“In a decade’s time, bio-based industry will no longer be an industry classification. We’re already seeing signs from leading, large consumer brands that they are not differentiating between bio and other feedstocks.”
Motivated to create more efficient and less expensive ways of delivering better performing and sustainably-produced products, Checkerspot works to build stronger links between biology, chemistry, material science, design and fabrication for a broad range of industrial applications.
Joining Bio-Based World News and Dave Songer for this week’s 5 Minutes With… is the Checkerspot co-founder and CEO, Charles Dimmler. Fresh from his talk at World Bio Markets that took place in Amsterdam in March. Charles gives the lowdown on how things have progressed since the birth of the company in June 2016, why passion isn’t enough to succeed in this industry and the promise offered by his favourite bio-based product.
Dave Songer (DS): Hi Charles, you co-founded Checkerspot in June 2016, that’s pretty exciting. Can we start by hearing how the first two years have gone?
Charles Dimmler (CD): It’s been an amazing eighteen months. We have an incredibly talented founding team. We set up some important partnerships that enabled us to prototype materials applications quickly, prototypes that bring to life our technology capability. We won a few grant applications, and attracted initial investors and then we were awarded a spot in the Illumina Accelerator. Since beginning there six months ago our trajectory has become much steeper. By combining the discoveries we are making in Checkerspot’s molecular foundry and Illumina’s data and sequencing capabilities, the rate of our technology development has continued to increase. It is definitely an exciting time and there will be, of course, the inevitable challenges and disappointments of a start-up along the way, but our team is undaunted and determined. I think the mission that drives us all is a powerful factor.
(DS): What do you most enjoy about being involved in the bio-based industry?
(CD): Two things, actually: the people with whom we get to interact and our collective sense of purpose. At its core, the bio-based industry is about developing products that are better, and which make a difference. This sense of purpose is gratifying. It turns out that a pretty special group of people self-select into this business that I really enjoy working and collaborating with.
(DS): What advice would you give someone looking to get started in it?
(CD): Pursue an opportunity at the intersection of your passion, your capability and where you can deliver economic value. Life moves fast, and to invest so much of yourself and your time in something that isn’t meaningful to you seems a waste. Just pursuing your passion is insufficient. You also have to be good at it and create value in the world, otherwise it will be tough to make a living. The people I admire most, and that have had the greatest impact on the world, appear to get this just right.
(DS): What is the biggest challenge around working in the bio-based industry? And opportunity?
(CD): A lot of people associate the term bio-based with a compromise on performance. In other words, if it is bio-based then it’s not going to work as well. Getting past this negative association can be challenging, and at @Checkerspot_ we see it as an opportunity – our foremost focus is developing high-performance materials that make products better. The fact that these materials also happen to be bio-based is an added benefit. The world has started to see that bio-based and high performance aren’t mutually exclusive. This is an opportunity we are helping to make a reality.
(DS): What do you think will be the big changes in the bio-based industry in a decade’s time?
(CD): In a decade’s time, the bio-based industry will no longer be a classification. We’re already seeing signs from leading, large consumer brands that they are not differentiating between bio and other feedstocks. As an analogy, between 1995 and 2002 we referred to Internet and e-commerce companies as a classification. Today, this classification does not exist. Every commercial organisation has a digital strategy. Similarly, in the future we’re likely to see ‘bio-based’ fall away as a descriptor, when the importance and prevalence of these materials inevitably increases.
(DS): What are Checkerspot’s business priorities for 2018 – can you share any details?
(CD): Our technology platform includes three functional areas: a molecular foundry to engineer microbes that express novel building blocks (like triglycerides), that is integrated with our chemistry and materials science capability, and finally our fabrication capability where we can prototype products. This platform is now in place and focused on two materials classes: polyurethanes and textile coatings/finishes. Our business priorities for 2018 is to grow revenue and expand our partnerships.
(DS): You spoke at this year’s World Bio Markets in Amsterdam. What did you most enjoy at the show?
(CD): Continuing to build relationships is something I always look forward to, from existing relationships that span years to starting new ones – World Bio Markets enables me to do that. Checkerspot has just started sharing what we’re up to and how we’re building this company and I enjoyed doing that and hearing more reactions…both positive and constructive criticism. Learning from others, and studying the space in general is a perpetual focus.
(DS): What is your favourite bio-based product and why?
(CD): I’m incredibly excited about synthetic spider silk. It’s a material I was introduced to nearly twenty years ago, when I worked on an out-license of technology for a company working to express the protein in goats’ milk. Seeing apparel that now incorporates synthetic silk is amazing. I’m looking forward to seeing novel performance properties featured in these products.
(DS): Thanks very much for taking part, Charles. See you at the show next year, we hope!
Read the last 5 minutes with… Professor Kevin O'Connor, University College Dublin.
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