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S6E7 – Mike Holt, Nodis

 

Elio:    [00:02] This episode is brought to you by our friends at Nodis. Nodis is a fast-growing smart glass technology startup headquartered right here in Columbus, Ohio. Nodis’ TruTint technology gives you the ability to change the tint, color, and temperature characteristics of windows, which helps to make buildings more energy-efficient, and the inside of your car more comfortable. Ahead of a Series A funding round, Nodis is investing heavily in Columbus by building its commercialization, systems engineering, and sales teams here. And the company plans to build a manufacturing facility in 2020 as they ramp up production and sales of TruTint to glass manufacturers across North America. To learn more about Nodis, explore investment opportunities and browse their job openings in Advanced Materials Research, systems engineering, sales and manufacturing, visit nodiscorp.com

 

           [00:55]   614Startups Nation, welcome to another episode of the 614Startups podcast. My name is Elio Harmon, your host, and I’m very excited to have a very special guest, a good friend of the show. I kind of see him as an advisor because a lot of the things that are happening with 614Startups were spurred by his encouragement, and him sharing information on some other things that he had experienced in the Singaporean ecosystem. They are about 10 years ahead of us in terms of ecosystem growth. But without any further ado, I’d like to introduce you guys to Mike Holt of Nodis. Mike, welcome.

 

Mike: [01:33] Thanks, Elio.

 

Elio:   [01:34]   Well, it’s great to have you. I know it’s a long time coming. We probably met each other, what, at least a couple months ago, pre-COVID, and one of the things that you pointed out to me was that every emerging ecosystem, it’s important for them to have a media component, right? Somebody out there telling the story and sharing the word about the ecosystem. So I was really encouraged by that. A lot of the things that we’re doing, a lot of things that we’re doing Implementing, were based on my conversation with you. So I don’t know if I’ve ever told you thank you for that but I just want to thank you now. Thank you so much.

 

Mike: [02:07] Oh, of course, no problem. And thank you for all the support and involvement. And you’re right, I think growing the ecosystem, ultimately, it’s about founders and visibility into those founders. That’s where the media part comes in. What are the founders’ stories? What’s made them successful? What’s made them challenged? And what’s being done about it? So that all comes back to sharing the stories and that’s where you come in.

 

Elio:   [02:39]   Amazing. So we start every podcast the same. For people who don’t know you, I’ve gotten to know you over the last couple of months, but for folks who don’t know you, how did you get into the venture space and how did you come to be a part of Nodis?

 

Mike: [02:51] I would say I’m first an entrepreneur who has spilled over into the venture space and I continue as an entrepreneur, as well as, as an investor. I came to all of this largely through just experience in the technology space in big companies and starting businesses in these big companies and eventually with startup companies, and then finally being involved in the formation, growth and funding of those companies. So my story really goes back to first as an engineer. I was an electrical engineer, experience as a chip designer, worked for a company in Southern California that did pretty much every disk drive on the planet had one of our chips in it. And with that big group in Singapore, because at the time in the ‘90s, 90%, 80% of the world’s disk drives were made in Singapore. So we had a group there. We had partners there. I had employees there, customers. Fast forward a little bit, our company was acquired by Texas Instruments in the mid-90s then I ended up in Houston. And the guy that I worked with in the integration of the companies from McKinsey ended up leaving and going to work for a headhunter, work for one of the executive search firms. He called me up one day and said, “Hey, Mike, I know your background, you know Singapore, I’ve got the perfect deal for you. Come and be CEO of this semiconductor company in Singapore.”

 

          [04:30]    And so with that, I left Texas Instruments and went to Singapore, moved there, and that was about 20 years ago, and ran a small semiconductor company. I guess it would be a venture startup, but it didn’t have that feel. It was too early, people didn’t know startups the same way, but it was a later stage company with a bunch of revenue and selling lots of product. We grew that company up a little bit and ended up selling it. I stayed in Singapore to get involved and run a couple of other small, growing, venture-backed startup companies and ended up in more of an advisory space working with these companies. So then eventually was selected for funding from the Singapore government to go and fund early-stage startup companies. Singapore was very focused at that time on how to build this startup ecosystem and do that with experienced people working with these companies and Singapore government doing that with money behind it. So with that funding, with that fund in place, we went in and did several B2B core tech early-stage startup companies in Singapore. I think about 15 of them from our first fund, various spaces – health care, semiconductor, IoT, enterprise software, cybersecurity are a few of the areas. And went that way and with that, we’ve decided to set up a fund here in the US and specifically in Columbus. And that brings me here to Columbus.

