Just like James Dyson spent years tinkering in his garden shed to come up with the bagless vacuum cleaner, Filip De Mazière independently developed a revolutionary transmission system. While Dyson conquered the world, the Belgian start-up of Filip De Mazière and his wife Caroline De Dijcker is now trying to make a commercial breakthrough.
The goal of Belgian start-up MAZARO is anything but modest: it aims to bring to market a transmission that is better than any other transmission. Automotive companies have used the term “revolutionary” in their reaction. But who will take the first step to ensure that this transmission actually finds its way into buses, trucks and cars?
An interview in the MAZARO home office in Destelbergen.
You are promising 20% fuel savings with this innovative transmission. Isn’t that too ambitious?
Filip De Mazière: “In automotive, a 3 to 4% improvement in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions is heralded as a big improvement. We are talking about 20% fuel savings and a significant reduction in CO2 emissions. All the tests on the test rig prove it… but most of the industry has yet to be convinced.”
Caroline De Dijcker: “With our transmission, De Lijn public transport company would save 16 million euro annually on its whole bus fleet. Or 7,400 litres of fuel and 20 tonnes of CO2 less per year per bus! Our version fitted with a flywheel even leads to a 56% saving.
The response we often get? “How come one single person was able to invent such a thing?” Yet, it is possible. You don’t need a whole team to come up with a breakthrough idea. Moreover, no company instructs someone to sit at their desk for 5 years to think about an innovation with the understanding that it won’t be a catastrophe either if they can’t come up with anything. But, that’s what Filip was able to do in his free time.”
How is your transmission different from the current, classic and CVT transmissions?
Filip De Mazière: “A transmission ensures that the engine’s speed is converted into the variable speed required by the wheels. The traditional transmissions work in steps, with a noticeable transition between gears.
Fuel consumption is currently reduced by increasing the number of gears, reaching 9 in some cars. But the more gears you have, the less efficient your system because the energy flow (traction) is interrupted every time you shift. The real problem is not solved.
Our transmission has no clutch or torque converter, no gears, no belt like CVTs and no piston rings. In our alternative, the traction components roll over each other in a mathematically perfect way. Shifting between high and low speeds, forward and reverse, and stop is done without spinning components. Meanwhile, the engine continues to run at its most favourable speed.”
Caroline De Dijcker: “Another difference: in an automatic transmission, a pump provides the hydraulic power to switch gears. This requires a lot of power, up to a couple 1,000 watts. By contrast, our transmission consumes just 75 watts.”
Filip De Mazière: “We patented the principle of torque transfer with planetary gears and without conflicting forces.”
As husband and wife, you are now working on the MAZARO start-up and employing one person. How did you grow?
Filip De Mazière: “I worked for 25 years as a transmission systems development engineer, including for Dana in Bruges. When at the German Hörbiger (now Tremec), as Chief Design Engineer I designed the double clutch transmission (DCT) for Ferrari’s California and Italia 458 and for McLaren. I got my idea for a completely different transmission principle from realising that car engines were still not running optimally. I felt there had to be a more efficient way to transfer to the wheels the energy developed by the engine. A continuously variable transmission, without the disadvantages of current CVTs, should work more efficiently.
In my spare time between 1998 and 2008, I worked on my idea, definitely dedicating a total of 4.5 years to it.”
Caroline De Dijcker: “And when test confirmed once more that it worked, I had every confidence in it. I believed it was worth trying. We have been working fullt-time on setting up MAZARO for three years now. Filip takes care of technology and financial matters. I do marketing, look for customers, partners, shareholders, and manage the administrative aspects. Together, we define the strategy.”
When will you be able to bring your transmission to market?
Caroline De Dijcker: “New transmissions are always optimisations of previous models. It often takes six to seven years to develop such an upgrade. We started from a blank sheet, which is an even bigger step until the transmission is really in production.”
Filip De Mazière: “We have been employing a civil engineer for six months. Now that our test model has exceeded expectations, we are working on a practical project: we want to integrate our transmission in a light commercial vehicle, a 3.5 tonne Nissan. Our first demo will be driving around in the autumn of 2016.”
Launching this as a small start-up does not seem like an easy task. Why didn’t you enter a partnership with a bigger company?
Filip De Mazière: “When I presented the idea to the management of my former employer, there was little enthusiasm. They had other ambitions. Other players to whom we also submitted the idea were not interested either. They fear that this innovation will cannibalize their other products.
The automotive industry which we approached initially is not the ideal customer either as it is very conservative and very prudent. It won’t integrate new technologies that easily.”
Caroline De Dijcker: “Furthermore, the volumes of passenger cars are very large, which is not the ideal way to introduce breakthrough innovations. That’s why we decided to look for partners in smaller niches, with larger vehicles such as buses, tractors, trucks, rubbish trucks, and so on. When it comes to purchasing or production, the focus is on fuel consumption and costs. And we bring down both. These vehicles drive slowly and have to make frequent stops, which puts great emphasis on fuel consumption savings.”
Filip De Mazière: “Our goal remains to work with a Belgian or foreign manufacturing company to make sure we can share resources and people. But it does not have to be an automotive company.”
Which partners are actually investing?
Caroline De Dijcker: “We are currently negotiating with a bus manufacturer who was won over by our transmission within 30 seconds of running the tests. “I have seen enough,” he said enthusiastically. We want to set up the demo project with him.”
Filip De Mazière: “Other important partners include Ghent University which built our test bench. IWT which invested half a million euro in our early years and for which we drew up a solid plan. What is our goal? How do we propose to achieve it? Within which timeframe? And which resources we do need to do that? We proceeded according to this guiding principle… and we are expecting the first profit in 2019.
In addition, a private investor joined our venture as a shareholder in 2010. He has an industrial background, and patience, quite an important quality. So far, a total of 2 million euro has been invested in the start-up by this investor, IWT and ourselves.”
It is not easy to find partners?
Filip De Mazière: ”Many potential customers want to see our transmission running in a car or truck. Only then will they make the leap.
Now, I must admit that it hurts a little to hear that tens of millions of euro are being invested in the search for solutions that only make it possible to increase the fuel efficiency of vehicles by a few percentage points. This when we can offer them a real solution which achieves about 20% fuel savings. What’s more, with 1 or 2 million euro, we should be able to implement our planned projects. But what is important today is that we are asking companies if they want to contribute to the development of the project, by funding it in exchange for a privilege when the first products are built.”
Your first small truck will be on the road in the autumn of 2016. Where do you see yourselves in two years?
Filip De Mazière: “Within two years we will have two products in demo: this one for the small truck and another for buses. In addition, we have to develop further an actual order for a customer. The biggest technical challenges are behind us. This also means the biggest risk is also behind us. It now is a matter of building it into commercial vehicles.”