5 ways R&D shapes start-up success

Since its founding, Metabolic has experimented with a variety of product design trajectories with the aim of making clean technology more affordable and scalable. Looking back at some of our work for our 5-year anniversary, we realized how a commitment to R&D can help define the entrepreneurial culture and shape the commercial success of an organization.

Research and development comes in many different flavors. For Metabolic, which is working on multiple fronts to accelerate a transition to a sustainable economy, it has meant not only integrating proven technologies together so that the end result is greater than the sum of its parts, but also reducing the cost of key technologies and components to enable economies of scale.

As is the case with most companies, whilst only a limited number of our R&D projects have moved forward into commercial trajectories, we have benefited from everyone of them. The process of experimenting and building new things has always afforded us unique learning opportunities and fostered a strong culture within our organization. Below, we share five key lessons learned from the past five years of research and development.

  1. R&D can be a cultural engine

Going wild with technical innovation obviously doesn’t make sense for every company. But for Metabolic, especially in our earlier days, it helped to reinforce a can-do culture and created a consistent energetic buzz throughout the organization. It established a feeling that anything was possible if we put in enough energy and thought. It also showed us the value of digging into a problem, and then digging some more, and then digging further; it’s true that if something were easy to solve, it probably would have been solved already.

From the start, our Do-It-Ourselves culture created a feeling that we could build our own world. People within the company quickly realized that coming up with new solutions to problems didn’t require a multi-billion R&D lab, just a bunch of reading, experimentation, and an ongoing effort to learn from users and experts. We constructed our own buildings and retrofitted our own office spaces. We built electronics and 3D printed parts from scratch. In the process, quite a few of our interns and colleagues gained an entrepreneurial motivation and went on to start companies and initiatives like Sustainer Homes, Watt Now, EcoCoin, and WeLeaf.

2. Openness is aligned with impact

We have always believed in opening up our knowledge. To that end we’ve worked with universities and government agencies to publish the results of our work, and we’ve forged alliances with organizations that believe in an open source approach. Since we have limited resources, it’s impossible for us to bring all of our ideas forward. We’re thrilled when a startup takes up one of our ideas and builds a business around it, when an NGO has a eureka moment from reading through one of these projects, or if a research agency decided to devote more funding to solving a specific set of problems they glean from our experience.

Opening up our work has stimulated aeroponics research within the Applied Sciences University of Amsterdam and encouraged NGOs working on rural sanitation to take a new look at human waste as a resource. Avoiding thinking in zero-sum terms has also made it much easier to work collaboratively with like-minded organizations looking to achieve similar transformations using technological innovation.

3. Thinking big requires starting small

Spectral, our first commercial spin-off, was initially conceived of as an internal project called the “Resource Truck” — an integrated mobile utility for energy, water, and sanitation. The concept was exciting and had potential to transform the way utilities were provided at refugee camps and during emergency relief, but it was too big for us to take on all at once. We decided to build out pieces of the concept separately and find an interested client group closer to home: festivals. One of the pieces we built was in the form of solar energy generators; we built the Solar Trailer and then the Solar Transformer, forming the foundation of other utility services. Along the way, we learned a lot of what we needed to know about mobile utilities and allowed for an easy expansion into additional systems like water filtration and waste processing.

We had a similar experience when building the Window Farm — an indoor highly productive aeroponics system for home use — towards a commercial product. We knew it would be a bit too much to build the necessary software and develop an industrialization strategy and do the requisite industrial design of the product and acquire sufficient investment. Instead, we zeroed in on the most critical design issue we had faced thus far, which was reducing the cost of aeroponics nozzles and requisite sensors for automating the system. Without significant cost reductions in those two areas, nothing else was going to matter.

Big concepts can be exciting and motivating, but you can get stuck in a big idea. We’ve often found that thinking small and finding good stepping stones has been the key to moving forward. It reduces the scope of challenges needing to be solved (or at least makes them logically sequential) and has allowed us to focus our resources where they’re needed most. And often times, the solution to a key or starting challenge turns out to be a commercially viable product or service in its own right.

4. Loving problems leads to adaptability

People sometimes have the tendency to fall in love with ideas. Ideas are creative, unique, and exciting. Problems, on the other hand, are less fun. They can be complex, technical, even depressing. Yet falling in love with problems is key. To get to the root of problems requires learning much more than what a week of using Google can provide; it means calling up experts, talking to potential users, and diving into an avalanche of information about what similar initiatives have been tried and how they worked out.

Falling in love with problems is inherently linked to adaptability and a willingness to depart from your original idea. When we set out to design what is now Spectral, it was through a concept of an integrated utility trailer. Spectral, after listening to customers and understanding the market, has since pivoted twice and is now focused mostly on developing software that enables smart resource grids and integrates different hardware components. When we sat down to design what became FENEX, a container-based system for transforming human waste into animal feed and plant fertilizer, we had many ideas we were excited about. Throughout a long prototyping process and engaging with users, it became clear that a majority of those ideas were either technically unworkable, too expensive, or too challenging for a user to operate and maintain.

Responding to new information and adapting your activities doesn’t always feel like progress, but we’ve found it to be essential for arriving at the right strategy and improving our design decision-making.

5. Experimenting is the fastest way to learn

A large part of what we do as a company is help other organizations — namely governments, NGOs, and businesses — incorporate advanced sustainability into their strategies and actions. We often work with cities to re-imagine entire neighborhoods, real-estate organizations to design new sustainable buildings, and corporations to rethink their supply chains and place a big bet on the circular economy. Experimenting with various technologies has enabled us to better understand their barriers and the nuances of implementing them. It has taught us more about cleantech implementation than any amount of reading could have accomplished, and it has made our consulting operation stronger and more practical as a result.

When we initially designed the Cleantech Playground at De Ceuvel in Amsterdam North, very few people thought it was possible to execute. Without funding or technical partners, we had to build most of the technologies ourselves. What initially seemed like an impossible task became a rallying cry inside and outside of our organization. Our young team of engineers built greywater filtration systems, engineered struvite reactors that extracted valuable nutrients from urine, and even constructed our own showcase and laboratory, Metabolic Lab. In the process, we absorbed a wealth of knowledge regarding the opportunities and challenges of implementing green building and clean technology in an urban context — knowledge that made the advice to our clients more nuanced and practical.

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