When the company sits at the table in the evening

Aachen-based start-up Cylib wins NRW 2023 Innovation Award - In conversation with co-founder Lilian Schwich.

Together with her former fellow student Paul Sabarny and her husband Dr. Gideon Schwich, Lilian Schwich founded the battery recycling startup Cylib. A success story that has now earned her the NRW 2023 Innovation Award. Special challenge: To win the category ,,innovation4transformation" she had to pitch live and in front of an audience against two other start-ups on Monday evening. It succeeded outstandingly well, and Cylib wins the NRW 2023 Innovation Award.

What does this success mean to you?

Lilian Schwich: Very much. It means that our research, from the idea through the many years in the lab to today, is seen and valued. We have all put a lot of time and energy into this project; results from final theses and the work of student trainees have been incorporated - and we have also gladly sacrificed one or two weekends.

Are there moments when you wish you had less responsibility, maybe being employed somewhere?

I’m on the road a lot, I take the train from city to city, and on weekends I sometimes feel exhausted. But when a brief moment of doubt flashes up, it is overlaid by gratitude and joy at being able to experience all this. So, no, I’m just happy about everything that’s happening here.

What does your everyday life look like at the moment? Which tasks are fun, which are less so?

On two or three days I’m traveling, the other days I’m with my team in Aachen. Especially when I’m in Aachen, our calendar is packed. I really enjoy traveling, but I prefer to be on site with the team. What I don’t enjoy as much are all the bureaucratic tasks.

Do you still find time for your private life?

My co-founder is also my husband. On the one hand, that makes it easier, but on the other hand, the company is always at the dinner table (laughs). We have decided to take Saturdays off to create a little island. To do this, I enter fixed dates for sports, for example, in my calendar, which is visible to my colleagues, and that works quite well.

Where are you and "Cylib" at the moment?

We have commissioned a 2,000-square-meter pilot plant here in Aachen and are currently in the process of getting the validated process up and running and making some adjustments. The battery industry is a very dynamic industry and the batteries that are installed in cars today are not necessarily the ones that will be installed in ten years. There are continuous developments. Accordingly, we are constantly expanding our strategy, which I really enjoy. I try to look into the future with binoculars, identify potential problems and develop solutions with my team right now.

What is your background and how did you come to found the company?

I studied materials engineering at RWTH and specialized in metallurgical process technology and metal recycling in my master’s degree. I then found battery recycling in particular very exciting. Many components in energy sources cannot be recovered or have to be treated with strong acids to make them usable again. I wanted to help change that. So I spent many years researching the topic in metallurgy, talking to industry and writing proposals with my professor. When many companies were not yet on the agenda, how to recycle in the field. With our later co-founder Paul Sabarny, I was also overseeing a project at the time to recycle lithium and graphite, two neglected children in the battery. We went through how we would organize the processes, looked for and found investors, and then we were off. Our first big success was certainly when we found our first investor in October 2022. That’s when a lot of pressure came off us.

Have some of the big players already shown interest in working with you?

The demand from the industry is gigantic. We’ve talked to big startups in battery cell manufacturing, suppliers of batteries and materials, but there’s also a lot of interest from buyers of our recycled products. We’re talking to five manufacturers for lithium alone.

Do you sometimes get scared of your own courage in the face of Cylib’s rapid development?

No, I am very confident because battery recycling plays an important role in the transformation process. Technologies that are holistic and sustainable will prevail, and I have hope that not only the big players will be supported.