Research Brought to Life (2)

(05-11-2019) Wim Audenaert, co-founder of AM-Team, tells us about how he went from academic to entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs are always perceived as positive-minded homines universales who meet every challenge head-on. This series examines whether they really are. Was the launch of their business a smooth ride or an obstacle course? Does entrepreneurship run in the blood, or is it something you can learn? And what made them step into the risky world of entrepreneurism? Today we will be grilling Wim Audenaert of AM-Team. Discover what Wim has to tell about the importance of asking the right questions, the entrepreneurial gene, and self-knowledge.

From entrepreneur to academic and back

Sometimes life take very strange turns. As a child Wim dreamt of following in the entrepreneurial footsteps of his grandparents and parents, only to change his mind during his studies, when he set his sights on becoming a professor. One PhD later, however, he did start his own business, albeit one based on the research he conducted for said PhD. Speaking of an ideal combination! 

The A-Team or AM-Team?

When you finally manage to turn your dream into reality, you are going to name your enterprise after your favourite heroes, are you not? AM-Team's troops are indeed as talented, colourful and versatile as Hannibal, B.A., Face, and Murdock from The A-Team. But the name is more than just a playful reference. It mentions one of the company's top values, team spirit, while also reflecting what it is all about: advanced modelling. Advanced what? Right! Let's have a look at the essence of what AM-Team does.

Advanced Modelling in action

Water wastage, water treatment, water reuse ... Each and every one a hot topic! Water treatment involves quite a few expensive processes and technologies. With its accurate 3D simulations, AM-Team can optimise these processes, saving clients time and money without a need for risky, expensive interventions. In summary, with just one key press AM-Team can visually point out potential improvements, even for plans that have not yet been carried out. Now if these aren't special forces ...

Entrepreneurship with values

Wim is clearly in his element when he talks about AM-Team. He possesses a strength that is partly due to his full endorsement of the company's values and vision. ‘Our philosophy when we started this business was to make a positive contribution to the world.’ Not by continuously manning the barricades, but rather by applying the idea that innovation, analysis and rational thinking will help us move ahead. ‘There is no such thing as one big solution to, for instance, the climate problem that can be imposed on everybody. It doesn't work that way. Thinking positive, believing that we will find solutions to the issues facing us, like we did in the past  ... That's what's going to make the difference.’ 

Climate pioneer

AM-TEAMWas water and the whole climate problem directly responsible for him starting AM-Team, I ask. Growing up in the countryside, where studying insects and romping among cows are everyday activities, naturally helped to stimulate a green mindset. He eventually chose to study industrial engineering at the then Hogeschool West-Vlaanderen (now the UGent's Kortrijk campus) and wrote his thesis on a new waste-water plan for a festival. Speaking of impact! ‘Music festivals are ideal ecosystems for testing things. You reach large numbers of people, and every year you get a new opportunity to adapt and improve things ...’

I see, I see what you don't

‘My thesis really fired my passion for water technology. Once you've developed a fascination for water, it's a sector you can't let go of anymore.’ Getting a doctorate looked like the next, logical step. ‘When I began my PhD, I thought I'd never make it. I was really intimidated by all those super smart people around me. But then I saw something they didn't see. The simulations on their computer screens were very powerful visually yet also eminently simple. They were based on scientific data, so they were a visual reflection of reality. That simplicity, based on a scientific technology, hit me so hard that I thought: there's so much to be gained from this commercially!’ 

Advanced modelling in actie

The ideal springboard 

Still, it was some time before he actually did anything with his flash of insight. His goal at the time was to be a professor. Postdoctorate: check. A stint abroad to beef up his CV: check. Applying for a post as professor at the university: check! And then he chose to turn around. He had finally connected his passion—water—, his knowledge—modelling techniques—, and his childhood ambition—entrepreneurship—. Together with some like-minded university friends he decided to take the jump to start up AM-Team, and he has not regretted it for one minute since. ‘From as early as age 6 I was being complimented on my sales skills. Entrepreneurship runs in my family. So maybe I did inherit that "entrepreneurial gene", or at least some of it. All of these factors played an important part in my decision.’

Who, what, where, when and how?

Asking the right questions was an important step during the launch of AM-Team. ‘What are our strengths? What are we less good at? In other words, what do we need to focus on? What type of client do we want to reach? What kind of projects do we like to do? What kind of company do we want to be? What makes us unique? ... This helped us tremendously to determine our vision and our strategy. In fact, our vision stands to this day. A good business plan is the natural result of a strong passion and the values that drive you.’

Know your unique selling proposition

‘The clients we work with today are the ones we like to work with, and the projects we do are projects we like to do. Maybe it's a coincidence. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it's because as a company we have specialised in executing special projects. Of course, when I was a PhD student I had the extra advantage of being able to do those hardcore simulations. At the same time we also have a very good understanding of our clients' needs. This combination is what makes us truly unique. And finding this sweet spot as a company is your biggest asset.’

Help from  UGent TechTransfer

Of course, being an entrepreneur requires developing some skills that are not exactly those of an academic. UGent TechTransfer was very helpful with that. ‘I still use the financial tool that I learned there. They offer really practical courses that push you to move forward. And when you're a PhD student their courses are almost free.’ More than enough reason, therefore, to pay them a visit! 

Looking for a mentor

‘What I was really looking for back then was other entrepreneurs, mentors actually. Their stories can inspire you, take away your fears, give you energy, offer solutions to problems you run into ... precisely because they have tons of experience.’ For entrepreneurship is not all a bed of roses. ‘Often there are more problems than there are solutions, and then it's nice to be able to speak with an old hand who's weathered the same storms.’

Academia and entrepreneurship

The biggest step they had to take was the transition from academic to entrepreneur. ‘Once you've taken the step, there doesn't appear to be any way back anymore. The two worlds are very different. I think spin-offs are the ideal catalyst to bridge the gap. People starting spin-offs usually have academic backgrounds. They know how to write papers, how to do research, how to interpret academic results ... At the same time they know what goes with building a business. Each of the two backgrounds—academic and industrial—is important, and they complement each other. I think it's important that we continue to strive to understand one another. It requires energy on both sides. Scientific studies are not always as clear and as easy to read as researchers think they are. And vice versa, running a business requires a totally different mindset. To me, doing research means asking questions, being critical, thinking ahead ... As an entrepreneur you have to offer concrete solutions.’ 

AM-Team's ambitions

Of course the world doesn't stand still, and neither does AM-Team. ‘Our wildest dreams have us conquering the world. This may sound a bit overconfident for a young company, but we want to grow, to continue expanding our team, to carry out international projects ... This is what drives us as a team and me as a human being. We want to create fans. Not just our clients, but also our employees.’ Count us among the fans!


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