Redox North is All In
First-time founders on drinking from the firehose and surfing the stream
Welcome to the first of Cohort Nine’s Founder Friday Interviews series, where we check in with our startups on the journey thus far. Today we’re talking to Redox North CEO Bradley Momberg and CTO Kyle Rodrigues.
HWY1: What are you working on right now?
BM: We’re building out as much stuff as we can in preparation for the next round of due diligence meetings: making sure our financial model is at least somewhat accurate and ensuring that we have a solid plan going into our seed round. We’re also figuring out our manufacturing plan, which Kyle’s been working out.
KR: We’ve gotten the rent and insurance paid on the chem lab, and our prototype supercapacitors are almost ready to go — we’re just missing one ingredient, which is on its way. We’ve also worked out the steps for our testing procedures and written the documentation to go with them. Right now we’re meeting with possible manufacturing partners we may work with down the line, as well as warehouse locations in the area. Other than that, we’ve been getting some interesting traction, including a couple of followups from the first round of due diligence; we’re building our board of advisors.
BM: Probably the biggest development was figuring out our overall company vision. There are so many applications for these capacitors that Kyle and I had to figure out on a personal level what we’re most excited about; after some soul searching, we settled on the adoption of electric and autonomous vehicles. Our entire company plan is structured around fostering the adoption of EVs and the ways in which our tech fits into the whole ecosystem. Pretty much everyone wants an EV, but charging them is a real issue when you rent your home and don’t have the ability to upgrade your electrical infrastructure. We’re working on a capacitor bank that trickle-charges throughout the day and then quick-charges an EV — it alleviates some of the practical considerations that prevent most people from getting an EV.
This strategy also allows us to really build a company rather than just being a component supplier. It took engineers a long time to learn how to properly play with lithium-ion batteries; I expect the same will happen with supercapacitors as they become a primary means of energy storage. The way we’ve structured it, should anyone come along who makes a better supercapacitor than we do (which hopefully will happen — I hope the advancement of the technology doesn’t stop with us), they won’t be a competitor, they’ll be an asset. We’d be in the business of enabling the next generation of supercapacitors to reach more real-world applications. We’re pretty excited about that.
What’s your biggest key learning been so far?
KR: Probably business and presentation. When we first showed up, we weren’t very good at explaining our values and ideas, and we’ve had a lot of great coaching and mentorship. It all fell into place this weekend: we went to a genomics hackathon — as two electrical engineers, no less — and ended up winning the competition. It was down to Brad’s pitches: the judges actually asked him if he was a writer. We owe that to the training we’ve received here; pitch practice isn’t really something you learn in school.
BM: On a fundamental level, I think the biggest thing I learned is how little I actually know. There are amazing specialists in every field, and it’s incredible to hear from them and learn about the things that I had no idea were even problems to start with.
KR: There’s been a lot of learning on the manufacturing side, too: the difference between DVT and EVT, all the different skills that go into product design and prototyping, not to mention scaling. All of this is crazy complicated, and it’s not something I’d’ve ever known to ask about before coming here. Being part of the alumni network and being able to talk to so many people who’ve actually manufactured things has been invaluable.
What’s your biggest surprise been?
KR: How long things take.
BM: Yes. You might try to add a week to a one-week task and that’ll seem like a good safety margin to you, but you really needed five. These are the kinds of problems that actually come into play once you start going larger-scale. For us, suppliers oftentimes don’t keep the materials we need in stock. Ordering small quantities is fine; they have little vials they can send you no problem. But when you want liters of an electrolyte, they say “Cool, we’ll send it to you in a month, because we have to make it from scratch.” These are the things you want to learn while prototyping; for us, there’s always more work to be done, so we can get those things done while we wait for the materials to come in.
Has anything about your approach changed?
BM: Absolutely. The biggest thing we learned was that we need focus: do one thing and one thing only. When we came down here, supercapacitors had so many different applications; we had to filter them down. That was a clear message that came out of the reading I’ve done; Highway1 supplied us with a few books, and they’ve been absolutely phenomenal. The Hot Seat by Dan Shapiro is really good; also The Hardware Startup.