 

Elio:   [06:00]   We’re going to take a quick break and be right back after this message from our sponsor.

 

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          [06:49]    Now, classic entrepreneur story. Somebody gives you a call and says, “Here’s an opportunity” but it just happens that the opportunity is in Southeast Asia. So was it that the opportunity was just so amazing or was it maybe just a matter of timing? What was it about that call that made it all make sense for you to move to Southeast Asia and pursue that opportunity?

 

Mike: [07:12] Actually, it didn’t make sense. Didn’t make any sense at all. The timing was horrible. I had just transferred to a new job in TI running a large semiconductor business for disk drives. So a couple hundred million in sales, working with various disk drive companies, and I wasn’t necessarily anxious to leave. I also had a big stock option that wasn’t going to vest for about nine months so the timing was absolutely horrible. But this company was essentially a joint venture between a US semiconductor company also located in Texas, and a Singapore semiconductor company or Singapore product company. And so when I told him “No, I can’t do it. Now is not a good time”, they were persistent. In the end, they said, “Hey, fine, we’ll wait for you. We’ll wait, and when you’re ready, come and take the role.” So maybe it was nine months later, I ended up moving to Singapore. So I suppose it was reluctant. It wasn’t immediate, drop everything and go.

 

Elio:   [08:14]   Yeah, and that’s one of the things about life, right? There’s a lot of serendipity there. And so just that decision kind of takes you on a different course. But going to two and 0 as an entrepreneur, right? Starting one company, and having an acquisition and then starting a second company, even though you had to move to a completely new environment where I assume besides your friend that called you out there, you didn’t know very many people to build a whole new network and get to the point where you sell a second business. What are some of the lessons there? And then we’ll kind of pivot into get to Volume and Nodis, but what were some of the things that you think helped you be successful, not just in the first company, but moving where you had no network and doing it again?

 

Mike: [08:57] I mean, it’s true, no network, but I think a lot of it was also that the startup ecosystem in Singapore was just growing, just starting. It was in its infancy. So it’s almost like nobody had network history, connections, any of that relative to this. And so I think to a degree, the timing was good because I was able to grow with that, grow with the ecosystem, and I think also be a part of the growth of that ecosystem. I see the same kind of thing here in Columbus, actually. So I think that was part of it. I think the other part of it is, you know, connections are global. And so many of the people that I worked with and were involved with and ended up being investors or mentors, partners, advisors, they came from a global network, not necessarily what was in Singapore. Maybe they ended up in Singapore, maybe it came that way, but very much global kinds of relationships. And I see the same thing here. I’m so very connected here of course, with what goes on in Singapore and network in Singapore, and that spills over here to Columbus, and it’s a great resource. And companies, as they grow, we’re focused on B2B companies and those companies are generally global from day one. You can’t have the mindset of, “It’s all about Columbus”, or “It’s all about Singapore”. It’s much bigger than that. And so you leverage those relationships and that experience across borders.

 

Elio:   [10:26]   That’s great. And you talk to entrepreneurs, you talk to investors, you talk to other people in the Columbus ecosystem, one of the things that usually comes up after a while is access to capital, and having another venture firm in the city I know it’s going to be huge. Let’s talk about your role and Get2Volume, the industries that you’ve invested in in the past, kind of your investment thesis investing from Columbus going forward.

 

Mike: [10:49] Sure. Yeah. So my role in the company is managing partner and founder of the company. We’re a small group, we’ve got a few other partners and our first fund was focused solely on Singapore. I mean, a lot of it was Singapore government money and that restricted us to Singapore companies. Here it’s a different focus but the kinds of companies and the area of focus is the same. And I think it plays to the opportunity and the ecosystem here in Columbus like it did in Singapore. And that is that we focus on B2B business enterprise companies, those that are core tech or deep tech kinds of companies. And with that, typically an involvement with founders who are technologists, and that may come from their involvement in the local university, being in a place where there’s a great university and be able to leverage off that. Research organizations, which we certainly did a lot of in Singapore. It builds that ecosystem of core tech talent and companies that are early stage. We’re typically the first money in and the involvement that we’ve had has been much more than as an investor, it’s very much as deep involvement in the company with the founders, as partners in growing the business. And these are the kinds of experiences that we’ve had. And so where we see opportunity is where our involvement creates an unfair advantage, so to speak for the companies. If we can do that, well then, of course, that increases the success of the company and gives us a better return on our investment.

