P | P | P – our chat with TrimTabs

We had the opportunity to chat with Alvin Orbaek White. PhD, Founder of TrimTabs, working to solve the global plastics crisis by utilising waste plastic as a resource to create lightweight conductive carbon materials.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Kim @ ADLIB: Hi Alvin, thank you for speaking with me today. Could you please introduce yourself, what your business does, what stage you are currently at and what makes your business unique?

Alvin: I am Dr Alvin Orbaek White. I am the Founder of TrimTabs. We make high precision nanomaterials, namely carbon nanotubes, multiple wall, and single wall carbon nanotubes. We do this in an environmentally sensitive manner, which makes us unique. We feed our produced materials into a supply chain for energy storage devices and we do that in a way that has a low carbon footprint.

Kim @ ADLIB: Perfect, and would you mind sharing the origin of TrimTabs?

Alvin: that’s an interesting question, there is not one place that it started, but I’ll begin with the name. Often people think in terms of lightbulb moments, but there is never just one lightbulb moment and I learnt this myself. It was several different moments that occurred and came then together. The name TrimTabs came from a time when I was working at MIT, and I was having an unsuccessful time at work – my reactions weren’t going to plan. I decided to take a moment to pause. I learned that Buckminster Fuller was buried in a cemetery just outside of Boston. I drove out there and took a walk in this park. For background, Buckminster Fuller is the namesake of the Buckminster fullerene, with fullerene as the carbon-60 molecule cage structure that looks a bit like a soccer ball. It’s basically the predecessor to the carbon nanotube, and it’s been one of the inspirations for developing carbon nanotechnology from the outset. He had written a lot of interesting books about Spaceship Earth, asking the question: How do we survive as a species on this planet? We need to figure out how to utilise the resources we have on this planet to survive, but right now we aren’t doing a very good job at this.

We create a lot more waste than we do create value. TrimTabs was born out of that idea. When I was looking to find his burial place, I found his burial stone and it said, ‘call me TrimTab.’ I had never heard this word before, so I had to look it up. A Trim Tab is a small device that goes on the end of an airplane or a very large ship, and it helps to steer the vessel. Even though it is very small it has a very large impact. His idea was that you could make small devices for small changes and developments that will in turn have a large impact. That really stuck with me. Sometimes we try to take on big problems, and approach them with big solutions, but sometimes we just need small solutions that move the dial in a progressive manner. You can do something simple that can have a profound impact. What we do at TrimTabs is basically a 2-step process. We take plastics and dissolve them down into a carbon rich slurry. We then make that slurry into carbon nanotubes. Both these processes had been done before, but not in combination. Plastic recycling often fails as mixed plastics break the recycling system, but we realised we could do this process with a large variety of plastics. Again, a simple process with the ability to make a big impact.

Another part of the origin stems from Richard Smalley, who had the idea to use carbon nanotubes as electricity conduit cables to transfer electricity across the globe as there’s a certain species of carbon nanotubes with very high conductivity. I was taken by that vision, the Armchair Quantum Wire, or AQW project. He got the Nobel prize for discovering the Buckyball, named after Buckminster Fuller. During my PhD, I carried this vision forwards, working on developing the AQW. But one thing I felt was missing from his vision was about where does the carbon come from? Considering the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, could we use pollutants as the source of carbon? The answer is yes, so with chemistry we change something from a liability to an asset.

Kim @ ADLIB: With the plastic pollution crisis we are currently witnessing, it is a great idea to repurpose this plastic. I do have a question, why can’t black plastics be recycled?

Alvin: There isn’t anything different about black plastics, it’s just in the conventional method of recycling, black plastic cannot be recycled simply because it can’t be seen. When it can’t be seen, it can’t be sorted.

Kim @ ADLIB: Moving on to people, can you share some of the challenges you have faced or are anticipating facing around scaling your team?

Alvin: The thing about people is that you need trust, spirit, and vision. When working to solve a problem that can seem almost impossible, everyone needs to have good spirit and be able to see the shared vision. Growing people is really important. A challenge going forward is finding the right people and to find them at the right time.

Kim @ ADLIB: In terms of product, what has been your approach to implementing product market fit or sales cycles?

Alvin: Lots of telephone calls and emails. It is something I’ve been working on more recently. The best tools are LinkedIn and Google. If you find someone that has a problem that you can fix, then you find out what they need, and sometimes you can help. Having a website is one thing, but talking to people is most important.

Kim @ ADLIB: Are there are any challenges or barriers you could share that you’ve had to overcome?

Alvin: I was told early on that I had a “hard-start problem”. It would require a lot of capital investment to prove my tech can scale from the lab bench up, but to raise the investment I was often asked to prove my tech already scales up. It was like a chicken and egg conundrum. So, I was also asked: is there not another way you could do this cheaper? In the end, yes, I found a short-term solution that is far cheaper, and we are making enough materials now to supply various customers. But to really supply the market demand, codify the process, and prepare for an exit, we will need significant capital investment; this would create 50 high-tech jobs wherever we set up production. But for the moment we are using the short-term approach by working with people who already have the equipment we need. Fortunately, I have enough seed funding to show that my process has worked and enough to continue making improvements to the process, making more materials, and building our customer base.

Kim @ ADLIB: It definitely takes a lot of resilience. Continuing the topic of investment, do you have any advice for other startups?

Alvin: Understand your vision, define your vision, and if you believe in it, you will find others who believe in it too. Build your team, and then remember that you just need to keep talking to people and keep going. A piece of advice would be to take a course on scaling your company. The first session I took was about branding, which I didn’t think applied to me. However, branding is important just as much as the technical aspects.

Kim @ ADLIB: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.