OliKrom and its smart pigments, an innovation
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Facades that change colour over time to save energy, bottle labels that transform when the wine is at temperature: a Gironde-based company has developed a new generation of "intelligent" pigments that are "tearing through multiple industrial sectors, from luxury to aeronautics".
Many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) would dream of knowing the situation of OliKrom, a young start-up based on the university campus of Pessac, near Bordeaux: since its launch in October 2014, not a day goes by without a dozen companies or industrial groups calling it, interested in the innovative technology developed in recent years by its founder, Jean-François Létard.
A chemist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) for 17 years, the entrepreneur specialised in "intelligent" pigments capable of reacting, by changing colour, to temperature, light or pressure. From 2005 onwards, the patents accumulated and the researcher decided to take the entrepreneurial step.
A business school education and a few years of incubation later, OliKrom was launched. And the industrialists came running. Because, explains Jean-François Létard, they had been waiting for a long time for the renewal of technologies, after the appearance "some forty years ago" of the first pigments capable of changing colour, but "which were not resistant to ultraviolet rays. They had wear problems and could be toxic.
The processes developed by OliKrom therefore allow "molecules to change their conformation, and therefore their colour", "with the least possible disruption", and also allow very precise, reversible or irreversible modifications. The 'speed' and 'non-fatigability' of the process are also at the heart of the new materials, the researcher stresses.
OliKrom, the intelligence of colours, infinite applications
Another crucial factor in the "hypergrowth" of the young company, which has seven employees and plans to launch an industrial site by the end of 2015 thanks to a recent fund-raising of 740,000 euros: the fields of application seem quite simply... infinite.
The luxury, design, decoration and fashion sectors - with intelligent textiles - have already shown their interest in the paints, varnishes, inks or plastic granules produced by the company. "We can imagine perfume bottles that change colour, personalised objects", confides Jean-François Létard, but without giving further details, concerned about confidentiality.
"This can be useful in the fight against counterfeiting, thanks to hidden markings that reveal themselves under a certain light or at a given temperature, for food safety thanks to bar codes that change colour irreversibly when the cold chain has been broken. "says Camille Tanguy, sales manager.
Architecture and sport also offer many opportunities: curtains that become opaque in the sun, light storage thanks to luminescent ceilings, a tennis court that changes colour on impact for refereeing purposes, etc. Especially since the 'combinations' of pigment properties seem 'unlimited', emphasises Clément Chatelier, head of the laboratory.
But one of the broadest fields of application of this technological revolution is undoubtedly that of safety, particularly in industry. OliKrom is already working with the Airbus and Safran groups on the parts that will equip tomorrow's aircraft, because, for maintenance, "one of the challenges is to be able to see quickly if a part has suffered an abnormal shock". In factories, signs of wear and tear on equipment can, in the same way, be "visually checked".
One can also imagine a reduction in accidents at work or in the home thanks to the change in colour of tools or utensils subjected to high temperatures, or a change in colour of safety doors in the event of fire... possibilities opened up by pigments capable of reacting to the presence of gases or solvents, on which the company is continuing its research. "
"The market is huge, and other companies are going to start up," predicts Jean-François Létard, who is pleased that this innovative technology is French, while stressing the importance of the ecosystem of public aid that has enabled him to develop his project. And, like his "chameleon" pigments, he has been able to move easily from the status of researcher to that of contractor.