 

Elio:   [12:34]   Yeah, I completely understand that and the reason too. So this comes up as well for me being a founder and building a media company, not a technical product per se, is this idea of the need for a technical founder, particularly in the industries that you’re investing in. So when you’re investing that early, typically you’re looking at the idea, yes, but you’re also evaluating the founder. And so what are some of the things that you’ve learned investing in companies about picking the right technical founder who could also serve in that CEO chair? Or are you looking at teams that have both the technical component and the non-technical component to kind of balance each other out? How do you approach that typically in the companies that you invest in?

 

Mike: [13:17] Yeah, of course, it’s not about just technical founders, absolutely not. It’s just the capability of being able to build a business. So maybe that the founder isn’t technical, or one of the founders isn’t technical, that’s fine, right? It’s how do you build the business, but you’re building that business based on this core technology. And so in growing the business, you have to be able to grow it based on that technology and so, you need to have that capability in the company so it’s both. What have I learned about that? When it comes right down to it, I think that’s the most important and the most difficult aspect of investing in early-stage companies is the founding team and how we work together with them in growing the business. And so I’ve learned a lot, I’ve been surprised a lot. I think we’re getting pretty good at being able to assess, and not only assessment, but being able to ensure alignment with the founding teams that we work with, not only that they have the capabilities, both in growing the business as based on growing the technology, but also that they are founders that we can work with long term. When you’re the first money in, it’s a long road. Most of the companies that we have in Singapore, the first ones were from 2012. So it’s been eight years. Some of those we’ve exited, but not all of them, and so we’re still working with the same teams and same businesses eight years later. So picking an investor and picking founders that can work together, that’s incredibly important.

 

Elio:   [14:59]   Now, I’ve seen firsthand how involved you are as an investor with a company called Nodis. It’s really hard to miss in Columbus, Ohio right now. Nodis is all over the news. Your press release is out there that you guys relocated from Singapore here, because of all of the opportunities that Columbus presents. Then another press release rolls out that you guys raised a $500,000 pre-series A, and the news just keeps coming and the person on the ground is you and so I’ve been able to witness how involved you are with the companies that you invest in. I want to talk to you about Nodis though, because the more I find out about this company, the more excited I get. So what is Nodis? And what is the problem that you’re trying to solve with that company?

 

Mike: [15:44] Yeah, so the big picture problem is global warming and we all know global warming is a major problem. It turns out that the biggest contributor to carbon emissions is buildings. More than cars, more than airplanes, more than cows, global warming’s biggest contributor is buildings. And from that comes your ability to manage the energy usage in buildings and the best way to do that is through the windows. So what Nodis does is implement smart glass, windows that are electrically controllable where you can switch the color, the tint and the amount of infrared, electrically, automatically. And by controlling that infrared, you control how the building heats up. And doing that dynamically allows you to manage the energy that the building uses, reducing energy consumption in buildings by 50% and CO2 emissions by 50%. So Nodis is all about smart glass, which is making windows electrically controllable, and we do that and the market is demanding that to reduce carbon emissions.

 

Elio:    [16:56] Thank you for listening. We’re going to take a quick break and right back after this message from our sponsor.

 

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           [17:34]   I want to get into the technology piece because you guys are on kind of the frontier of using nanotechnology as an application in glass. How does the technology actually work?

 

           [17:46]   Yeah, so I mean, first the novel part. This is novel because Nodis wasn’t a glass company, wasn’t a smart glass company. Nodis was a display company. The team, researchers, scientists in materials with a long career and history in electronic display, doing displays, transparent displays, and really wanting to do– Actually the CEO, my co-founder and CEO, Sergei came to Singapore from Russia and said, “Hey, I want to do another display company. I got this great team and this great experience and we know we have all this technology, we want to do another display company.” And we looked at and said, “Well, that’s all very interesting but it might be really interesting if we just did it as a smart glass company because there’s a huge demand, a huge need for smart glass and you’ve got a unique technology to be able to do that.” So that’s what we did. It’s still inherently a display technology and we can use it to make every window a display. Right now we just effectively control all the pixels at once to implement smart glass. And how does the technology work?

