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Carmichael Roberts on Resilience Tech and CES 2019

Kelsey Davis, Sr. Manager, Digital Media Marketing, Consumer Technology Association
The key to keeping the world healthy, safe and secure is resilience technology. Smart cities and resilient tech solutions are solving some of the world’s most pressing issues. We spoke to scientist, entrepreneur and investor, Carmichael Roberts, about his work with companies creating resilient tech and his experience at CES 2019.

Tell us a little about your career background and what led you to start Material Impact.
I am a scientist, entrepreneur and investor that has built a career building great products and valuable companies based on innovations in material science. After receiving my PhD in organic chemistry from Duke University and completing a postdoctoral National Science Foundation fellowship at Harvard University, I was well on my way to becoming a professor. But my fellowship at Harvard exposed me to the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Boston, where I realized that I didn’t want to be a professor. I wanted to be the entrepreneur translating the professor’s idea into a product and a company. That was my calling.
And so I set out on the path of an entrepreneur, spending the first half of my career as an operator, creating and running companies commercializing products enabled by innovations in material science. One of my largest, most notable investors was North Bridge Venture Partners. North Bridge asked if I would join the firm as a partner, and there I carved out a niche for myself as the “materials investor;” blending a unique business model of licensing university technology and commercializing it through targeted partnerships with Fortune 500 companies.
The vision for Material Impact is based on this unconventional career path. We are building a portfolio of companies with tangible, manufactured products that are designed to solve some of the most important unmet needs in society; technologies that keep the world healthy, safe, warm, powered, fed and secure. I am also a member of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a mission-oriented group committed to changing the world by creating and building companies that address the threat of climate change and long-term sustainability of the planet.
You recently moderated a panel at CES 2019 on resilient technologies. What were some of the trends you and the other panelists discussed?
Our panel was focused on resilient company building - what it takes to transform university-based technologies into valuable companies that solve real-world problems. We looked at two companies who are commercializing resilient technologies - Zero Mass Water and Soft Robotics. One of the key trends we focused on was that in order to successfully bridge the commercialization gap from interesting technology to resilient product, we need to start by identifying “grand problems” in the market.
Zero Mass Water is focused on solving the grand problem of global water scarcity. Water is a precious resource that we need to survive, yet even in the wealthiest economies, we are completely reliant on local infrastructure and bottled water as our clean drinking water source. How do we think about making water more abundant and a resource that consumers can truly own for themselves? Zero Mass Water set out to solve this problem with a grid-independent technology that, through an innovation in material science and thermodynamics, can generate clean drinking water from the air and sun alone.
Soft Robotics is solving a different but equally grand problem - getting food to market. 20 to 30 percent of the fresh produce that is grown in our country is abandoned in the field because of labor shortages. Soft Robotics set out to solve this challenge, by asking, “How can we solve for a shrinking labor pool by introducing automation with a robot that can handle food without damaging it?” The company translated a technology out of Harvard University that, through material science, enables robots to grasp and manipulate food with the same dexterity as the human hand.
If you look to build companies and products that keep the world healthy, warm, safe, fed, secure and powered - those are always going to be big market opportunities. The key is to approach new technologies through that problem-solving lens.
What was the most exciting tech you experienced at CES 2019?
Outside of the great examples of resilient technologies at CES, I was especially excited by some of the emerging gaming technologies that I found there. The world of gaming has never been bigger, and I am particularly interested in examples of electronics interfacing with the human body to enhance the gaming experience.
The haptic and biometric features of the VR bodysuit by Teslasuit are very intriguing, and a real indication of where this market is headed. I can see opportunities to draw from the innovations happening in this category for the companies I am building that address large scale, real-world problems...well beyond just gaming.
What is next for resilient technologies?
In today’s world, it’s not just about designing products for consumers that work when everything is going well. It’s also about designing products for consumers that work when things are not going well. That is truly resilience. So what’s next?
A whole host of companies that address some of the world’s most difficult and important challenges, but in a manner that makes them resistant to catastrophe, war, climate change and other unforeseen, abrupt changes in our world. These are the type of companies we are focused on at Material Impact and Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Learn more about resilience technology at CES 2019.