Pioneers Discover was proud to welcome three startups from well beyond our European heartland to last week’s Wienerberger Innovation Day. In a sign of our consultancy arm’s increasing global reach, construction-industry innovators from Indonesia, Brazil and the United States joined the event in Vienna, where they got to share their ideas and co-create with Wienerberger, the sustainable building and infrastructure solutions giant.
The startup scouting process for this event was more international and more exciting than any yet. In the quest for innovators whose goals matched those of Wienerberger, we identified an Indonesian startup developing mushroom-based building materials, a Brazilian one exploiting the potential of 3D printing in the industry and an American one that brings a tireless bricklaying robot to the party.
Having travelled all the way from Bandung City in West Java, mycotech intrigued delegates with its different and sustainable approach to construction materials. They brought samples of their mycelium-based board and brick, which though not yet strong enough to act as supporting walls, can already have multiple industry applications. The startup has showed some of those possibilities by supplying materials for the MycoTree exhibit at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, which showed how stability could be achieved through geometry rather than through material strength.
Crucially to mycotech’s appeal, and a primary reason they were invited to meet Wienerberger, is their sustainability cred. Their customizable products are based on mycelium, a fast-growing root network of mushrooms that can act as natural glue. This can ‘digest’ plant-based waste products to become a structurally active material composite, which could have terrific circular, cheap and sustainable construction potential for farming communities worldwide. Not only can this building material be grown locally, it can also be composted after use.
“This empowers local communities with great impact at low cost,” said CMO Ronaldiaz Hartantyo, who was visiting Vienna for the second time after mycotech made the Pioneers500 cut for Pioneers’17. “We dream of local communities being able to build their own local houses.
“We want to shift mindset from extracting and mining materials to growing and harvesting them,” he said in his stage pitch. “It’s about changing a linear process to a circular cycle. We’re making materials better, stronger, more durable and sustainable, as well as lightweight and fireproof.”
Apart from local, rural applications, a startups with materials that are 100% organic and without formaldehyde emissions, clearly needed to meet Wienerberger, who are keen to develop sustainable building solutions. Even without considering those load-bearing possibilities, Hartantyo says mycelium materials could, for example, be used as insulation or for interior panelling.
But still they needed to get on a plane to meet the players who can appreciate such industrial use cases for the product, just as they did last week. Finding synergies as a startup sometimes needs a global approach.
“The sustainable or green-minded market in Indonesia isn’t really growing yet. We’re ahead of our time there. But in Europe they are sustainable-minded. We want to give Wienerberger opportunities to enter green global industries. It’s better to be pioneers in this industry and start something circular.
“People are always talking about getting bigger and stronger – growing, growing, growing! But we think we should stop making bigger things, rather make better things. It’s not about growing, it’s about keeping a balance. How can we make it more sustainable and get profit while saving the planet? That’s the real deal.”
A world apart in both technology and geography was Anielle Guedes, who travelled from Sao Paulo in Brazil. She’s the founder of Urban3D, a global startup whose work centres on the Internet of Concrete. Using the power of 3D printing, she wants to completely rewire the construction industry through intelligent building materials. Working at the cutting edge of what’s digitally possible, she was a terrific candidate to deliver a keynote to Wienerberger management delegates at the start of the day.
“We’re adding billions of people to cities but the building process is broken,” said Guedes in forthright and stirring talk. “It’s not cheap enough or fast enough. We lose 30-50% of all raw materials in the supply chain.
“McKinsey has reported that construction is less productive and competitive than fishing! Right now it’s somewhere between Industry 1.0 and 2.0. So how do we advance it all the way to 4.0? Because we don’t have time to go through all the steps.
“Automation is the solution and the biggest trend. Everything we know is going to be automated and digitized. Change is inevitable and the only competitiveness possible today is digital. You have to be competitive not just against your competitors but also against new entrants.
“Technology could and should be a business tool,” she told the audience as they passed around samples of some of her 3D-printed materials. “Both Urban3D and Wienerberger are doing work where cities are going to grow the most. You have to decide what that 3D printer is going to do for your business.”
Another startup with plenty to offer in terms of improving efficiency was Construction Robotics, based in Rochester, New York, and represented at the Wienerberger Innovation Day by their Business Development man Christopher Raddell. In his stage pitch he introduced the company’s SAM100 bricklaying robot, which has already laid over a million bricks on 30 projects in the United States.
The startup has been on such a fast growth track domestically that they haven’t had so much as a moment to explore collaborations in Europe. It took an outreach from Pioneers Discover to give them impetus to get on that plane across the Atlantic, even in the same week as the enormously important World of Concrete event in Las Vegas.
“We’ve always talked about sending people to Europe and getting that going,” said Raddell. “But we’ve been so busy in the US that all we’ve done is field phone calls saying ‘yes, we’re coming to Europe sometime’ – now this accelerates it. This kind of pull gets us connected to the right people and things that we know are out there. When partnering for technology, there are no boundaries.”
“SAM enables keeping to schedule or doing things faster. Does that help Wienerberger? Yes it does, because sometimes bricks are taken off a proposal because the decision-makers don’t feel like bricklaying can be fit in a tight schedule. They’ll switch to another material.
“There will be demand and call for unique products better suited to work with the automation. Just like we need to work with architects, owners and contractors, that information exchange with companies like Wienerberger is important. We have tools that increase bricklaying speed – but how do we make their product and the tools match up? Talking could help Wienerberger have a vision for how they add more value to the market.
“For example, can they put other materials in a brick because automated bricklaying means a brick can be bigger and heavier? Can they add the insulation already? We need to communicate those things so that the tools match up with that.”
It’s fair to say that both the startups and Wienerberger came away from the innovation day with plenty to think about. In addition to those from closer to home, our visitors from far afield added a considerable energy and diversity to the solutions on offer for the global corporate. For more on what an innovation day can do for your business, click here.