 

           [18:54]   Well, it’s really easy to understand. Think about the louvers on your windows – the shades where you pull the string and it rotates the louver to block out the light. Well, we do exactly the same thing. The difference is our louvers are nanoparticles one micron long, and we have a bunch of these nanoparticles, millions of these nanoparticles floating in a liquid. We can orient these nanoparticles when a voltage is applied. So these are elongated, they’re rod-shaped nanoparticles, and they’re polarized, meaning one side of the particle is a plus and the other side is a minus. So when we apply a voltage across the glass, these particles then rotate just like the louvers in your window, and we can rotate the position so that they block however much light we want to block from zero to 100%. So tint fully opaque, you can’t see in or fully transparent, you see in just like it’s a normal window, but we also control the infrared. So we can allow light in but reject the infrared. We can change the infrared filtering over the day. So sometimes you want more in sometimes you want less in depending on, you know, it’s cloudy or whatever or it’s hot or it’s cold outside. And we color coat those nanoparticles, so it can be any color.

 

          [20:05]    We then put those nanoparticles in micro imprinted wells in film, so like little swimming pools that have been imprinted into clear plastic film. And these wells, these little swimming pools are about 50 microns in diameter. And they just house this liquid of nanoparticles and then we seal it up and we laminate that between two pieces of glass. Then when we apply a voltage across that glass, it causes the nanoparticles in these wells to then orient to the position that we want to determine how much light and infrared is allowed in. And then we control all of them at once by applying a voltage across the glass but a next step is just to control each well or each pixel individually. And because they are color and because we switch them instantly, if we control each pixel then it’s a display. We can have multiple layers of this so there can be an R layer, red layer, green layer, blue layer. So you have RGB, and you control the combination of the three and then you have a display. So that’s what we do. That’s the way the technology works.

 

Elio:   [21:08]   And I like how much flexibility is built into the approach versus actually becoming a glass company where you have to do the end to end solution. You can actually apply this across multiple industries. So it’s not just in commercial buildings. I know you guys are looking at automotive and some other sectors. So why don’t we just kind of get into that? Where do you see future applications for this technology where it might be beneficial, of course, for energy efficiency, but for some other reasons as well?

 

Mike: [21:36] Well, there’s a couple of things. One is our go-to-market approach, which is to sell to glass companies. These are big, flat glass companies, companies like Saint-Gobain. Saint-Gobain is the number one glass company in the world, 60 billion in sales. They make a lot of glass and so being able to sell to a company like that our film, gives us a ready market. And so those are the kind of customers that we target is to be able to sell through them. Now they have lots of applications in cars and buildings, anywhere glass is used, and so we’ll find ourselves in all these various applications as a result. I think about our competitors, other people that have smart glass technologies, and they’ve taken a different approach. Their approach has been to sell the glass where the glass company, like the Saint-Gobains of the world, are suppliers to them. To me, that’s a difficult proposition because you got to go head to head with a $60 billion company and so hopefully you win. That’s a tough one. But you also have to have these very expensive factories. So you need to raise a lot of money to be able to build these factories to process the glass. And so View is generally not a direct competitor, but as a competitor in the industry, they’ve raised $2 billion to set up all these different glass factories and implement their expensive process. We have a different approach and so it’s a different go to market.

 

           [23:07]   The application area is interesting, too. So what’s happened with the existing technologies is they’re inflexible. They’re inflexible and so they’ve been tuned, if you will, or the technology is suitable for really only one application. So there’s a technology called SPD, a company in the US in New York, and that technology SPD really can only be used in cars, trains, small glass, it’s expensive, it’s only blue. It switches quickly and so it’s suitable for those kinds of applications. So you’ll find it in high-end cars, Rolls Royce, and these kinds of things, implementing smart glass that way. And then View, as I mentioned, they use a technology called electrochromic. And electrochromic is really only good for buildings. It switches slowly so it’s hard to implement it in cars. It’s also only blue, it doesn’t have any colors. But it’s really only set up for buildings. And so you end up with limited applications on those technologies. But what we do is it’s tunable. The technology can be adjusted for the various applications. So we can do a variant that’s really good for cars. And we also do a variant that’s really good for buildings. In fact, we do a variant that’s really good for the inside of buildings versus the exterior of buildings, you know, different things that you want. You may favor opacity, how dark it is, or you may want absolute clarity and so there are trade-offs. We can make those trade-offs and that’s what we do with our customers.

 

Elio:    [24:37] Yeah, which is what makes the technology so exciting. I mean, because there are so many adjacent problems that I figure your customers are going to bring to you and the fact that your technology has that flexibility definitely gives you a competitive advantage. Now in terms of a go-to-market, like you said, where’s the technology now in the development process? Are you guys ready to deploy? Are you in conversations with your customer? Are you still doing some testing? Do you have it deployed? And now you’re receiving customer feedback? Where are you in the development cycle currently?

