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Belfast tech company Catagen continues working towards net zero exporting

Andrew Woods of Catagen says the time is ripe for use of its emissions technology

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From left, some of CATAGEN’s new net zero technologies team: left to right, Siya Yadav, Michael Sloan, Tom Morris, Calvin Thompson, Andrew Pedlow, Matthew Boyd and Andrew Shannon

From left, some of CATAGEN’s new net zero technologies team: left to right, Siya Yadav, Michael Sloan, Tom Morris, Calvin Thompson, Andrew Pedlow, Matthew Boyd and Andrew Shannon

From left, some of CATAGEN’s new net zero technologies team: left to right, Siya Yadav, Michael Sloan, Tom Morris, Calvin Thompson, Andrew Pedlow, Matthew Boyd and Andrew Shannon

Catagen, named one of the fastest growing tech companies on the island two years in a row, built its business on delivering top line emissions tests for vehicle manufacturers.

But being in the business of helping manufacturers limit emissions from tail pipes of vehicles run on fossil fuels is definitely not enough for the team based at the Catalyst innovation hub within Belfast’s Titanic Quarter.

They are working on new technologies that will deliver net zero results, using air, wind and water to produce green hydrogen and e-fuels, while also developing carbon capture technologies.

Catagen’s vision for itself, and the region, is for Northern Ireland to be a net zero technology exporter, says Andrew Woods, chief executive of Catagen.

He co-founded the company with Professor Roy Douglas, a world renowned specialist in the area of emissions.

Andrew says: “This is fast flowing. We should be our own tech exporter. We have to succeed no matter what.

"We want to be here and export our technology but the scale that we need to move it on is huge.

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Advantage: Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and Andrew Woods of Catagen

Advantage: Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and Andrew Woods of Catagen

Advantage: Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and Andrew Woods of Catagen

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He incorporated the company in 2010 as a follow-on from his PhD thesis and with support from Queen’s University.

His thesis was largely on understanding catalytic converters, those nifty devices used to turn really toxic-pollutants in vehicles into not-so-bad ones.

They were first included in vehicles on a mass scale in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Andrew, under the eye of Professor Douglas, developed tools to understand the performance of catalytic convertors at laboratory scale.

“What we invented was a test method, with much better repeatability and accuracy, which is really important when understanding the behaviour of the catalyst convertor,” says Andrew.

The bottom line is that if companies use the data delivered by the company in the correct way, it will save them money, reduce emissions and be a key part of the overall process of building engines.

Andrew was still working on his PhD, but also delivering academic papers and in contact with other researchers around the world, when introduced to what he describes as a major German chemical company involved in the converter supply chain.

Their representatives liked what they saw. There was, he says, a moment during those discussions when it dawned on him this could be a business, and a good one.

“It was either set up a business here or go abroad and get a job in a car company,. We decided, ‘let’s do something here’.

“Let’s create the opportunity, let’s build for the future, export something, knowledge, expertise." And he wanted to stay at home in order to balance work and life better.

But as part of the process of developing the ideas and building a base for the business, he had to go to the historic heart of the automotive industry, Detroit, and talk to the ‘Big Three,’ GM, Ford and Chrysler.

They had to abide by mandatory rules to reduce emissions and where the US went, so does the world.

"The business went through a journey, including early success with lab scale machines, but that was not enough size to go after the main markets," says Andrew.

But those earlier years were not easy as much of the effort was on research and development, and that needs lots of cash with little immediate return.

They needed to scale up from a lab-based operation to a full scale machine able to replicate exactly all the complex machinations of an engine.

"We burned lots of cash on research and development but we had angel investor support, local business people, who were successful and who could see the potential, and that funded us through that 'valley of death'," says Andrew.

"What we got from those investors was also friendly support, mentorship and expertise. They were the right people and not interested in a quick return."

It also enabled Andrew and Roy to retain control at a vital time in the development of the company.

One milestone was a deal with an Italian company, a maker of high performance luxury cars.

With the company winning certification across the world, the UK, EU, China, India and California, which leads the way in the US, there was rapid growth building a customer base through 2017, 2018 and 2019.

The company was on the all-island Deloitte Fast 50 Tech list two years in a row, second in 2019, fourth the following year.

But as the company grew, and built a team of top engineers, data scientists, marketing and finance people, Andrew and other management were thinking of the future.

At the core is the belief that battery electric vehicles are not the answer to decarbonisation, at least not the only one. The vast majority of electricity is still generated by fossil fuels.

"Simply speaking, we turned our capabilities and attention to find new ways of making hydrogen and e-fuels from renewable energy," says Andrew.

In development now are a high pressure pumping system for hydrogen storage and dispensing and what is a cutting edge idea to produce an e-fuel as a replacement for red diesel.

The process uses green hydrogen and captured carbon dioxide to produce the e-diesel. Production will be powered by electricity using renewable energy, an site wind farm.

"The output of the project will mean E­diesel can be produced at a renewable energy site alongside green hydrogen production," says Andrew.

He adds: "We are in a moment of time. We have got the wind, we have the weather, we have the expertise.

"It is a moment in time that needs to be seized in order to be net zero technology exporters."



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