Doubling Down on Citrine to Accelerate Product Innovation with Materials Science

Scott Brady
Oct 11, 2019 · 5 min read

By: Scott Brady and Caleb Appleton

Across industries, companies are increasingly using the latest materials technologies to differentiate their products and support ever-rising movements like sustainability. In consumer electronics, Apple has consistently made material selection a cornerstone of its product strategy. The company developed and marketed new alloys of gold and aluminum for the Apple Watch, was responsible for shifting the entire smartphone industry from plastic to glass screens, and even launched its credit card in a custom material. In the world of fashion and athletic wear, branded, technical materials are woven into clothing: Nike has DriFIT, Adidas uses Climalite, and GoreTex and eVent showcase materials innovation and, because of that, dominate the waterproof and windproof sectors. In Aerospace, Boeing worked directly alongside Toray to develop a new carbon composite for its 787 Dreamliner. Materials are defining products. As a result, the reach and size of the materials market is exploding. This new breed of materials-enabled product companies comprises up to 40% of the Fortune 500.

Materials science is a field that has long fascinated us at Innovation Endeavors. It has every hallmark of an industry ripe to be rewritten by converging trends we view as consequential: new and under-leveraged sources of data, advanced computation, and engineering. Materials science is undergoing a Super Evolution. Historically, this field has been driven by manual empiricism where material discoveries are few and far between, often take north of a decade, and require immense capital expenditures to reach market. Even those rare materials that are successful in reaching the market, face an uphill battle in adoption — while a new consumer product might take only a few years to go from invention to peak sales, new materials face a much longer path. It often takes decades of market education for new materials (37 years for polypropylene, 17 years for Kevlar, and the list goes on…). Because of this, materials science has been an industry of incremental progress rather than exponential innovation.

Yet, as trends like fast fashion take hold and the consumer electronics industry moves to shorter and shorter release cycles, brands can’t wait around for materials to reach maturity to be used in their products — material design has to increasingly be baked into product design. Historically, only a select few companies with deep pockets have been able to command this type of co-development from their suppliers. Apple has invested over $450M into Corning’s R&D to ensure Gorilla glass continues to evolve and sunk an almost $600M pre-order into a synthetic sapphire based screen alternative that never materialized. Boeing committed to a deal worth north of $10B?! with Toray to build manufacturing and ultimately supply the carbon for the 787 and new 777X. These enormous deals are equal parts market-moving-news and existential risk: material suppliers are beholden to these deals and losing one can mean bankruptcy; on the flip side, the rest of their customers can’t compete for mindshare and are often left with stock catalog products.

In addition to this market pressure, every chemicals and materials company on earth is feeling both consumer and regulatory pressure to create green, sustainable, recyclable, or biodegradable products. Such pressure requires more than just greenwashing; it requires a fundamental reimagining of how new materials are developed and created.

This week, we announced, alongside our friends at Prelude, our co-lead investment in Citrine Informatics’ Series B round. Citrine is shifting the materials development and deployment paradigm and the team, led by Greg Mulholland and Bryce Meredig, are bridging the chasm between materials and product development. Citrine has built a suite of data and software infrastructure tools coupled with machine learning-based analytics to unlock the full value of an enterprise’s material data — allowing enterprises to deliver the right material product fast.

At a base level — Citrine organizes and makes actionable the full depth of an organization’s material data: all experiments (successful or, more importantly, failed/discarded) across discovery, development, and manufacturing. On top of this shared data reservoir, Citrine uses machine learning techniques, blended with known materials concepts and physics-based constraints, to create material science-specific models that unlock insight for their customers across a number of use cases. Due to their high-cost to acquire and the limited throughput of testing, materials data is one of the most valuable data sources a company can have — Citrine’s technology unlocks this data making it available, actionable, and ultimately advantageous.

By creating a central source of materials data, Citrine breaks down the historic silos in materials companies between discovery, R&D, manufacturing, and sales/supply chain. This allows Citrine’s customers to impute how existing parts of the product portfolio might serve wildly different use cases: for example, the medical-grade polymer that underlies the NuvaRing is also the core structural component Croc’s Sandals. Perhaps more excitingly is that Citrine allows customer requests and constraints to more directly interact with R&D direction and roadmaps — without necessitating a $500M investment from those partners — whether trying to achieve new levels of performance to meet customer needs or comply with newly emerging sustainability mandates and priorities. Citrine helps to play a kind of Google Translate between product constraints, helping designers understand questions like “Can I make this product scratch resistant,” or get data about materials properties like “What is the surface hardness of this ceramic.” In doing so, Citrine helps to determine what product formulation or composition might fit these constraints and suggests the most efficient experimental path to develop a material that fits the bill — all in 50–70% less time than current practice — enabling faster production of differentiated materials in a market increasingly craving them.

We have been involved with the team at Citrine since the seed round when all of these ideas were academic and largely theoretical, and we’re excited to reaffirm our confidence in the approach and double down in a meaningful way. We have seen Citrine move from vision to reality: recently HRL Laboratories began selling a high strength aluminum alloy for additive manufacturing designed using Citrine’s platform — a perfect example of a non-traditional materials player quickly standing up a materials offering. Further, they’ve received significant commercial traction as a number of the most advanced materials companies in the world have partnered for access to the Citrine platform. LANXESS is publicly sharing the work Citrine is doing to accelerate its material development. We are excited to see how the team at Citrine continues to rewrite how materials are discovered and deployed; we believe that your next iPhone screen or favorite rain jacket is likely to be enabled by their AI tools.

Innovation Endeavors Publication

Investing in visionary founders, transformational technology and emergent ecosystems for a new world.

Scott Brady

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Innovation Endeavors Publication

Investing in visionary founders, transformational technology and emergent ecosystems for a new world.

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