With each of our innovator stories, we get a chance to meet the people behind EU-funded ideas, which have the potential to change our future for the better.
With that in mind, we spoke with the winner of the Purpose-driven & Green Category of the Innovation Radar Prize 2022, Octavian Richea. He’s the CEO of Svelte, a startup that designs and manufactures machines and solutions for producing topologically optimised construction elements and freeform architectural panels 40 times faster than the methods used today, reducing the usage of concrete by 40% and requiring 70-80% less energy than current solutions.
Tell us more about yourself and your work?
My name is Octavian and I’m an inventor with an Industrial Design degree from Transylvania University. I have acquired extensive experience from working at the forefront of free-form architecture in Denmark solving key issues regarding double curve generation and even contributing to findings that were later patented and sold to ETH Zurich.
While working for automotive supplier Dräxlmaier, I was challenged to generate complex surfaces for interior car design. All existing approaches were not straightforward, nor affordable, and in a moment of inspiration, I thought of an alternative. What if we used a mathematical model to reconstruct a complex surface by using an interpolation through points technique and build a machine system to interpret it to generate double-curved moulds?
By starting from this theoretical model, I built in my home in Brasov a very rough, manually driven MVP machine to validate these assumptions. Hence, Svelte was born: an entirely new, innovative technology – the only one dedicated to manufacturing large double-curved surfaces at an industrial scale, with affordability and speed in mind.
Svelte is an EU-funded startup with the mission to support the construction sector to reduce its GHG footprint by decreasing the need for concrete in buildings by up to 40%.
A team of 17 members works mainly from Brasov, Transylvania in Romania, but also Finland, Italy and the US to build the hardware and software to bring to the market a brand-new machine system to produce complex moulds for construction and architecture.
What problem is your product solving and what makes its solution unique?
Svelte was born out of the need to bridge the gap between what architects can dream and what constructors can deliver in an efficient, affordable and sustainable way. Technological limitations in terms of affordable manufacturing of non-traditional, curved and freeform surfaces have made the construction sector notoriously conservative. Finding a cost-efficient solution to create complex surfaces affordably and on an industrial scale has been the Holy Grail of architecture and a challenge for construction engineers worldwide.
The Svelte AC1200 machine system generates moulds for complex surfaces at an industrial scale in a single automated operation, reducing production time from days to minutes which leads to a 65% cost cut per square meter.
To put into perspective what this means for the production of architectural facade panels, we can look at the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan which is made of 16.150 unique curved panels. To produce such an amount, one would need 70 CNCs (Computer Numerical Control machines) milling at peak production for an output of 70 panels/day. With Svelte technology, only two pieces of machinery would be enough to generate the surface required in the same timeframe.
In construction, Svelte facilitates the production of moulds for casting resource-efficient concrete elements such as floors, walls, beams and stairs that have been topologically optimised to use 40% less concrete, while preserving their aesthetic and structural properties. This means that using the Svelte technology one is getting two buildings for the price of one by almost halving sand, gravel, water, transportation and energy needs. More importantly, in the view that the construction industry is the world’s biggest CO2, NOX & PM10 generator with a whopping 39% of the total global emissions, eliminating waste at the design stage has the largest savings potential in construction and can cut GHG emissions by 18%.
What’s the biggest impact EU-funding has had on your journey so far, and can you specify an outcome?
Running two EU-funded projects so far allowed Svelte to explore the full market potential of its innovation. While the need for affordable unique architectural panels sparked the idea for the Svelte solution, during a 6-months feasibility study funded by the EU through the SME Instrument Phase 1, we understood the true impact of our technology, realizing that the facile production of complex moulds could help displace the excess concrete in traditional construction. We then started the development of the first industrial prototype machine able to deliver this under an EIC Accelerator-funded R&D project.
Saying “hardware is hard” is no cliché. Developing a completely new machine system, with no previously tested design, materials, processes or mechanics is incredibly risky. Svelte had the unmatched opportunity to test various iterations thanks to the support offered by the EU. We are proud that today we can confidently demonstrate Svelte’s impact and get closer to delivering high returns on the EU’s high-risk investment in Svelte.
