INTERVIEW WITH HANS REINDERS AND BART REINDERS
Air-conditioning done the natural way: cheaper, cleaner and healthier
Oxycom applies an age-old technique to achieve cooling efficiencies that dwarf those of conventional air-conditioners. Yet it took many years before the company could finally enjoy a prolonged period of stable growth and success. Founder and former CEO Hans Reinders has remained steadfastly convinced all along that with his high-tech adiabatic cooling technology he had pure gold in his hands that would bring enormous environmental benefits. "What we have been doing for years is preaching a religion: that it is worthwhile to invest in comfortable and healthy working environments."
"You know what the biggest mistake we made is?", asks Hans Reinders as he gives a tour around the Oxycom factory, "We hired a Polish woman as our production leader!” The pink-haired Polish woman nearby, kneeling on the floor with a big caulking gun in her hands, erupts in laughter. "Also, never hire a mechanic from Myanmar with two left hands to do assembly work", Reinders adds. The man standing within hearing distance joins the fun and the three of them briefly discuss the work at hand before Mr. Reinders continues his tour. "This is how I am. When I'm here, I never sit at a desk. I always walk around, I'm always talking to people, initiating things, asking questions, making jokes. I know everyone and everything that happens in this company. I've always known I'm better at working down in the trenches than sitting upstairs in the boardroom. I quit high school after three years, I preferred working at the local gas station to doing my homework."
"Tell me how I can be wrong"
Hans Reinders, age 67, is at the company he founded 18 years ago almost every day, even though he recently transferred the CEO role to his son Bart. It's his boundless passion and drive to see his dream fulfilled that keeps him going with so much energy. That, plus his rock-solid conviction that he has been right all along, and that it was always only a matter of time before the market would recognise that. "If you've got something that achieves so much with so little, tell me how can I be wrong." Mr. Reinders is referring to his high-tech incarnation of an age-old technique: adiabatic cooling or cooling by evaporation. Evaporation requires heat, and by making water evaporate you can extract heat from an object you want to cool. This is the principle at work where - since ancient times - wet towels have been hung in front of open windows to cool homes, and that also explains why humans start to sweat when they need to cool down.
Oxycom applies the same mechanism to manufacture industrial climate control installations, and claims that its coolers consume only 10 percent of the electricity, plus a negligible amount of water, to achieve the same amount of cooling as conventional air-conditioners. In addition, their technique is based on ventilation and thus provides a continuous flow of fresh and clean air to a room, whereas standard air-conditioners circulate the same air repeatedly. Finally, disadvantages often associated with adiabatic cooling - including that it can't cool to low temperatures in warm and humid outdoor environments, that it increases the humidity of the indoor air, or that it's a potential source of contamination with viruses and bacteria such as legionella - are all said to have been resolved.
The secret is turbulence
At the heart of Oxycom's products is an ultra-efficient heat exchanger. It consists of multiple, intricately-shaped aluminium plates, with numerous protruding fins covered in a fibrous coating, all arranged in parallel. In operation, air flows along these fins in separate channels: outgoing channels in which the water is evaporating, and adjacent ones in which the incoming fresh air provides the heat for this evaporation and is thereby cooled. The secret? "Turbulence. If air is passing through in a nice laminar flow, not a lot of cooling will happen. Our design maximises turbulence and thereby heat transfer, and our heat exchanger contains numerous other smart features that increase its efficiency. Even if you took our design apart, analysed it and tried to replicate it, you would fall flat on your face several times before you could ever succeed. We have nonetheless patented our design worldwide, so no competitor should be able or allowed to copy it. So far we have not encountered anyone who has tried to copy us."
‘We wanted to find the best way to cool air without using energy, and I think it is a blessing that we were not hindered by any technical knowledge.’
That may also be the case because Oxycom has been ahead of its time and the market for the majority of its existence. Now though, the feeling is that the market has reached a turning point and is now ready to embrace the Oxycom approach to cooling. "What we have been doing for years is preaching a religion: that it is necessary and worthwhile to invest in comfortable and healthy working environments. People get less tired, can concentrate better, make fewer mistakes and get sick less often, especially now with COVID-19 all around us. Cooling and ventilation are essential for this. We are clearly noticing that this awareness is growing. Once potential customers become aware of what we have to offer and we get a request for a proposal, we've been able to convert 9 out of 10 such requests into actual sales orders. In fact, our customer BMI, a machine manufacturer, claims that after they installed our equipment, their people are no longer in a hurry to go home on sunny days but prefer to stay in their comfortable working environment." The numbers back up this feeling. Oxycom doubled its revenue in each of the previous three years, and was on track to do so again this year before the COVID-19 crisis struck.
All-in for a final try
That growth has been a long time coming. "When I was 47 I sold my previous company and I never had to work a day in my life again. For the next three years indeed I did almost nothing, but I realised I was bored to death. In 2000, together with two former employees but without any specific knowledge about cooling, we started out literally in a shed. I was triggered by stuff that I had read and some people I had talked to. We wanted to find the best way to cool air without using energy, and I think it is a blessing that we were not hindered by any technical knowledge." Initial success for their innovative concept came quickly in 2004, with a 25 million euro order from German caravan manufacturer Hymer for 60 thousand cooling units. Success went out of the door just as quickly however, when a main supplier went bankrupt and Oxycom could no longer produce and deliver the units in the numbers they had agreed upon.
