Arno Held: “Today shows promise, but the future is downright spectacular  

Entrepreneurs are worth their weight in gold for well-established industries when it comes to AM-technology, according to Arno Held, Chief Venture Officer at the German private equity fund and investor in AM start-ups, AM Ventures. He sees a great future in store for the technology, even if there will be a few bumps along the way.  

By Erik Holm

We catch Arno Held on his phone as he makes his way to Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Bavaria. The town lies at the foot of the Alps and it is well-known for hosting the legendary New Year ski jump, which in many ways is a suitable analogy for what this German investor does on a daily basis.  

 Arno Held is the co-founder and Chief Venture Officer of AM Ventures. Since 2015, AM Ventures has invested in the most compelling entrepreneurial companies working within additive manufacturing, AM, and it tries to help these start-ups to take great leaps forward in both maturity and financial capacity.  

“The biggest difference between us and other investors is that we focus exclusively on AM. Our team has a total of 60 years experience in AM. My partner, Johan, is a veteran in the industry. He helped establish EOS 30 years ago, and I’ve been in the industry for more than 12 years. Our technical background means that we’re able to evaluate technologies at a very early stage and much earlier than traditional investors. This is a great financial benefit,” says Arno Held. 

Entrepreneurs are important 

Arno Held has a degree in engineering. He met his business partner, Johan Oberdorfer at EOS, where he wrote his thesis and where he later worked with business development. In January 2015, they founded the private equity firm AM Ventures.  

Since then, they have developed a database that has identified more than 1,200 AM start-ups in Europe and the US, and they have invested in 18 companiesArno has a great affection for entrepreneurs.  

“Start-ups are incredibly important for the industrial sector. They tend to have a passion for the technology itself, as well as a rebellious streak, which isn’t something you often see in an established industry and which constantly challenges the big players by presenting new concepts, methods and approaches to AM. Start-ups generate real innovation for the AM industry and that’s why I love working with entrepreneurs,” says Arno Held. 

AM Ventures discovers potential candidates via its extensive network, by participating in conferences, by searching databases and patent applications, and by using regional scouts with insight into local markets.  

A typical investment is usually between EUR 300,000 and EURO 3,000,000. On average, it takes three to four months from first contact to a signed contract, estimates Arno. However, whether a start-up receives funding often depends on an assessment of the person behind the company. A gut feeling. 

“In the earliest phases of a company, it’s the people behind it that we invest in. We spend a lot of time evaluating the team, and there needs to be a certain chemistry between us and the founders before we move forward. Often the founders don’t even give us a serious pitch, so we’re not going to take them seriously either. We want to see that they have a genuine and sincere interest in their project and their application. For example, this is why we ask for a business plan, even if the plan is obsolete as soon as we get it. But it gives us an idea of the founders’ dedication and understanding of the industry,” says Arno Held.   

Among the many companies in which AM Ventures has invested, and which are still maturing and growing, are DyeMansion from Germany and 3yourmind and Lithoz from Austria. The only Scandinavian company presently under the AM Ventures umbrella is Swedish Exmet 

“I hope this will change in the near future,” says Arno Held, with a smile and continues“Many of the companies we’re involved with are later bought by major players. And this is one of our aims. We increasingly see software, materials and hardware companies being bought by established players. This is a good way for established companies to adopt AM technologies, and it allows the start-ups to blossom within the larger organisation.” 

Southern German power house 

Over the years, Munich has become a centre for 3D printing and AM technology. EOS was founded there 30 years ago on the basis of an order from BMW, whose headquarters are located in the German city, as are the headquarters of industrial giants such as Siemens and Linde. Airbus also has a large division in Munich, with companies such as Audi and Adidas not far away.  

“For decades, Munich and southern Germany have been a power house for many major technical companies, and these have driven demand for AM. This also means easy access to potential customers and talent, which in turn has a self-perpetuating effect,” says Arno Held.  

This past spring, AM Ventures opened an office in Bushan, South Korea, but Europe and the US are leading the way, although with very different approaches. While Europeans manufacture the best technology, it’s the Americans who manage to make the most out of these efforts. That’s why start-ups are more expensive in the US than in Europe, even though the technical products are usually better and more advanced over here. The four unicorns in the AM field – private start-ups worth more than one billion USD – are all American, he says. 

“I’m a big fan of European engineering. But we have a tendency to overdo things and forget that, in the end, it’s about selling products to customers. The Americans are really good at developing and selling products that are good enough, not necessarily the best. These companies become financially successful much faster, and their evaluation is always an assessment of financial potential. This is why we pay much more for shares in the US than in Europe, even though the technology is better here in Europe,” says Arno Held. 


A few clouds but a bright future 

An analysis mentioned in the annual Danish AM Report estimates that the market for AM will be worth USD 23 billion by 2023; an increase from USD 7 billion in 2017. However, Arno Held remains sceptical of such projections. 

“You have to be careful, because things often take longer than expected. That’s always been true. AM is widespread, but still not as widespread as we had hoped three years ago. At the moment, production capacity exceeds demand,” he says. 

The German AM analyst is very positive about developments within AM – including in Europe. He is part of a network in Munich called Must3D. A couple of hundred 3D printing enthusiasts meet every six months to update each other on the latest technological developments and trends within AM.  

“We’re seeing a lot of promising concepts for hardware technology using new materials and increased productivity. This will open the door for whole new applications that can be mass produced on equal terms with traditional production,” he says and mentions heat exchangers for vehicles and consumer electronics as examples.   

“It doesn’t make much sense to 3D print a heat exchanger designed for conventional electronics, but if you re-design the product, you can suddenly print heat exchangers weighing half as much, that are three-times more efficient and that cost less than conventional heat exchangers. This could result in production of millions of units, and it’s a very promising development that we’re already experiencing,” he confirms and continues that additive manufacturing is, in his opinion, on the ascent:    

“Today already shows a lot of promise, but the future is downright spectacular.”  

Arno Held has a degree in industrial engineering and business and he studied in Karlsruhe, Shanghai and St. Gallen. He has more than 15 years’ experience in industrial laser applications and additive manufacturing, AM, and worked with strategy and business development at EOS for seven years. Arno has successfully supported start-up companies working in 3D printing since 2008. Today, he is responsible for Investment Group at AM Ventures Holding, a fellow subsidiary in EOS Group, and he is strategic investor with focus on industrial 3D printing. The team administers a portfolio of 18 companies in seven different countries. AM provides unique access to investment, technology and expertise within hardware, software, materials and applications for additive manufacturing. Arno Held was born in 1980 and lives in Kochel am See in Bavaria.