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TUM Alumni Start-up AQON Pure Nominated for German Sustainability Award Design 2021

Konstantin and Maximilian Wilk with their product AQON Pure

Maximilian Wilk is an alumnus of the TUM School of Management. After graduating, he and his brother developed a product for sustainable water treatment: AQON Pure. Now their product has been nominated for the German Sustainability Award Design 2021. In an interview, he told us how the idea for AQON Pure came about, what hurdles he had to overcome these past years and what the nomination for the award means to him.

Maximilian, how did the idea for AQON Pure come about?

As a child, I became familiar with the technical side of the industrial water treatment field through my parents’ family business. From October 2016 to March 2017, I wrote my Master Thesis at a German company located in the Silicon Valley in California. By coincidence, I became aware of a law that was signed by the former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in 2006. This law enables districts to prohibit the private use of certain types of water softeners (ion exchangers) because certain regions of California suffer from excessive amounts of chloride in their wastewater. In Germany, on the other hand, water softeners based on ion exchange are still the usual method to reduce limescale. The alternative and more environmentally friendly technologies used in the USA made me curious and I started to look for my own solution. When I returned from the USA in 2017, I immediately sat down with my brother Konstantin. That was the impetus for AQON Pure.

To what extent were your studies with the focus on Management & Technology helpful in this process?

A certain passion for the topic of water was already present before I started my studies. However, my Bachelor and Master studies with a focus on Management & Technology as well as the Manage & More scholarship ultimately led to my intensive and systematic study of the market for water treatment in Germany. In particular, my studies helped me to compare technologies, identify and evaluate use cases and develop a profitable and scalable business model. My minor subject was mechanical engineering. The knowledge about different materials and production processes helped me to build a stable supply chain for our product.

Which challenges did you face and how did you overcome them? What recommendations do you have for others who are thinking about developing their own product right after graduation?

Three things were especially important for our success: industry knowledge, the right distribution channel, and stamina.

Firstly, the saying “Cobbler stick to your last” is quite true. Anyone who wants to enter a market with a new solution has an enormous advantage if he knows what makes it tick. This enables you to react quickly, adapt your product or solution and ultimately grow. Furthermore, if you have been working in an industry for many years, you really gain expert knowledge, which makes starting your own business more authentic.

The second important aspect for us was the right distribution channel. Often innovations bring about a lot of change, which is not only unusual for an existing market, which may require the development of a suitable, independent distribution channel. At the beginning of 2018, we tried to win our first trade and installation partners, as our system has to be installed by sanitary companies. That failed completely. In comparison to existing products, we were cheaper, which resulted in a lower trade margin. In addition, our product does not require any maintenance or consumables. Consequently, a dealer earns less money with our product than he does with existing solutions.

In August 2018, we discovered that the easiest way to get customers was to use our website to sell directly to end customers, even if it was only a few at the time. Then in September, we spent a few hundred Euros on Google Ads and found that our product was well received and the search volume was high. We immediately focused on this and increased our online marketing activities. At the same time, we noticed that installation companies are very open to turnkey contracts. With a simple solution, our network of partner companies has grown to over 150 companies within two years, which is much faster than through the multi-stage distribution channel that is common in the industry.

Although this third aspect was dealt with in the lecture “Entrepreneurship”, I personally underestimated it: Dealing with setbacks and frustration. If there is no sense of achievement, then at some point self-doubt will follow. Before starting a business, you should think about how much stress you want to put on yourself – and when to pull the ripcord. Setting personal goals and KPIs has helped me to do this, for example: sales targets, the acquisition of certain references, or a certain number of leads. If the progress and success of the company corresponds to your own ideas, then you can continue working on the idea with a clear conscience.

What does the nomination for the German Sustainability Award Design 2021 mean to you?

The nomination is the most extraordinary and significant success for us since the founding of AQON Pure. It was a big surprise we did not expect, especially since we hadn’t applied for the prize. We received the nomination certificate in May. In our case, the committee of the German Sustainability Award Foundation nominated us independently. We are very grateful for this. We had planned to apply for the award in 2021 or 2022, as we thought we were not yet ready with AQON Pure. But apparently there is never the perfect time. For me personally, the award is a confirmation that we are on the right track with our work. Such a nomination motivates and gives strength for the future.

Where do you see AQON Pure in five years?

One of our most important goals is to create an awareness among customers and installation companies of the impact of water treatment technologies on the user and the environment. It is about initiating a discussion about the enormous leverage the entire industry can offer for more environmental friendliness. If, with AQON Pure, we can further an understanding of water treatment in Germany, even close to where Mr. Schwarzenegger and California were a good 15 years ago, then not only would our own business benefit, but also the entire German sustainability strategy of the federal government.

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