This Startup Is Combining Big Data and Materials Science to Revolutionize Manufacturing

If they are successful, the world of manufacturing will never be the same

By Greg Satell

Greg Mulholland didn’t take the typical route to getting his MBA. He had no background in banking or consulting and hadn’t even taken a business course as an undergraduate. After earning an Engineering degree from NC State and then a Masters Degree in Physics from Cambridge, he went to work as a materials scientist.

Yet after working at a small semiconductor company in North Carolina for a few years, he began to notice a strange disconnect. While it was crucial for companies to identify new materials that could lead to better products, very few executives were able to effectively interface with scientists like him. He saw an opportunity to become that nexus.

As it turned out, during “Admit Weekend” for the Stanford MBA program, he found a kindred spirit in Bryce Meredig, a newly minted PhD in Materials Science. Like Greg, Bryce thought that, with materials science heating up, there were enormous opportunities to be unlocked. Today, their company, Citrine Informatics, hopes to revolutionize how we develop new products.

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From Sabermetrics to Materials Science

In the fall after they met at “Admit Weekend,” Greg and Bryce began the MBA program and built a close relationship. Attending many of the same classes, they also continued to pursue their shared interest in materials science. One day, they came across an academic paper that contained a database of thermoelectric materials.

Bryce, who had long been interested in Sabermetrics — developing advanced baseball statistics — had written his PhD. dissertation on how similar data driven methods could be used to identify new materials. The two thought they could take the idea further by applying more advanced machine learning techniques to the database in the paper.

So they got to work and, using the data from the paper, were able to predict 100 new materials. When they checked back with the scientists who done the research, they found that although a few were already known, most of the compounds they had predicted had never been discovered before. Upon further testing, it turned out that the new materials performed exactly as predicted!

This was, essentially, their minimum viable product. Greg and Bryce hadn’t actually identified anything that was commercially viable, but their hypothesis had been confirmed. They had, in fact, identified a better way to discover new materials that could lead to exciting new products.

Yet a question still remained. Would businesses be interested?

Building A Business Case

Encouraged by their early success, Greg and Bryce began to study the business of making things more broadly. In their Stanford MBA classes, they had learned that what seems to be a good idea can often fail in the marketplace because of some factor that isn’t immediately obvious, so they wanted to make sure they did their homework before going further.

One case they looked at was Corning’s Gorilla Glass. The company scored a coup when Steve Jobs designated the 40-year old product as the material for its iPhone screens, but Apple soon began demanding better performance. To keep the lucrative contract, Corning would have to continuously make it lighter, stronger, more transparent and more scratch and shatter resistant.

Greg and Bryce saw an analogy in agile manufacturing. Factories used to be able to focus on efficiency alone and simply churn out as much product as fast and as cheaply as it could. However, eventually they had to learn how to deftly adjust to changing customer needs. It seemed that materials were now in the midst of a similar transformation.

So the two started working with academic groups and one small semiconductor firm to further test the concept. It quickly became clear that their method could drastically reduce development time by helping researchers narrow down possibilities, avoid blind alleys and point toward new directions that hadn’t been thought of before.

Ramping Up

As their second year of business school began winding down, Greg and Bryce saw that they had a revolutionary product and a viable business model. Now it was time to start building an actual operation. As spring turned into summer, they got to work building their company.

The first thing they did was bring in Kyle Michel, another materials scientist Bryce had met at Northwestern. Besides being a top-notch researcher, Kyle was also an expert coder and would help them engineer their prototype into an actual product that they could sell to customers. They also began pitching to investors and acquired some seed capital.

Once Citrine had those crucial elements in place, the three partners began to hire employees — a VP of engineering, a business manager and an operations administrator — and look for some intitial “visionary” customers. Their first, a coatings company, was able to compress development from 15 months to nine.

What had started out as late night bull sessions between two friends at business school was actually starting to become a significant business.

Creating A New Future For Manufacturing

Today, Citrine is thriving. Since its first seed round, it has attracted more than $8 million of venture capital and works with companies in a wide variety of industries, including aerospace, automotive, consumer electronics and chemical companies. For the most part, these are Fortune 1000 firms, but the partners have much bigger plans.

“We want to do for manufacturing what Microsoft did for offices,” Greg Mulholland, now Citrine’s CEO told me, “enable companies of all sizes to do high quality work, much faster and more productively than they ever thought they could before.” As Citrine continues to build up its operations and hone their process, the partners hope that even small firms will be able to do significant materials research.

“Look at any industry today,” he continued, “whether it’s computers or energy or making cars or construction and materials are a major limiting factor. If we can design better materials, we can design products that perform better, that are cheaper, that are better for the environment and so on. We think we’re in the midst of revolution in materials and we want to be at the center of it.”

Citrine is still a small operation and that dream is still in the future. But if they are successful, the world of manufacturing will never be the same.