Feature Interview: Ben Bschaden on Founder Opportunities, Optimism, and Onshore short-run production

Venture Coach LI Profile Article Ben Bschaden Oct 2023

The Emera ideaHUB is the region’s deep tech space to create on the Dalhousie Campus, situated in the Engineering building with state-of the-art equipment and resources available for ventures with an operational prototype that are designing their way to manufacturing and customer pilots. Our Director, Erin O’Keefe Graham, sat down with the experts who make the 2-year Residency experience happen. Today’s feature is about Venture Coach and workshop facilitator, Ben Bschaden, the experienced deep tech co-founder of Gibli.tech and CEO of Dimetric Design Inc.

What is your role with the Emera ideaHUB, and what do you like most about it?

I’m a Venture Coach, working with HUB Residents, and I also run technical workshops and small-group sessions on design and manufacturing. This fall I’m leading sessions on prototyping stages and product roadmaps. What I love most about this work is the ability to customize the support and provide the most valuable input for the founder. Everyone is different and we have to offer that to be relevant.

In the coaching meetings, we take a holistic view of the whole company so we can help founders see opportunities that aren’t intuitive to them. It’s important we step back from the day to day of putting out fires, to ask them questions and look at the big picture. Sometimes we’re filling gaps, but seeing different opportunities comes from challenging them on their business model, manufacturing strategy, or development plan. This is what helps us offer up experts in our network who can help as well.

Thinking back to your time as a co-founder, what intrigued you the most about starting a deep tech venture?

Fundamentally it’s the excitement of taking something that’s an idea in your head to something you can hold, and seeing people use that physical thing. It’s gratifying seeing founders with this same excitement, and especially if they don’t have all the technical capabilities to make it happen, we can find the resources for that.

What do you think is the toughest lesson of being a co-founder?

Everything takes a lot longer than expected! You need a high level of optimism to survive. First-time founders often have an unrealistic timeframe but that’s because they don’t know what they don’t know. When I first started, within 6 months I thought I’d have a functioning prototype – just to prove it works. Guess what: it took 3 – 4 years. It’s very often 75% of the work is still left by the time you have that prototype, until you are manufacturing your product.

You have been focusing a lot lately on the manufacturing process for deep tech ventures. What do you want first-time founders to consider?

Consider onshore for short-run production or at least until you achieve enough for product-market-fit (PMF). This often means reaching the finish line faster with less capital used because you can take the time and budget to fully test every prototype. There’s a lot you can learn with customers and analyze their feedback. A lot of time it gets rushed between prototypes without really learning or testing as much as it could be.

Okay, so what’s the difference between moving fast, or failing fast – and rushing? Don’t investors want to see a rapid pace?

It’s easy to get pushed from your funding sources to move faster. One challenge is that founders have a fundamental drive to build the physical thing. It feels like you’re getting more done when you’re building, but the key is to be developing the customer side of confirming your hypothesis during that build. For our product, we had a double validation loop with customers. It was a closed cohort who would use our device, and we’d be able to look at their data and really work on the detail that you get when people are working with the device themselves, not only testing scenarios where we monitor or mediate their interaction.

Can you tell me about a time when you had to make a tough technical decision about your product? How did you get to resolution?

As with a lot of hardware, it’s difficult to know what will happen before you build it. Very late in the stage, we realized there was a significant signal interference with our Bluetooth, and it caused some issues with some of the subcomponents. We identified three options to fix it, that would all have various levels of implications for the almost-finished product at that point and various levels of risk. Part of the problem was that we were operating in an agile development environment, so while each separate challenge was getting addressed, we weren’t looking at the interrelated issues that created this problem. So, we were making decisions quickly, but not building knowledge. We had to improve on building the knowledge to make smarter decisions about the product in its entirety.

What is the most exciting thing happening in manufacturing right now?

I just returned from a global injection moulding conference, and the advancements in 3D printing processes and materials make for better than ever short-run production. In short, it’s becoming easier to build hardware. Rather than having to build offshore, or do expensive tooling up front, where you’d need to be spending in the six figures before product-market-fit, you can do so much more in short-run. This is a big improvement that helps de-risk quality, IP, and communications.
I can think of a lot of ventures who could really benefit from this, so I hope to see them looking at a residency!