Case Study: MEBIUS d.o.o.: a Slovenian SME

MEBIUS – from SL

The Slovenian R&D company Mebius is a developer of catalysts and electrodes for hydrogen fuel cells. The company works closely with the Slovenian National Institute of Chemistry and other research institutes, and is a founding member of the Centre of Excellence for Low-Carbon Technologies and the Hydrogen Technology Development Centre. With 50% of their business already being international, the company began taking its first steps on the Japanese market in 2013.

Business: Components for hydrogen fuel cells

History in Japan: None

Size in Japan: One employee currently located in Japan through a fellowship (four employees in total)

Target market: Manufacturers of fuel cell electric vehicles

ABOUT MEBIUS

Established in 2008 as a spin-off from the Slovenian National Institute of Chemistry, Mebius focusses on the chemical parts of fuel cells to develop new and improved key components of hydrogen fuel cells. Products developed through Mebius’s research are more cost and energy efficient than most commercially available products. Since 2013, they have started to unveil their prototypes on the market and have commenced small-scale production. Fuel cells can be used (among other applications) as substitutes for batteries, to charge batteries, or as a zero emission substitute for internal combustion engine vehicles, which has led to the development of fuel cell electric vehicles. Forklifts are a common example, but fuel cell buses, motor bikes and other vehicles have been developed, and several automobile manufacturers have presented prototypes in recent years.

WHY JAPAN?

With fuel cell electric vehicles being one of the most important applications of fuel cell technology, Japan and its major automotive companies form a crucial market. Many of these companies are pioneers in their field, and by coming to Japan Mebius was hoping to develop long-term relationships for further R&D and manufacturing. 50% of their business was already international, the company’s goal was to increase this share by targeting world markets.

STEPS TAKEN

In 2013, aside from some very limited personal contact, Mebius had no business relationship with Japan. By taking part in HRTP 49 Programme, they wanted to gain an insight in the Japanese market and culture, and learn how to approach Japan and build meaningful relationships.

CHALLENGES

As for many SMEs, the cost of internationalisation and limited staff were hurdles to be overcome for Mebius. Moreover, the company was quite worried about language issues hindering talks with potential Japanese partners. In this regard, although speaking Japanese would of course be helpful, they have experienced a lot of cooperation from the Japanese side over the past year, so language has not been a major concern. However, it may become more of a problem once more intense, scientific R&D talks start up.

CURRENT STATUS – NEXT STEPS

Andrej Zagar, Mebius’ project manager who participated in HRTP 49, is currently a Minerva research fellow* at the EU-Japan Centre in Tokyo, developing an overview of the Japanese nanotechnology sector. At the same time, he is working on building contacts for his company in Japan. Although he hasn’t any tangible results yet, things are moving slowly but steadily, and talks are ongoing with an important potential customer.

Of course there is always a risk that their proposal will be rejected. As a small company with only a couple of products, Mebius’ main concern would be that their key product fails in Japan, which would greatly affect their overall operations in this market.

However, Mebius is hopeful that they will be able to continue these talks and eventually start a fruitful long-term cooperation. His colleagues, who work from their office in Slovenia, are also exploring the European market, but the company sees the most promising opportunities in Japan. As technical talks progress, in particular the R&D director is becoming more and more involved in Mebius’s prospective business relationship with Japan.  

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • To do business in Japan, you need to come to Japan. Your network and personal relations with partners are key elements to reaching success.
  • Good references are essential for introducing your product, especially in the case of niche products and technologies.
  • Everything takes time, but it is worth it because once you are in, you are in for the long haul.

 

*The Minerva fellowship programme is a 6 month in-house fellowship scheme in Japan, organised by the EU-Japan Centre and designed to support its research and policy analysis of EU-Japan economic and industrial issues.

Interview made with Andrej Zagar