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De Tijd: Inventor company Comate in Leuven is booming

10 March 2020

Leuven's Inventor Company Grows Like a Cabbage

Translation | Original article: Jan De Schamphelaere - De Tijd - 10 March 01:00 | Images by Wouter Van Vooren

Robotic snowploughs, exoskeletons, sound systems for BMW, kitchen steamers. The list of products developed by Comate's 50-strong team is growing rapidly. “We're an R&D center for everyone,” says Mr. K.

“With these materials, we made our prototype of a robotic snowplow. It's hard to believe, isn't it.” We are standing in the workshop of the Leuven 'invention company' Comate. In a corner, many random materials are piled up: pieces of MDF boards, sawed-off PVC tubes, Styrofoam sheets, aluminum rods. They look like leftovers from a DIY store.

"It's not always the people with a rock-solid idea who become famous or rich" - Wouter Foulon, Founder of Comate

“That prototype was made of MDF boards, containing an engine and some other parts. There was no snow, so we threw sawdust on the ground and watched how the machine handled it. It may seem amateurish, but you learn a lot from such initial testing. Engineers work that way. Did you know that for its bagless vacuum cleaner, Dyson made more than 5,000 prototypes to arrive at the result? Fortunately, it doesn't always take that long,” says founder Wouter Foulon.

Together with his cousin Sander van den Dries, he built Comate into a large SME in only 10 years. Comate has almost 50 full-time employees and is growing by 25 to 30 percent annually. This recently earned them the title of 'SME of the Year' from Unizo.

“We think up new products for companies, start-ups, SMEs, and multinationals”, says Van den Dries. “They come to us with an idea and we translate it into a product. We do the design and engineering. We have specialists in electronics, mechanics, material science, and many more fields.”

Comate has a long list of successful endeavors, with more being worked on as we speak. They developed a robotic snowplough for the Belgian-American company Kobi to be targeted at the American and Canadian markets, with the intention of keeping driveways snow-free day and night. For the Ghent start-up Mealhero, Comate worked on a steam machine to efficiently prepare frozen meals. The mini-lab of Mydiagnostics partnered with Comate to create a product to analyze blood at lightning speed. Systems for sound and filtration in Volvo, Volkswagen, and BMW cars. Surgical tools for hip surgery. Components of British Telecom's fiber-optic network. And a device with Leuven's Bakala Academy to measure the performance of professional cyclists and optimize pedaling technique.

"Companies come to us with an idea and we translate it into a product. We have specialists in electronics, mechanics, material science, and many more fields.”- Sander van den Dries, Co-Managing Director, Comate

The team is currently working on a robot to clean aircraft. An exoskeleton for the rehabilitation of patients who have lost control of their arms or legs following a stroke is also being developed. The workshop includes projects for some of the largest companies in the world.

Foulon calls Comate an "R&D center for everyone.” Its customers are mainly from Europe, but Asia and the United States are also contributing. “Our company name also works well in Japan,” says Foulon, laughing. “It's an acronym, but we use it to say we're as fast as a comet.”

Comate has developed at least a hundred products since its inception. “You won't read our name on any of them, because we don't have a big ego. It's nice to see those products sold everywhere when it's not in-your-face. It's not always the people with a rock-solid idea who become famous or rich. The execution of the idea is crucial, and that's our role.”

“Take Thomas Edison, often incorrectly credited as the inventor of the light bulb”, says Foulon. “Others preceded him and came up with the concept but failed to commercialize it. Edison bought the patent and perfected the technology. The rest is history.”

At their current rate of growth, Comate will have a hundred employees within a few years. “That's the dream,” says Van den Dries. “We also have plans to expand our workshop, because can get crowded.”

Translation | Original article: Jan De Schamphelaere - De Tijd - 10 March 01:00