How value materializes at DSV
An article about the stuff that holds stuff together
5 weeks into DSV we were having the same conversation that we’d been having every week for the last 4 weeks. I slap the table, because in situations like these, I am a complete diva: “I just don’t want this to become a table top company”. And I don’t mean a company which could fit on top of a table, adorable as that would be. I mean a company which produces the tops of tables.
It felt like there was nowhere to go, even after so much progress. And we really only had a month left to get to a plausible application for their technology.
“You were the first person who really saw value in what I was doing,” Haidin once told me. Unfortunately, this was in the context of him having at that time become quite disappointed with my ability to perceive value (the equivalent of “you used to be cool man, you’ve changed”). Haidin is a rollercoaster.
One of the first conversations I’d had with Haidin had been shortly after he’d made an unsuccessful pitch to his University incubator, InnovationRCA, who had made the rogue decision to invest in an artificially small number of companies that year.
During our first meeting, he sat down and took out a box. I took this as promising, because at that time I’d been pitched an unprecedented number of apps, and I figured it was unlikely that this conspicuously bulging box would be full of apps. Not impossible, but unlikely. Placing it on the table, he unpacked it systematically, laying out a series of green tiles and bits of what looked like congealed porridge.
It turns out that Haidin had produced a novel biodegradable plastic through almost pure trial and error. His strategy had partly involved looking beyond what the scientific establishment has proven to be true, which is actually a really intelligent strategy, as it results in the application of fringe concepts that have been overlooked or dismissed by other innovators. Warning: this approach will make you sound like an alchemist approximately 1/3 of the time.
InnovationRCA had objected that until the material was sufficiently cost effective to be used in packaging, there was no commercial prospect for the technology. From my perspective at the time, it had seemed as though reducing the cost was surely simply the next phase, not an intrinsic impossibility.
To get to this point, Haidin had been on a journey which had started with the mission of increasing the value of algae biofuels by monetising production waste streams, had pivoted through air filters for fish tanks (among other things) and had produced hundreds of iterations. He has wild hair, wild hand gesticulations. He’s loud and laughs easily, but snaps to seriousness equally readily. Everything about him exudes compressed determination.
“A public engagement website”. A way of collating the world’s feedback about things. Adrien had produced a prototype of the system as part of his application to DSV, persuaded people to use it, had contacted founders who had wrestled with similar concepts. He perceived difficulties, but was confident such a platform was necessary.
One of Adrien’s most striking characteristics is his how receptive he is to external information. Constantly cocking his head to one side and integrating new information into the systematic mental map he is producing of the universe.
Adrien is easily in the top percentile of personable statisticians. Smiley, charismatic and brilliant — a specialist in predicting highly unlikely events. He is shamelessly genuine, speaking his mind with extreme generosity — just after spending time with Haidin, I remember him telling me “I love your product. DSV is a great product. I hadn’t thought about it that way before”. I hadn’t thought about it that way either. Another time — “Dominic, you really need to build labs”.
“HE LEFT ME IN THE HANDS OF THE POLICE!” Fabio, shouted, indirectly at, and about, Adrien. “We thought our suitcases had been detained by the police because they contained 5kg of glue.” Fabio is the explosive third part of the puzzle. His signature move is the emphatic half karate chop (depicted above), but we forgive him this because he’s Italian. Adrien is usually left attempting to de-escalate the volume of the conversation as it bounces between Haidin and Fabio.
“An AI maths teacher” he first pitched me over Skype. He is not trained as an AI specialist (he’s a chemical engineer ) but had learned enough in his spare time to publish papers on the topic in decent journals. He’s also not a maths teacher. But he is really good at Maths.
An Iranian innovation design engineer, an Italian chemical engineer and a Swiss statistician walk into a bar.
6 months later, a glue company walks out of the bar.
Haidin set out to build a master team as soon as he arrived at DSV. He quickly realised things about people that we didn’t know ourselves, despite CV review and intensive interviews. Adrien and Fabio came as a pair, and he brought them both into his team simultaneously.
If not packaging, maybe Haidin’s material could be used for biodegradable roads? For school furniture? For patio tables? I hoped not. But one month in, they were pitching me table tops.
“I know for a fact that this material can make a massive impact and I refuse to give up on it.” Whilst I have not completed a comprehensive survey, this kind of passion is rare in the world of biodegradable school furniture, I believe. The challenge they were having as a company was the relative asymmetry of incentives between end users/customers and producers. Whilst biodegradable furniture can be important to schools, it isn’t to manufacturers, who see a higher cost and a steady price.
The breakthrough was customer development. They surveyed the entire value chain — from end user through to designer, to understand how choices of materials are made. They realised suddenly how important toxicity was. Tests showed that in contrast to other resins, the formula Haidin had invented was non-toxic. They even had concrete numbers as to how severely new regulations were affecting incumbents. They hurriedly scrubbed “biodegradable plastic” from their messaging, substituting “non-toxic resin”. With the crushing impact of regulations on formaldehyde and the neglected, (cerebral hemorrhagingly dull but ineffably massive) market of wood adhesives, they were in a brilliant, non-competitive space. Their closest competitors had been stewing over this for two years and still didn’t have the performance that industrial scale production requires.
With Adrien’s experience in materials optimisation and Fabio’s ‘design for experiments’ expertise, MaterialiseX is able to optimise the resin for different applications exceptionally quickly. It can be used in particle board, MDF, to hold laminate onto things. They’re like NASA for cheap glue. And the world produces and consumes a stunning quantity of cheap glue.