A Brief History of Metrohm Autolab
I’ve told you about my visits at Metrohm Applikon and Metrohm Nederland. But that’s not it yet. We have a third subsidiary in the Netherlands: Metrohm Autolab. This is where Metrohm’s electrochemistry product line is developed and produced. The company was born as a spin-off of Utrecht University in 1986 and is still located in Utrecht today. The two founders have since left the company, but their first employee, Sef Coenen, is still working at Autolab and remembers its history very well. For me, the visit was a little trip down memory lane, as I got my master’s degree from Utrecht University and lived in Utrecht for two years.
Sef Coenen is R&D manager at Metrohm Autolab today. But when he joined the company, it was just the two founders, Gertjan Brug and Kees van Velzen, and him. This meant that, whatever came up, everybody had to lend a hand. The original idea behind the company, then named Eco Chemie, was to build a tool for the removal heavy metal ions from the ground: by inserting to electrodes into the ground and applying a potential between them, they wanted to make the ions migrate to the electrodes where they would concentrate and could be removed. However, it became clear very soon that this process was not easily scalable—the idea never made it out of the lab.
But the team had something else up their sleeves, which turned out to be a revolutionary idea: they built the first computer-controlled potentiostat. This idea is still at the heart of Metrohm Autolab today. The potentiostats/galvanostats are used in academia and industry for research and development, mainly in the fields of energy generation and storage, corrosion and its prevention, as well as sensors and biosensors. The instruments allow researchers to analyze the characteristics of devices such as batteries or solar cells, but also characteristics of electrochemical reactions, which occur in corrosion processes, for example). Because of this, they are indispensable tools in various fields, including the automotive and aerospace industries, producers of laptops, mobile phones, and anything else relying on powerful batteries, as well research on biosensors (for example, for measuring blood sugar) and renewable energy or fuels, to name but a few.
Sef met the company founders at Utrecht University. At the time, he was training as a lab assistant and was doing his internship at the university. He liked the combination of chemistry, electronics, and computers that Eco Chemie was doing so, when he was offered a job, he grasped the opportunity. In the years that followed, Sef got insight into all areas of work in the company. He learned how to program software, he built instruments himself—it was a learning by doing experience. «It was a fun time, but we sometimes had to work till very late at night», Sef recalls.
In the beginning, the Eco Chemie sold about five instruments per year. By offering some specialized programming services, the company was able to survive on this. Growth was relatively slow. After 7 years, the number of people at the company had grown from three to seven. Then, in 1994, Eco Chemie started working together with Metrohm. «The companies shared the same philosophy: only spend what you have. I think that this is part of why the two companies started working together», says Sef. Like Metrohm, Eco Chemie never made itself dependent on banks.
In 1999 Eco Chemie became part of the Metrohm group. «We’ve had tremendous growth since then» says Sef. In 2009, the company’s name was changed to Metrohm Autolab. Today, Autolab employs about 50 people. «Things have changed a lot since we’ve become part of the Metrohm family. We think matters over more. We used to just start soldering when we had an idea. Now there are many procedures that we have to stick to—they became necessary as the company grew.»
Irrespective of all the changes, Sef still likes working for Metrohm Autolab. «I feel committed to the company. Even though it’s not, it feels like it’s my own company.» The Metrohm mentality sits well with him, too: «Metrohm is not as money-oriented as other companies. And whenever I’m in Herisau, I find that the atmosphere there is very nice. I try to recreate this at Autolab as well.» Last but not least, Sef was born and raised in Utrecht and cannot imagine living anywhere else: «I like traveling, but I also like coming back to Utrecht! There’s so much history, for example, the old houses. Some of them go back to the middle ages, to the 12th century.»