Success Story: SmartMembranes / SME / Increase sales

SMARTMEMBRANES - DE  

SmartMembranes was founded by Dr. Petra Goering and Monika Lelonek in Halle (Saale) in July 2009.

Activities: Manufacturer of high-ordered porous materials from alumina and silicon and adjustable membrane properties
History: Founded in 2009
Size: From 1 to 10 employees
Target market: Retail
Interest in Japan:  Find customers from the electronic, biomedical and nanotech sectors.

The company is the leading manufacturer of high-ordered porous materials from alumina and silicon with defined and adjustable membrane properties and structure parameters. SmartMembranes manufactures not only membranes on customers‘ request, they also develop new processes and products around their core business.
They are a spin-off from the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials, hence they work closely with that research institute as well as with the Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and the Max-Planck Institute for Micro Structure Physics in Halle.

The company is located at the Technology and Founders' Centre in Halle (Saale).

WHY JAPAN? 

SmartMembranes got interested in Japan whilst being aware of the significant number of opportunities the Japanese market could offer. SmartMembranes’ products target different applications and most of them in electronic, biomedical and nanotech sectors. Since Japan has a lot of companies and potential customers from the latter sectors, it therefore made sense for SmartMembranes to target Japan as the first potential partner in Asia.

BEFORE THE MISSION

SmartMembranes had already contacts and a sales partner in Japan before the mission but they did not have the chance to meet them in person. The only communication they had was via emails which was not extremely effective and or time efficient, hence the Nanotech Cluster/SME mission and the participation at the International Nanotechnology Exhibition and Conference in Tokyo served as a good opportunity to meet the existing contacts and find new leads. They have also contacted potential Japanese clients before the Nanotechnology exhibition to acknowledge the fact that the German company will be present at the fair and would like to meet.

CURRENT STATUS – NEXT STEPS

During the Nanotech exhibition, SmartMembranes made contacts with approximately 30 Japanese companies and is still in touch with about 20 of them. Currently, the German company has 11 contacts from which it receives orders as well as requests for testing its different products. Amongst these partners, three of them are already ordering on a regular basis. None of them have developed a final product yet. Nevertheless, as the first orders meet these Japanese companies’ expectations, concerning the quality of membranes, they all continue to order SmartMembranes’ products roughly every two months. As many projects are still ongoing, SmartMembranes hopes it will not get too long for its Japanese customers to finalise their final products and increase the volume and frequency of their orders.

CHALLENGES

According to SmartMembranes, one of the biggest challenges when working with Japanese partners is language barriers. Only a few Japanese people can speak good English and while some of them understand English, it remains difficult to communicate and have a productive dialogue. It is therefore recommended to hire an interpreter in order to overcome this issue when doing business with Japanese clients.

The second challenge is the different way of making business between European countries and Japan. While in Europe it does not take a very long time to make decisions about the utility and use of a product and whether to engage in a partnership or not, the process of decision-making is far longer in Japan. Japanese companies tend to ask a lot questions, before making any final commitments. They need to be sure about all details regarding the company and its products, therefore Europeans need to be patient, keeping in mind that both do not share the same culture. But once Europeans get Japanese companies as customers, a real relationship can be created between both companies and it is usually the beginning of a long-term and fruitful collaboration.

FUTURE PROSPECTS

SmartMembranes has some new contracts with other Asian countries, but Japan remains the largest and most interesting market for the German company. SmartMembranes will probably go back to the Nanotech exhibition this year and will try to organise a yearly trip to Japan and attend again Nanotechnology Exhibition and Conference in view with the positive outcome it had for the company.

The team is now trying to get new customers through a network of German SMEs which would like to work in collaboration with various networks of Japanese SMEs. So far the difficult point is not many Japanese SMEs are organised in networks. SmartMembranes remains positive and would like to push and support this idea as a new way to create opportunities in Japan. 

Interview made with Monika Lelonek, CEO at SmartMembranes.

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