The story of Oxycom's first 15 years is full of other events that would make anyone less passionate, determined, proud and stubborn than Mr. Reinders give up for good: the debacle with Hymer that took years to resolve; a dispute with other shareholders that left him sidelined him for three years; the financial crisis that made it almost impossible to attract funding for a new production line and keep the company afloat; the decision to sell components to OEMs instead of complete products to end-users that proved a strategic dead-end. When he tells these stories, it still brings him to tears: "I've been to hell and back. When I was forced out of my company I had lost almost everything I believed in. Three years later I became convinced that I just had to give it another try. I sold my properties on Lake Como in Italy that were my old age provisions and went all-in. I've been so fortunate to have a family that was willing to once again go along with this fool, and that was able to stick together and endure everything. My son Bart decided to cancel his studies so he could join the company and help me, without asking for a salary. There have been days when there was literally no cash except the deposit money on bottles to put food on the table. No matter how much of a loudmouth you are, these things make you feel very, very small."
Data centres, dairy plants and shopping malls
After all the setbacks in the past, a number of factors and trends have now put the wind firmly back in Oxycom's sails. The Paris Agreement and the need to combat climate change is one. "Especially for the bigger companies who have committed themselves to the targets in the Paris Agreement, energy savings and the reduction of their ecological footprint are now a strategic imperative", explains Bart Reinders, the current CEO. Another factor is that rising temperatures and more frequent heat waves, as well as rising living standards are driving increasing demand for air-conditioning, indoor air quality and comfort. When everyone turns their airco on at full blast at the same time however, this will cause peaks in electricity consumption that power grids are barely able to handle. "We sell another solution that is placed in front of conventional air-conditioners that pre-cools the air these take in. This way we can reduce their energy consumption by 40 percent. Companies now demand that their installation companies install this technology from us in conjunction with existing air handling units, to avoid paying peak electricity tariffs." In Germany new legislation is being implemented that would mandate adiabatic cooling in certain HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) applications, and the government is currently subsidising the technology. (Hans Reinders: "If only they had done this 15 years ago.") Developments such as these have already contributed to the fact that Oxycom products can be found on the rooftops of the Equinix data centre in Amsterdam, in distribution centres and stores of supermarket chains Jumbo and Albert Heijn, and in FrieslandCampina and soon in Danone dairy plants. Abroad, Oxycom equipment is used to cool a 60,000 square metre shopping mall in Saudi-Arabia and a Coca Cola bottling plant in Dubai.
"I really think we can be part of the solution"
Then there is COVID-19. "I've been saying for a long time, since well before the current pandemic, that a lack of ventilation in closed environments that contain many people is a hidden killer. As much as I hate to benefit from a crisis like the one we face now, I really think that we can be part of the solution and that our technology can help to prevent entire business sectors from going under." Mr. Reinders' reasoning is based on his conviction that aerosols - the miniscule droplets that everyone exhales all the time and that can travel large distances - are a carrier of the coronavirus and an important source of new infections. Adequate ventilation is therefore the key to his solution for nursing homes, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, offices, public transport, and so on. "We know from studies we did years ago with the aim to remove cigarette smoke from a bar, that when you blow in fresh air at the ground level and extract it via the ceiling, aerosols will move straight up. This means you can stand shoulder to shoulder in a bar without the risk of being infected by the people around you. And take buses for example. We have a patented solution for buses, consisting of four compact boxes installed on the roof, that cool the air inside and refresh it 40 times every hour, at no energy cost. Dutch bus manufacturer VDL for example would set itself aside from its Chinese competitors if they would implement our technology. I'm really worried for the future of these businesses. I honestly hope we'll be able to help them find new ways to operate for as long as the coronavirus is around and beyond."
Feeling like Vincent van Gogh
If he still has so many new ideas and so much energy, why step down as CEO? "It was time for me, the past years have sometimes taken a very heavy toll. Together the shareholders, including myself, decided it would be good for the company to have new leadership and a fresh perspective on some issues. I had to swallow hard a few times and it took me some time to get used to the idea, but I fully agree. In the past two years we have invested significantly in the foundation for future growth by taking on board highly qualified people in marketing and sales, finance and technology. What the company needs now is a focus on the things we're doing already and the steady execution of the plans we made. Bart is much better suited to lead that than I am." The son agrees: "If we continue to follow the course we set out and focus on our two existing IntrCooll and PreCooll product lines, we will still grow at a tremendous rate and build a very healthy and valuable company. But my father is not interested in future profits and valuations. Most of all he wants to see his dreams fulfilled, sooner rather than later."
It is not easy for Hans Reinders to restrain himself though, and the current title on his business card - 'Founder & New Business Development' - allows him to continue to pursue his dream: mass production of Oxycom adiabatic coolers for the housing market. The built environment accounts for around 20 percent of global energy consumption, and half of that energy is used for cooling, heating and ventilation. With the 90 percent efficiency gains it promises, Oxycom technology could deliver massive energy and cost savings and contribute significantly to the achievement of climate goals. Hans Reinders shows the drawings he keeps on his phone and explains how his solution for a home installation would work and all the benefits that it would bring. "I have this concept for home coolers fully worked out, but it has been lying waiting on the shelf for two years now. I feel like Vincent van Gogh sometimes, when he cut off his ear out of frustration because no one would buy his paintings. I know we have to focus and we have to be patient, but it can drive me mad sometimes. It's such a beautiful, logical and good concept. I am 67 already, I still want to see it becoming a reality."