Founder's podcast #2: Ehab Sayed | Biohm

Welcome to the Sustainable Workspaces  Founders Podcast.

We will be bringing you short talks with the founders of the sustainable startups we host in our space to get a glimpse into their stories. 

We will discuss what made them get up one day and decide they want to start something new and how they turned an idea into a successful company.

This week we are talking to Ehab Sayed, founder and director of Biohm.

Ehab has founded and is leading a company that aims to change the way buildings are built. The company celebrated two years since foundation, and we all got to taste Ehab’s famous homemade vegan cake.Taking on the construction world has proved challenging, to say the least, but in two years the Biohm team has managed to win almost every prize out there, receiving worldwide recognition for their groundbreaking solutions.

 

 

Hi Ehab, thanks for joining us.

 

Thank you for having me.

 

So let's start before the beginning, what were you doing before founding BIOHM?

 

Well I founded BIOHM while I was doing a master's course at Brunel University and at the time I had planned to finish my studies and look for a full-time job but I did a research project which led to the inception of BIOHM and that was it just stuck with it.

 At the beggining -  the Mayor of London's International Student Innovation Award

At the beggining - the Mayor of London's International Student Innovation Award

 

Can you give us a short introduction of the company, what do you do?

 

Sure, so BIOHM is a research and development company and we place biological systems at the heart of our inspiration. That means that we take all of our inspiration from natural processes and natural systems and the aim is to create a step change in the construction industry, to revolutionize the way we build and perceive our buildings. We've got three main things that we do and it's construction systems, construction materials and a range of services and research.

When it comes to our materials we're working on two main materials at the moment one of them is mycelium which we're scaling up to use for insulation and the other one is ORB which is a substitute for sheet material or wood based sheet material. Mycelium consumes waste and carbon during production and it's capable of consuming anything from synthetic wastes like metal and plastic to organic waste like foods and agricultural waste.

For our ORB material it mainly uses food waste and agricultural waste and an extra organic binder that we have developed.

In the future we're going to be looking at developing a self-assembling material with Queen Mary University that doesn't require any human intervention. So you use vibrations to program the material, it's a living organism and it grows into the shape that you desire so it's quite Sci-fi.

Our construction system which is TRIAGOMY is a completely new way of looking at buildings. It's a new way of assembling building components. It doesn't require any permanent binders or fasteners and it allows buildings to be deconstructed at any stage of their life. So you can add a room if you like, you can downsize your building. It introduces a new and agile concept within infrastructure so buildings can change with the communities and age with the communities around them. The entire building can be reused or recycled at the end of its life into new components again. So we're looking at a servitised model of house building; instead of just selling buildings at really unaffordable prices we're looking at selling the building at a much more affordable cost, a fraction of what currently buildings are priced at, and then introducing a subscription service to maintain and create any reconfigurations or even relocations of the buildings throughout their life. So yeah, we're tackling the industry from lots of different angles.

 

How did the idea develop to start a new company?

 

So it all started in 2015 when I started a year-long research project looking at the waste streams in the UK, and trying to identify what's causing the waste; where it's coming from and what could be done to try and improve things or even eliminate waste altogether. I found that the construction industry was creating hundreds of millions of tons of waste each year, and a lot of it was hazardous waste. That's only the recorded waste, there's lots of unrecorded waste as well, and it was just really shocking that the figures and the numbers in the amount of waste that was being generated.

So I decided to focus on the construction industry and try and solve the problem. I realized that there needs to be a complete change in perception, it's not simply creating a product or trying to create a service that improves things, we need to completely transform the construction industry. I thought the route of  the industry is identifying ways of building and the way we perceive buildings and I felt that if we change the way we considered a building's purpose, what we consider a building's purpose to be or what a building's function should be and that would be a great place to start.

I started looking at how we can bring buildings to life how we can look at nature and natural environments and ecosystems and learn from how nature builds and try and mimic that in in the construction industry. I then started to develop a construction system that's  built on the idea of self-assembly where you'll actually choose a construction system of sanitized components develop it and then try and make it work for every building typology and every purpose and function and that process took value to develop the right construction system and required a lot of computational power and parametric regenerative design where you said parameters and allow the machine or the computer to process the desire for you so laughter lots of iterations try agony was born I took it to the industry they fell in love with this so I patented it in order to patent it I thought I should start a company under and before I knew it came about

I think a little bit of naivety in any company is always good because that’s how you take risks. You’re not so shut down by preconceptions, you’ve got a completely new idea of how to make things happen.
— Ehab on what you need to start a company

 

Was your background in construction?

 

Well no, not at all. My background is in design engineering and product design. I did a bit of civil engineering in the past as well and I very quickly found myself engulfed in the construction industry.

 

The construction industry is not a small industry, there some very big players and a lot of money involved. What made you think you can take on the construction industry?

 

I think I was being naive and not really understanding the industry very well. I think a little bit of naivety in any company is always good because that's how you take risks. You're not so shut down by preconceptions, you've got a completely new idea of how to make things happen. The way I understood the industry was completely different to how it turns out to be, but the idea and the concept that I developed still seem to be very impactful.

