Spectroscopy entrepreneur wins EPIC Phoenix Award

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The European Photonics Industry Consortium’s (EPIC) Phoenix Award 2014 has been presented to Benno Oderkerk, CEO and co-founder of Avantes. The award, which represents the challenges and merits of entrepreneurship, was awarded to Oderkerk for 20 years spent in growing Avantes from a start-up company with two employees to one of the largest worldwide suppliers of miniaturised spectrometers.

The EPIC Phoenix Award is presented annually to a company that may have faced difficult times in developing its technology, selling its products, raising capital, but ultimately managed in positioning itself as a successful company. The 2014 award was presented at Avantes’ headquarters in Apeldoorn, The Netherlands, on 26 November.

The story of Avantes starts in April 1994 with Luitzen Roosma and Benno Oderkerk in a shed in Eerbeek, The Netherlands. Not unusual for start-ups and entrepreneurs, in the evening hours both founders would modernise and decorate the shed as a company office.

In the first few years of being in business, the company sold a number of products from suppliers abroad in The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, although no profit was made and the founders had to live from savings. During this time, spectrometers were mainly confined to laboratories, and the main challenge back then, Oderkerk told Electro Optics, was convincing customers that the smaller machines were effective. ‘We had a hard time convincing customers that small spectrometers basically did the same things as a big spectrometer,’ he said.

In 1996 they were asked to organise all sales of one of their suppliers, Ocean Optics, in Europe with the target to structure and expand the growth of their spectrometers business. They were quite successful to do so and introduced a full product range and many own developed accessories.

In 2000, Ocean Optics offered to acquire the company but the founders decided to continue as ‘Avantes’ and bought a small spectrometer company in Amsterdam.

The most challenging time started in 2002, when the company opened a US sales office and introduced its own spectrometers to the market. Competition was intense and the Euro was getting stronger and stronger, endangering the market success in the US. During this time, Avantes consolidated the branch in Amsterdam, meaning that staff had to be laid-off, and the private property of the owners was put on the line to guarantee bank loans.

The situation started to improve in 2004 when sales picked up and the company was able to become profitable. In 2005, Avantes started to grow again, and in 2007 and 2012, it opened an office in China and the UK. The company then relocated its headquarters to a new 3,000sqm facility in Apeldoorn, The Netherlands, in 2011.

Today, Avantes is one of the largest worldwide suppliers in miniaturised spectrometers, but, 20 years on, competition still remains a challenge, Oderkerk explained: ‘Twenty years later, we see there are many more players in the market. There has been a lot of innovation in the field of spectroscopy, and we see that there is much more of a challenge to see how you can conquer potential OEM applications in large volume, and how you can differentiate yourself from the competition,’ he said.

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