As demand for Covid vaccines heats up, va-Q-Tec in Germany stays cool


It turns out that during a pandemic, keeping the Covid-19 vaccine at a low temperature for transportation around the world is a technical challenge. But a small German company believes that it has come up with the best solution.

Joachim Kuhn, CEO of va-Q-Tec, stated that its super-insulated containers have been used to transport a quarter to half of the world’s coronavirus vaccine doses, leading to a surge in orders. Increase at a rate of 30% per year. year.

Sitting in his office, Kuhn looked at the terraced vineyards around va-Q-Tec’s headquarters in Würzburg (pictured above) in northwestern Bavaria. He said that the pandemic had changed the company’s “rules of the game” and prompted it. Increased its factory labor force and reduced it by 50%, shifted to uninterrupted production and expanded to Asia. “We had to go from 5 days a week to 7 days a week, 24 hours a day,” he said. “This is a bit challenging for our employees here. We have to convince them to come also on Saturday and Sunday, even during the night shift.”

Thanks to their efforts, the company now has a factory filled with rectangular silver plates of various sizes.They provide a form of vacuum insulation and work in the same way as Original thermos This itself was patented by another German in 1904. The shiny panel is made by packaging silicon dioxide or similar in a multilayer plastic film, then baking it to remove moisture, and then sucking out air. When installed on the wall of a container, such as a refrigerator-sized box made by va-Q-Tec to fit in the cargo compartment of an aircraft, the panel can keep the items at a stable temperature for at least five days and up to two weeks with an external power source, even if they have been Open.

Va-Q-Tec vacuum insulation panels © Johannes Kiefer

Va-Q-Tec switches to 24/7 production to fulfill pandemic orders © Johannes Kiefer

Employees and visitors in its offices can get appropriate cold drinks from smaller versions of boxes located around many of its rooms. The company often demonstrates its technology by shipping ice cubes to meetings with investors.

The requirements for coronavirus vaccines (such as those produced by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna) remain at A temperature of about -20 degrees Celsius The demand for va-Q-Tec and other technologies was emphasized.Refrigeration and transportation account for a large part of the cost of the vaccination program Proved difficult In the past. Last year, the global medical cold chain storage market was valued at USD 13.3 billion, and it is predicted that even before the launch of the first Covid-19 vaccine at the end of 2020, the market will still grow at an annual rate of 7%. Research Group Imac.

When Kuhn saw the delivery of vaccines in va-Q-Tec containers on TV or the Internet, he was obviously stimulated. Wielding his cell phone, he showed an email about the delivery of vaccines from Japan to Brunei, and added that the U.S. Armed Forces had used its boxes to vaccinate military forces at bases around the world.

Joachim Kuhn

Joachim Kuhn, CEO of va-Q-Tec © Johannes Kiefer

When he expressed his joy with the company’s recent success, he reflected on the company’s near bankruptcy in just a few years after he and some of his thermal insulation classmates split it up as a university in 2001.

“We suffered everything you could have suffered,” he said, explaining that one of the three founders resigned very early, and then its first three customers closed down, and its innovative insulation panels had very few orders . “We entered the market a bit too early,” Kuhn added.

“In some cases, the big orders we expected did not arrive-their situation was really tense,” he said, remembering that the company only had 2 million euros in capital and was still located in the basement of ZAE Bayern (Bavarian Application Center) . Energy Research) in Würzburg. “And we are students, so we don’t have a lot of money.” The lifeline comes from the German biotechnology industry, which is the deal with Boehringer Ingelheim. “They suddenly realized that this biotech product must be transported at a very, very controllable temperature,” Kuhn recalled. “Then we came in and started playing games.”

Inventory of panels for insulated containers © Johannes Kiefer

A few years later, when the business grew and needed to raise more funds, it no longer turned to German investors for help, but to the British clean technology fund Zouk Capital. “London has more vision,” Kuhn said. “This is the point, not the money.”

It soon became obvious that many of va-Q-Tec’s customers would rather rent its containers than buy them. Therefore, the company changed its business model. Inspired by Swedish rival Envirotainer, the company has long rented out what Kuhn calls “flying refrigerators” because they rely on battery power, and va-Q-Tec started its own container leasing business. It opened a UK office in Kent, where a team manages its 8,000-person fleet of containers and boxes. This “temperature chain as a service” generates about three-quarters of the company’s revenue, and is expected to reach 100 million euros in total revenue this year.

The pharmaceutical industry has long been its main market, although its largest customer is the Dutch chip manufacturer ASML, which uses va-Q-Tec containers to transport temperature-sensitive lenses used in its semiconductor manufacturing machines.

Medical supplies box specially designed for last mile or laboratory delivery

A medical kit specially designed for last mile or laboratory distribution © Johannes Kiefer

When the pandemic hit last year, Kuhn said he didn’t see it as an opportunity, but just the source of the problem. His “biggest headache” is how to keep production going while ensuring that employees are safely isolated and tested. As industrial customers closed their factories during the lockdown, va-Q-Tec’s panel orders were hit. Business with the pharmaceutical group also initially declined because they reduced other clinical trials to focus on Covid-19.

However, in April 2020, Kuhn received a call from his team in Seoul. This is good news. “A Korean company has successfully manufactured test kits on a large scale, and they need to be shipped to many other countries at a temperature of -20C,” he said. Va-Q-Tec won the order, as well as orders for other coronavirus detection kits, before it began to produce locally.

The demand for vaccine shipments began in October last year because the vaccines were stored before regulatory approval. In the first six months of this year, vaccine shipments soared, accounting for 13% of va-Q-Tec’s revenue.

The company’s role in shipping coronavirus vaccines has increased its visibility-Kuhn said that when he went to the local bakery in Würzburg, he sometimes asked him about the company’s stock price. The company now has four times as many shareholders as before the pandemic, and its stock price has tripled in less than two years, but Kuhn joked that he might have to stop buying bread if the stock price drops.

Roland Caps, co-founder of va-Q-Tec and Kuhn, recently retired as the head of research and development, but he and Kuhn’s family still own 27% of the company, which went public in 2016.

Kuhn predicts that as pharmaceutical groups develop more temperature-sensitive drugs, their demand will continue to rise. As expected, va-Q-Tec is expanding rapidly, opening factories in China, India and Brazil, and opening a new production workshop in a factory near Erfurt, Germany.

He predicted that efforts to combat climate change may bring greater opportunities, requiring everything from buildings to cars to become more energy-efficient.

Va-Q-Tec panel Selected The insulating materials used in part of the Frankfurt Grand Tower skyscraper completed last year are used to increase the range of electric vehicle prototypes.

“It’s very interesting,” Kuhn said, looking back at the past 20 years since the company was founded. “We are happy to do two things for mankind: to help with climate and health care. This makes us proud in a certain way.”







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