KR: I’m halfway through that one, but I had to switch over to Jeff Schox’s Not So Obvious, which is pretty great: he wrote the book for someone like me who doesn’t have the first clue how the patent system works. He goes through it step by step: here’s how it’s set up, here’s how it’s supposd to work, here’s how it kind of works now, this is what you need to look for when you troubleshoot, etc. The talk he gives at Highway1 is great, but I’d recommend this book, too; it’s been a big help in understanding how the patent system works because it’s a little goofy, especially for material and process patents.
BM: A fantastic book for CEOs as they start to scale a company is The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. He explains that the hard part isn’t coming up with a big vision — the hard part is laying people off when you miss it. He goes into how to deal with those situations; he’s been on a fantastic journey, and it’s an enlightening read.
What’s your biggest challenge been thus far?
BM: I’d say the biggest challenge has been the pace at which we had to learn. We came from a small town. There’s been one other person from Thunder Bay who’s started a company; effectively, there’s nobody there to learn from at this scale. When we first came down here, we didn’t know what angel investors really did, we didn’t know what VCs were or what terms like “seed round” or “series A” meant; I didn’t know how to converse with business people. We had to learn incredibly quickly and that was a great challenge, but we embraced it and now I think we’re on the way to understanding; we’re also getting advisors and mentorship in those particular aspects.
KR: I learned more in my first week here than my whole time in Thunder Bay. The pace and amount of immersion, the speed at which I could get questions answered, was eye-opening. “Oh, you need to talk to someone at Tesla? Let’s go over there. You have questions for IDEO? We can stop by.”
BM: My favorite learning moment was when someone asked if they could see our financial model. I said “Sure. What’s a financial model?” I didn’t know what they were, so I had to learn how to build one. Now, I think ours is pretty good — we can at least back it up with reasonable assumptions.
What are your goals for your time here?
BM: We want a detailed spec sheet of everything our supercapacitors are capable of.
I also want to have a detailed fundraising plan: which VCs to speak to, what amount we want to raise, what the plan is for the money after we get it. We have a rough outline, but I want to detail it down to the week. Failure to plan is planning for failure; that’s something we’ve learned.
KR: I’ve been building a bunch of prototypes along different parameters and test cases. We didn’t have the resources or tools to do it before, so now that we have more professional tools, we’re building and characterizing as many as we can. That way, we’ll be able to tell how they’ll behave at a given scale and and what their cost:performance ratio is.
BM: Essentially, we’re looking for the unit economics of our supercapacitors, which is another term I learned down here.
Do you have any advice for beginning hardware startups?
BM: What’s helped me the most is to do a lot of reading; I advise picking up The Hot Seat first if you don’t know how to be a CEO.
KR: Finding a co-founder that’s on the same level as you is the most important part. There’s so much work to do, and you can’t do it alone. There are definitely days when it’s overwhelming, and you need someone to say “That’s a stupid idea, go back to work, keep your chin up.” It doesn’t get easier, but you get more used to dealing with it.
BM: You need not just a good but a great co-founder. No one becomes an entrepreneur because it’s easy; you do it because it’s challenging. You need a great team, and that starts with your co-founder.
I’d advise anyone to do it, though; regardless of how difficult it is, the people you get to meet, the places you visit, the stories you gather, and the things you learn are incredibly valuable. If you try a startup and it fails, you’re going to be better for it.
KR: Skills-wise, despite what a lot of universities want you to believe, there’s no schooling that can teach you how to be a CEO, to manage people and a company. You’re never going to learn without trying. It seems to get you a lot of street cred; people respect you for doing something this crazy. Originally, we had more modest goals for our company, but we decided to go for the moonshot. We’re going big. This is our vision, and we’re going to try to pull it off. If we’re going to fail, I’d rather fail working as hard as I possibly can at the dream I want to accomplish.