 

Mike: [25:09] So the deployment process for us in terms of our customer focus, which initially, like I said, it’s glass companies, is first to get the technology to them, the final product to them – our film – and then then it gets integrated into their glass products and they do a qualification on that. They’ve got all kinds of product verification requirements that they go through, and a long process in doing that before they introduce a product, which then would be deployed in like a building or a car. So that’s like a nine-month process for them before they actually do the introductions. We’re right at the point where we’re starting that process with our customers. And so for us, what that has meant is we’ve gone from prototype or we’ve kind of lab-based film that customers have evaluated, but really only prototype small volume. We’re now tooled up for high volume production. And we do that with a partner who does a film and printing in Korea. They do miles and miles and miles of film and printing for many applications and so this is very high volume. Our effort was to be able to migrate this process on to this production flow and that’s done. And so we’re now just introducing that production product to our customers for their integration into their glass products.

 

Elio:   [26:28]   Now, I know you shared this vision with me for Nodis, and as a city, as a region, we’re always working to attract companies in. In terms of your vision for Nodis in Columbus, if you can snap your fingers, and I know you’re going to work hard to make this happen so no luck involved here. But what would you like to see Nodis’ impact be in the city if everything lines up and you guys are able to execute on the things that you want to execute on over the next year, five years or 10 years?

 

Mike: [26:59] Well, the first thing is manufacturing. I mentioned that we’re moving to production. Well, some of that production is this film that we work with a partner within Korean on. But the rest of it is we have to manufacture the nanoparticles. We color coat these nanoparticles. And finally, we embed those into the film like it’s now imprinted by the supplier that we have. And so that whole high tech manufacturing process is something that we have to do. And that’s something that we will be doing here in Columbus. So the first part of the vision or whatever is that we have that manufacturing process capability and team set up here in Columbus, but we’re just in the process of doing that. So that’s a near term need so that we’ll be able to scale our manufacturing and be able to deliver large volume products to our customers as they scale at the end of this qualification period.

 

           [27:55]   I think the other part of it then is how do we grow our deployment base? First, that’s going to be about additional customers and they may be in different spaces, for example, we’re focused on one customer that does only automotive glass. We’re also doing something that’s defense glass. So glass for defense vehicles and the ability to change the look of that glass for camouflage. So there are different kinds of applications that come directly off this technology but then I think also the ability to move that forward into things like the display application and making every window a display. And with that also, a next phase where we’re able to deploy this as a film to existing windows. So there are lots of windows in the world. We don’t need to be just in new glass. And the ability to put this film on existing buildings and being able to deploy that – and that requires a network of, say value-added resellers to be able to do that deployment. I don’t think it’ll be as simple as you go to Home Depot and you buy the stuff. I think it requires a specific installation, but building that capability, that sales channel, that value-added network, and all of that is something that we’ll be doing from here in Columbus,

 

Elio:   [29:09]   Mike, that’s amazing. Thank you so much for joining me on this episode of the podcast. We close out every podcast with my one takeaway. And usually, I refer to something that the guest might have said during the episode, but because you and I work and have kind of engaged with one another, talked with each other on multiple occasions, my one takeaway from my experience working with you and learning from you is the importance of relationships. Even though you’re new to the ecosystem, I think one of the things that I’ve admired most about the way you approach business is that you’ve reached out, you’ve built a network, and not only [do] you have your hand out, you know, kind of the cliche handout, “What can you do for me?” You’re always asking, “What can I do for the startup ecosystem here in Columbus? How can I support?” And I’m sure at this point in the podcast, listeners would have heard that Nodis is a sponsor of the show, which we appreciate a great deal. So thank you so much, Mike, and for everything that you do, and thank you to the listeners. Thank you so much for joining us. Peace.

 

           [30:14]   That’s a wrap. You can find this and all our episodes on our website, 614startups.com, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Anchor, and all your favorite podcasting platforms. Don’t forget to subscribe and write a review. If you would like updates sent to your inbox, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter on the website. To engage in the 614Startups community, follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at 614Startups to join the conversation. For sponsorship opportunities and collaborations, email us at info@614startups.com.

 

           [30:51]   It takes a village to do a podcast and I would like to say a special thank you to my friends at Waveform Music Group. Andy and Carlin have been working with us to enhance the production of 614Startups and we’re so happy with the results. Outside of podcast production, Andy and Carlin are experts in sonic branding, songwriting, and music production for companies and creatives. To learn more about them go to their website createwaveforms.com, that is createwaveforms.com.

 

Elio

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