The timing of the previous profile in these pages was notable, as it coincided with the sharp economic downturn that hit the photonics industry so hard at the beginning of 2009. ‘At the time, we were predicting 20 per cent growth, based on budgets we had devised six months previously,’ explains Oderkerk. ‘In the end, we only achieved 8.5 per cent growth that year, which on reflection was pretty good given the circumstances. We still continued hiring staff during 2009, particularly in product development and logistics.’

‘It led to an extraordinary year in 2010. We found that many of our customers were being very careful in 2009, choosing to run down their stock rather than buy anything new. As a result, by the time the economy picked up, they had empty inventories that they needed to fill rapidly. They were screaming for stock in 2010, and at first we simply weren’t able to keep up with demand.’

Indeed, this rapid growth sowed the seeds for a relocation that eventually happened in 2011. With 40 people crammed into 1,000sqm over two buildings, Avantes had reached a point where it couldn’t grow any further, because it simply didn’t have the space.

‘We had been based in Eerbeek for more than 15 years,’ says Oderkerk, ‘but I knew that there was not the available land within the town for us to be able to build our own facility of the size we wanted.’

Oderkerk identified the nearby (larger) town of Apeldoorn as an ideal location, being just 12km from the existing Avantes HQ, and also situated close to the A1, the major route linking Amsterdam to Berlin.

‘We were on our way to Apeldoorn to look for suitable locations to build a new facility, when I noticed a building that had fallen into neglect, but that was advertised for rent,’ he says. ‘When we looked into it, we discovered that it had been unoccupied for about seven years, except for a few students who had been living there for minimum rent, as a way of preventing the building from being occupied by squatters. A few months before we drove by, there had been a kitchen fire, which had left a large part of the upper floor badly damaged, and meant that the building was now completely empty.’

Though the building was larger than the one Oderkerk planned to build, he saw an opportunity to discuss the future of the site with the owners, who also shared the Avantes aim of wanting to own an environmentally-friendly, sustainable building. As a result, Avantes agreed to a 10-year lease, and the owners agreed to renovate the building to meet the highest standards of energy efficiency, including solar panels, LED lighting and so on. A total of 2.5m euros was pumped into the renovation to customise the interior spaces to its specific needs, including a 300,000 euro contribution to the energy efficiency measures.

‘That element was very easy for us to agree,’ says Oderkerk. ‘We can see that, even on today’s energy prices, we will recoup our investment over the 10-year lease thanks to the energy we will save. Of course, energy prices are likely to go up, so we hope to beat that target comfortably.’

Avantes moved to its new headquarters in October last year, and in spite of the move, every single member of staff was retained – a fact that makes Oderkerk proud of the working environment he has created at the company. At the official opening in January, a member of the Netherlands’ department for economic affairs was so impressed with the building and the high level of exports that Avantes was achieving, that he promised to recommend a visit to his boss, the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs.

Another major step in the development of the company was the appointment of a chief technical officer in 2011, which has enabled Avantes to increase its R&D department to 15 people, and concentrate on developing new products and technologies. The company has also become involved in a few EU-subsidised research projects, which will bring Avantes closer to the university community, and also bring benefits in the shape of new products further down the line.

‘We’ve also seen a continuation of the trend for smaller devices, and an expansion of markets away from the laboratory,’ says Oderkerk. ‘We have devices being used on tractors in South America to monitor levels of nitrates in agricultural land.  While in China, our office is servicing a huge demand for environmental monitoring as a result of government targets for lowering air and water pollution.’

Strategically, Avantes has moved from a widespread approach to one that focuses on a few specific markets – medical, clean tech and green tech. ‘For medical, it’s all about bringing the point of care closer to the patient,’ says Oderkerk. ‘Ultimately, this might even mean spectrometer technology embedded in a wristwatch or mobile phone. Within clean tech, LEDs represent a big market, where spectrometers are used during product development and quality control to measure the output.’

The office move has paved the way for another year of growth for the company. Already up to 52 employees, Oderkerk plans to hire several more staff this year, and has also opened an office in the UK. Oderkerk is confidently predicting double digit growth once more in 2012.