Thomas Korn is founder and CEO of Keyou, which develops hydrogen combustion engines for commercial vehicles. The company, based in Unterschleißheim, was founded in 2015 and is developing rapidly. Talking to InnovationOrigins, Korn reveals what motivates him to further develop the company.
You founded Keyou together with your business partner to establish the hydrogen combustion engine for commercial vehicles on the market. How did you get the idea?
The idea is not new. However, this is not about hydrogen per se, but about an emission-free, sustainable cycle with the help of hydrogen. It can solve many problems in the world and is, therefore, a real alternative to the diesel engine. The discussion is not really about the driver, but above all about energy storage. Hydrogen is the backbone of mobility, while we tend to see the electric driver mainly in small cars.
When you look back on the initial phase of your company, what would you do differently now?
You have to find a way to move the issue forward. We were already involved with hydrogen combustion engines when we were working in BMW research. But then the car manufacturer concentrated on electromobility and we initially worked for an Austrian start-up in this area. But when that didn’t work out, we founded Keyou. That was in September 2015 and we now employ 20 people. So far everything has developed optimally.
What drives you to continue to work for the spread of the hydrogen internal combustion engine?
It is a great luxury to be involved in a project that makes sense. When we look at economic developments, there are many things that are not going well. We want to make a difference and make the world a better place. Even if the competition is extreme.
Have you ever considered giving up and finishing your work for Keyou?
No. There are always phases when no solution seems possible at first. Especially when money becomes scarce, for example in the start-up phase or when the daily bills have to be paid. Fortunately, these phases were only short for us. Now we are well positioned, have a strategic investor, first customers and have just successfully started the second financing round.
What has changed for you since Keyou was founded?
Much has changed, of course, because the challenges are great. A company has to act in many areas. All aspects are important and the responsibility lies with me. Although I have worked for BMW for 13 years and have a lot of experience, it is very different to be an entrepreneur than an employee.
How do you deal with setbacks? What would you advise start-ups in case of defeats?
We don’t think of defeats, we literally don’t have the time. What would I advise a start-up in the event of a defeat? Hard to say, but by no means give up too quickly and of course, believe in your cause. If things really do go wrong – then get up as soon as possible and start something new. The advice of experts is also very important and can help in such situations.
Do you have a plan B, if the success with Keyou should not occur?
No, there is no plan B. We don’t need one right now. We are also in the process of setting up a second hydrogen storage company. We believe in Keyou and hydrogen. But one thing is clear: at the end of the day you have to earn money with what you do.
What do you do if you succeed?
We have already achieved good results and many interim goals. The ultimate goal is to achieve emission-free technology. And then there’s a big party.
What’s the first thing you do in the morning after getting up?
Usually, I prepare myself in the evening for my to dos and appointments the next day. I like to use the morning, then I am productive. Sometimes I start the day in the office and drive by my favourite bakery. But first, I’ll take care of my children.
When you reach the point where you are right on target with regard to your company?
We see a time horizon of around five years until the hydrogen engine broadly enters the commercial vehicle sector and then becomes a self-runner. Then a total of eight years would have passed and the first major stage would have been successfully completed. After that, a lot of things are possible. I could well imagine embarking on new projects.
What would you advise company founders? What do you think they should pay attention to or are there mistakes they could avoid?
The idea and the concept are decisive. That is why it is particularly important to develop the business plan yourself. Only then can a founder really get to grips with all facets of a start-up. The team must also fit. You must try to get the best of the best. As a start-up, it’s not easy, because you can’t pay that much money. We offer company shares and participation in large projects. We would like our employees to identify 100 percent with the company and to profit financially in the long term.
What criteria do you use to select employees?
Of course we look at curriculum vitae and certificates, but actually, I mainly pay attention to my gut feeling. Because only a good university degree says nothing. It’s best to test these people. We were lucky that it fit from the beginning. Recruiting, however, is a continuous process that must always be adapted.
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