“It’s one thing to put a material in, but you have to validate it using hard data then build the commercial story around that.”
In our industry we are always looking forward. That next deadline, an upcoming funding round, a new product becoming available, finally finishing that PhD. We all have objectives we are working towards. So sometimes it is nice to take a minute to glance back in time to see just how far we’ve come.
In March 2018, we interviewed Charles Dimmler, CEO of materials pioneers Checkerspot, who were then two years into their journey. In a lively feature, one answer in regard to challenges has stayed with me; “The world has started to see that bio-based and high performance aren’t mutually exclusive.” Charles is not the only one to have said that, and I know of at least one very successful sustainable products company whose executives will freely admit that their early products “just didn’t work very well.” These products do work well now, and sell all over the world. I actually used one of them last night. But this idea of the product’s performance really is at the heart of ensuring that sustainable products successfully move further into the mainstream.
So, to dig a little deeper into the importance of the product and the performance, we spoke again to Charles to learn how this idea has progressed. We were lucky to catch him, he’s a busy man. Last May Checkerspot announced its Series Seed financing for over $5 million. Checkerspot’s innovation platform integrates biology, chemistry and fabrication and whilst their initial materials focus has been on materials derived from novel triglycerides (oils) from microalgae they will later this year launch a consumer facing product for outdoor recreation. Considering their growth and success, so far, the question is why add this new aspect to the business.
“We’d always aimed to launch a consumer brand. And I think now is the time to do it. We are seeing that the public is increasingly caring about what their products are made of and from where they come and are willing to pay more as a result. Why this change? The internet ensures that consumers are more aware of issues around products and links them to the alternate choices. This raising awareness results in companies like Unilever launching more sustainable products, and brands such as Patagonia who have always had this in their DNA really thrive. There’s another aspect driving this as well, within the Mergers & Acquisition (M&A) market big corporates are looking at sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) when acquiring brands.
Impact investing is an exciting area where investors seek to create social and environmental impact as well as financial returns. So there really are a lot of positives pointing at the wider commercialisation of sustainable products.” Checkerspot have prepared for this launch by recruiting Matt Sterbenz, founder of skiing brand 4FRNT (pictured left) as their new general manager of winter sports. But with a further announcement on product details coming soon, I’m keen to learn more about the process of how alternative materials producers like Checkerspot engage with clients.
Building the Checkerspot brand.
“It can take a long time. It often requires extensive face-to-face meetings to start the process and then a non-disclosure agreement before work can begin. It can take years. And for young companies this can be very problematic. For us at Checkerspot ( @Checkerspot_ ), we moved from starting-up to production in approximately a year. This is far quicker than most. And although we are now a larger organisation we like our start-up ethos and the energy and flexibility this brings.” Checkerspot is named for the endangered Checkerspot butterfly which is endemic to the Sierra Nevada near the San Francisco Bay, the home of the company and plays on the idea of the Butterfly Effect – that small changes can have a large impact. This is something that I think we all need to get behind when watching the news and it appearing that climate change can feel too insurmountable a problem for us to solve.
The impending addition of a brand to Checkerspot, makes a particularly interesting company – they are quite simply unlocking the potential in nature – even more noteworthy. Their technology platform enables the design – at a molecular level – of new materials and as a result expands the palette of materials available to product designers. But the result of this remarkable science comes down to one essential offering, as Charles concludes.
“It’s all about the performance of the material. It’s one thing to put a material in, but you have to validate it using hard data then build the commercial story around that. You can’t compete with petroleum in cost. The answer is in performance and value. Quite simply, you must be the better product.”
As soon as the Checkerspot outdoor recreation product launches we’ll be sure to let you know!
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