‘Ferrari as a client is a dream come true’

At the recent Geneva Motor Show, Ferrari unveiled the Ferrari 599XX, a sports car featuring a revolutionary system of boundary layer suction. This system, which is installed in the rear diffuser, reduces aerodynamic drag, while improving downforce and stability.

sTUDelta spoke to Eric Terry, one of the two founders of Actiflow, the TU Delft spin-off company behind this revolutionary system.

Who are Roy Campe and Eric Terry of Actiflow?
Roy and Eric, alumni of TU Delft’s Faculty of Aerospace Engineering, successfully graduated on the subject of boundary layer suction with the high grades of 9 and  8.5, respectively. This successful graduation project led them to start Actiflow, a company offering engineering services, with a special focus on aerodynamics. Their latest success is a product that can be found on the Ferrari 599XX.

How did you and your business partner come together while doing your MSc degrees, and how was the idea born to start Actiflow?
“Roy and I know each other from our first year in Delft, as we were both Belgian students. In Delft, all Belgians know each other. During our MSc studies, we worked on the same technology. I was studying the aerodynamic effects of boundary layer suction on wings, and Roy was investigating how to design a system that could realize this suction. So our technical skills were quite complementary. As we were both interested in doing some non-technical courses during our studies, we decided to participate in the courses ‘Turning technology into business’ and ‘Writing a business plan’. For these courses, we used our graduation topic – boundary layer suction – as a starting point, and we looked for opportunities to apply this technology in different markets. We ended these courses with a very promising business plan, and because of the enthusiastic reactions of some experienced people, we started considering really executing these plans. After graduation in 2004, we decided to go for it. After some administration, Actiflow was born in March 2005.”

What kind of students were you, and how did your studies go? Have you always been active next to your studies?
“Roy and I both ended our studies quite fast: Roy after 5.5 years, and I studied 6 years. I think I can say that we both took our studies seriously, which resulted in good grades. For our graduation work, Roy scored a 9, and I an 8.5. Next to our study, Roy was for two years the chairman of Benelair, the organization that helps and supports Belgian students studying in Delft. I was a mentor for first-year students and did some other minor things.”   

Was it always your intention to become an entrepreneur?
“As I explained, the fact that we started Actiflow was the result of some courses at TU Delft. We didn’t start these courses with the idea of starting our own company. However, Roy and I both grew up in an entrepreneurial family and we both had the ambition to take the chances that we get. So when we had our business plan and we had the feeling that it was promising, we didn’t doubt to go for it.”

Would you do it all over again, and would you do things differently next time?
“I would do exactly the same things. Of course we made some mistakes, but that’s part of the game. You make mistakes and you learn: that’s how you become a good entrepreneur.”

Are you still using your technological knowledge, or are you, as a CEO, more concerned with business and finance?
“At this moment I’m working more on business, finance, administration. I really like doing the business part, but sometimes I miss the technical work. I therefore try to stay involved in our largest projects by participating in the brainstorming sessions and discussing technical issues with our engineers. Sometimes it’s very good that I can look at our technical work from a distance, which makes it easier for me to come with new ideas. Furthermore, I think it’s very important that I know what is happening in Actiflow on the technical side. Both Roy and I are the ones that have to sell our services, and it’s a big advantage that we know about the technology.” 

What kind of work does Actiflow do?
“Actiflow offers engineering services, with a special focus on aerodynamics. This means that Actiflow performs design and analysis work to help clients solve their design issues when airflows or fluid flows are involved. We assist clients in a very wide range of industries: automotive, aerospace, oil & gas, but also the building industry and the medical industry. In the building industry, we analyze and design ventilation and air conditioning systems for large buildings, offices, event halls or production facilities. In the medical industry, we help during the design process of operating rooms, heating blankets and other products and equipment. “Actiflow helps clients to design their products, but we also have our own product developments in the field of active aerodynamics. We design blowing and suction systems that can influence the airflow over different kinds of objects. At the recent motor show in Geneva, one of our systems was presented on the newest Ferrari 599XX. Our system is installed in the diffuser of the new car and improves the downforce and the stability of the car. Moreover, it can be used to decrease the aerodynamic drag and thus the fuel consumption.” 

By whom was the boundary-layer suction method first invented. Was it by you two or by the university? How did you manage to get hold of the patent?
“Boundary layer suction is a very old technology, first studied by Ludwig Prandtl in the beginning of the 20th century, so it is definitely not invented by TU Delft or by us. It’s an existing technology, but because of the research at TU Delft conducted by assistant professor Loek Boermans, there is a lot of technical and theoretical knowledge about the technology in Delft. “Because of our fascination for the technology, and because we saw some commercial opportunities, we started in Actiflow to develop prototypes which could in practice realize the suction effect on a wing and on a car. In this way, we gained lots of practical knowledge. It’s this practical knowledge that could be patented. The technology of boundary layer suction itself cannot be patented any more, but the actual application of the technology on a certain product can be patented by adding a system design in order to realize the desired effects.” 