Have you already tested your product with clients? What was it like?
During the last 22 months within the implementation of the EIC Accelerator project, we run pilots in both our potential target markets.
In interior design, we designed and tested a niche product that will enable growth in the booming sector of soundproofing panels. As buildings today are increasingly designed to expose large open surfaces of glass and concrete, they create acoustically uncomfortable environments, as they resonate. Most acoustic panels available today are flat and square, due to the lack of an industrial, affordable solution to produce complex or curved surfaces. With Svelte’s innovative technology we can produce acoustic panel designs of any shape and form timely and affordably, opening a huge market opportunity in functional interior design. We have recently produced an EPS-based fireproof curved lamellar design which was installed on the premises of a testing partner. Such a design would have taken about two months to realize with today’s technologies, but with the Svelte machine, we did it in two days. The design not only massively upgraded the aesthetics of the room, but also improved the echo in the space from 1.5 seconds to 0.9 seconds and speech intelligibility from poor to good – ensuring the ideal acoustic conditions for any events the room might host.
In construction, we established a synergy with precast & prefab construction companies where Svelte brings the most value, particularly in terms of sustainability through resource efficiency. Svelte partnered with a local branch part of the Holcim group, running pilot projects to deliver construction moulds for stairs, columns and beams. As we write this, we are running the latest project, delivering the moulds for producing the first curved beam in Europe. A 40-meters long beam will be used for supporting a railway bridge and is not only stronger than a traditional beam but uses 15% less concrete.
What is Svelte’s greatest achievement to date?
Working with a company specialized in topology optimization, we managed to demonstrate that at least 40% of concrete in traditional construction can be safely removed using Svelte-produced moulds. In particular, we have demonstrated a 41% reduction in concrete stairs and 55% in floors. This is no doubt the most important achievement as it comes with significant cuts in global GHG emissions from the construction sector.
How do you see Svelte making a difference in the future?
The world must build the equivalent of a Paris city per month to keep up with the population growth and raise of developing countries. Therefore, it is expected that in the next 40 years all buildings built until now will double. Considering this, constructing in a structurally optimized way by removing all excess concrete in future construction could result in a massive 18% cut in the global CO2 emissions from this sector alone. Currently, Svelte is the only solution that can currently provide the construction companies with the necessary tools at an industrial level to obtain the floors, walls, beams and stairs that use only the concrete which is needed. Due to this potential, Svelte was recently featured in PwC’s Top50 technologies for NetZero Emissions focusing on CEE startups.
Why was participating in Dealflow.eu’s Innovation Radar Prize 2022 epitching event so important to you?
Svelte is a Romanian-based startup. We are often facing the challenges that come with the lack of an established ecosystem to learn from around us. In this view, it meant a lot for Svelte to receive the public vote that sent our startup among the finalists. We want to thank every voter.
The IR Prize epitching event gave us the opportunity to show important stakeholders in the ecosystem our solution, its evolution and impact. Most importantly, it was an opportunity to reach out to investors with the interest and ability to support our innovative project and join us on the journey to changing the construction market.
What did it mean to you to win the Purpose-driven & Green category?
Being recognised as the winner of our category means a lot for getting our story heard. Trust is a big asset we wish to use to break into the notoriously conservative construction market.
How would you define success and what keeps you going in the pursuit of it?
Svelte’s mission is to bring to the market a dedicated solution which will make the usage of double-curved and freeform geometries in construction a normality. Our vision is that in the next decade the presence of a Svelte machine on a construction site will be as ubiquitous as those of tower cranes. The drive behind Svelte’s envisioned market adoption is the solution’s demonstrated potential to enable a more responsible use of resources in construction which further leads to significant cuts in toxic emissions from construction by up to 18%. The improved green footprint of future construction is what we measure Svelte’s success in.
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