I think it's a bit of naivety thinking that I could take on the construction industry but I think we're doing really well. I think we're making good progress.

 Ehab pitching Biohm at City Hall to some of the UK's most successful entrepreneurs for the Mayor of London's entrepreneur 2017

Ehab pitching Biohm at City Hall to some of the UK's most successful entrepreneurs for the Mayor of London's entrepreneur 2017

I completely underestimated how difficult it would be to start company and to do it on your own, and I was on my own for the entire first year. It was incredibly challenging and really tested me but I think being very determined and passionate about the subject kept me going.
— Ehab on making it through the first year

When you got up and said I'm going to start this new company, I'm going to take on the construction Industry, and the world, it might have sounded a little crazy. Did you get a lot of support from family and friends?

 

One of the pivotal point in starting BIOHM was getting a business mentor, who is Terence Beckett, the director of the building research establishment. He's got an incredible career and he's got a contact book that you can basically ask him to speak to anyone you can think of in the industry and he'll know them. Working with Terence normally gave me lots of insights into the industry and how it works but it made it so much easier to get to the services and the people that are necessary to to progress a company. So building a really good support network it's one of the most crucial things that I experienced on the business side of BIOHM.

 

Ok, but that's on the business side. what about the personal side, while going off on this crazy venture?

 

I think I've always been very passionate about trying to make a change and really develop something that's quite sustainable and transformational. I completely underestimated how difficult it would be to start company and to do it on your own, and I was on my own for the entire first year. It was incredibly challenging and really tested me but I think being very determined and passionate about the subject kept me going.

 

You seem to have won so many awards that your email signature actually needs another email. I guess they don't just fall on you, it must have been a lot of work going the competition way.

 

Absolutely, yeah. I think that we only didn't get shortlisted or win three competitions out of all the ones we applied for. So we're not constantly applying for competitions, but it's something that definitely gives us credibility and helps us realize that we're on the right track. I think it's also about having something that's been holistically thought through. 

We developed a new construction system but that's not all we're doing we're also developing a new intelligent platform that helps manage the entire industry and we're developing construction materials to support construction systems as well as other established construction systems. It's understanding that you need a very holistic approach and you need to tackle a very complex industry with complex problems in lots of different angles. I think it's it's because we have more than just a product, we have a very strong philosophy and a very strong vision and that's why I think people tend to really believe in what we do and support us.

 

Out of thousands of applicants from around the globe, Ehab came back from San Antonio, Texas, as the COINS Grand Challenge Winner 2018 for the Leadership category

 

About a week ago or two weeks ago now, you celebrated your second birthday

You showed this beautiful presentation and one of the great aspects of the presentation is that you gave credit to the team behind you. It's 15 people now, spread around the world, how did this team come about?

 

Really glad you asked me this question, because I wouldn't have been able to get anywhere near where I am now without the team. I have the most incredible team. They're all incredibly passionate and dedicated and they're really good people they're really well-intentioned. I think it's one of the most important things when building a team is making sure that everyone's ethos is aligned and that's something that happened naturally with us. I've never filed a job vacancy or tried to seek or employ someone or bring someone on board, it all happened very organically through presenting at events or doing talks or workshops and doing lectures at universities. Every time that we presented our concept or our philosophy someone's been interested in in joining and it's really difficult to say no but it we didn't say no it would be a little ridiculous. 

I think that when you've got something that's got a very strong vision and a very strong trajectory you often get the right people interested and the right people on board.

One of the most incredible things about the team is that everyone's from completely different discipline so you've got people from biology background, people from an architecture background, design, business, law, foods, anthropology; quite a varied team, but when we're tackling a problem or when we're trying to solve a specific issue or develop a product, we' re able to look at it from so many different angles, from different disciplines. Someone who's been studying a science their whole life looks at life in a complete different way to someone who's been studying design their whole life and that's a really good way to ensure that you consider every factor in what you're developing.

 Some of Biohm's ever-growing team of 15 talented and passionate innovators.

Some of Biohm's ever-growing team of 15 talented and passionate innovators.

 

At what stage did you move into sustainable workspaces?

 

We moved in March this year and it's been absolutely incredible. We can't really be happier with where we're based at the moment.

 

It was surely after we grew from a team of two to a team of, I think it was 11 or 10 at the time, and at that time I realized we need more space, and that we need to be based somewhere a bit more central and that's when we moved. We've got four desks but people work at different times and so some people come in twice a week, some do one once a week and some are doing it full-time, so it varies.

 

Where do you see BIOHM 5 years from now?

 

Five years from now we would have launched our construction system TRIAGOMY. Right now we're mainly focused on our material development and once the construction system is launched, hopefully we'll have developments that use the construction system that we can showcase and and be proud of. So five years from now, the launch of TRIGOMY and also development of a new version of TRIGOMY which is suitable for skyscrapers and that's going to be quite an exciting time.

 

Well that's great! We wish you luck in changing the world!