What are your business relations with TU Delft? Are you entitled to pay a certain amount of revenue to the university?
“Unlike most other TU Delft spin-offs, we don’t have an official business relationship with the university. When we started in March 2005, there was no clear policy yet at the university about spin-off companies. Or at least we didn’t know of it. To be independent, we decided to apply for a patent ourselves. Later that year, everything changed when Yes!Delft was founded. From that moment on, most spin-off companies shared a patent with the university.” 

How did the cooperation with Ferrari start?
“Through a fellow student who did his internship at Ferrari, we received the contact details of an engineer at Ferrari. After several months, we had the opportunity to give a presentation about our ideas at the Ferrari factory in Maranello. We also presented our ideas to other manufacturers, but Ferrari was offering the most help for developing our idea into a real product.”  

Is working with Ferrari a dream come true?
“For me it is. I’ve always been crazy about cars in general, and of course Ferrari is a legendary brand. We’re very proud that our system is now part of the latest Ferrari.”

Which Actiflow project makes you most proud?
“It’s not just one project. I’m most proud about what we have built up over the past four years. We now have an experienced team of engineers with complementary skills in design, analysis and prototyping. We’ve proven through the Ferrari project that we’re able to perform a whole product development and that we can deliver high quality results. With this team, we can do very exciting projects in future. One of those projects will be in the wind energy sector. We are developing a whole new blade, which will be much cheaper than conventional blades, but have the same aerodynamic performance. Hopefully our new blade design will be the standard wind turbine blade of the future. ”

A Ferrari is nice, but will we see this technology in more vehicles in the future, and when?
“At the moment, the economic crisis is hitting the automotive industry, which makes it very difficult to get our system on other car models. However, Actiflow has the ambition to apply this technology to other cars in future. Moreover, we’re constantly doing internal research to find innovative technologies for improving the fuel efficiency of cars and other road vehicles.”

Was it easy to get new clients in the starting phase, and how did you do acquisition?
“In the beginning we only had the development project with Ferrari as a core activity, and thanks to various grants and other investments we were able to finance this development. Actually, our first other clients came to us without any effort from our side. Through the network of our advisors and owing to some articles in newspapers, people came to us with problems in the field of aerodynamics. This is how we started doing consulting work. Later, we decided that this consulting work was important for us as means of filling the quiet periods of our product development, for meeting new people and for identifying interesting problems in the industry to work on. From that moment on, we started to do active acquisition.”

How did you find investors when you started?
“This wasn’t easy. We talked to about 25 to 30 possible investors before we had a good feeling about an offer we got. We found those people by telling everyone that we were looking for an investor. In the end, we found our current investor thanks to the former dean of the faculty of Aerospace Engineering, professor Ben Droste.”

How did TU Delft help you start up?
“TU Delft helped us a lot. It started with some professors who really supported our plans, like professor Adriaan Beukers, professor Michel van Tooren and professor Ben Droste. Then of course we could hire a small office at Yes!Delft, and we could follow various interesting masterclasses organized by Yes!Delft. The most interesting for us were the courses in project management, finance and contract negotiations. Last but not least the network of Yes!Delft and TU Delft in general has been very important and helpful for us.”

Are you getting rich from it, would you be able to buy the Ferrari 599XX yourself?
“Not really. We invested a lot in the development of this first product and in marketing our company. The application of our product on the new Ferrari is a first success, but the actual return should come in the following years. But we think it’s very important that we like what we do. Roy and I are convinced that we have the most beautiful job. We are really having fun in everything we do.” 

What are your plans for the future, do you want to expand, and how big will Actiflow become?
“Actiflow should become an engineering company of about 25-30 engineers, helping clients all over the world with excellent design and analysis skills in the field of airflows and fluid flows.”

How should TU students go about starting their own businesses?
“Most important is: make sure you have good people to help you and advise you. Learn from them and never give up. As a first step: go to Yes!Delft and find out about entrepreneurship. Be inspired.”

Ming Ming Yu, 24, luchtvaart- en ruimtevaarttechniek.
Fred Vermolen, docent numerieke analyse.

“Fred staat bekend om zijn gehaaste colleges. Hij heeft heel veel stof te behandelen in weinig tijd. Toch leert iedereen veel van hem. Zijn grootste kwaliteit is dat hij weet dat zijn vak nogal saai en droog is. Maar hij brengt het met een vleugje humor en sarcasme. Daarmee houdt hij iedereen bij de les. De collegezaal zit altijd stampvol. Op zich al een prestatie in Delft. Fred schrijft tijdens college heel priegelig allerlei berekeningen op het bord. Vervolgens roept hij: Voor de mensen achterin: jullie kunnen het niet zien, maar het staat er echt.”

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