Gilbert Curtessi on Crisis Driven Innovation
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
SUGU develops and manufactures products and services for new markets to accelerate the transition to the next economy. Housed in a former gas and coal building, along with eight other companies, SUGU also has a special orange 3D robot printer, which once printed a 7 meters hull for a submarine.
Gilbert Curtessi, founder and CEO of SUGU, is building a completely sustainable wooden home in rainy Rotterdam. He hopes there will be a demand for this type of housing that meet the City’s strict environmental 7.5 EPC norm. [legal energy performance coefficient.]
The entrepreneur has been no stranger to the Dutch press, thanks to the rise and eventual fall of Happy Shrimp, a shrimp farm heated with residual energy from a nearby power plant. Seeing the experience as the most expensive MBA, Curtessi was not deterred, paying off his creditors and renewing himself.
What is SUGU?
SUGU is like a cocoon. The companies here and the products they make are more important than the SUGU concept on its own. There are three characteristics of the companies that are part of SUGU: bio-plastics manufacturing, advanced manufacturing, and design.
Have you come across a green business that is truly investable?
Yeah, many. I see a lot of things that probably need more time to develop. At this time, solar energy, for example, is really breaking through.
Yet it’s still not making money on its own without subsidies and support.
That’s true, but not in every country. It’s important to ask yourself, “Where am I? And in what context am I doing this?”. For example, Rainmaker [one of SUGU’s joining companies] produces water from air in areas where there is no water. In Iran, Rainmaker is now developing twenty of those windmills in an area with 30,000 people where the well collapsed during an earthquake.
To have a windmill like this is very interesting and valuable for society. If you compare, for example, 3D printers, bio-plastics, or recyclable plastics, they are starting to compete but it’s still very difficult because of quality. There’s not enough experience with these resources and materials, so it takes time.
You’re very optimistic.
If I can make water in the Emirates, then it is very valuable.
Biomass from palm dates, for example, make energy and water; the heat can be converted into cold, then you can even supply cold storage options.
There are many technologies that are on the point of breakthrough and these are all based on scarcity. The oil price is quite low at the moment, but I assume it will go up again. The raw materials, like stuff that’s in your phone, for example, are becoming very sparse. It’s quite difficult to see the demand growing while the price stays the same.
In Korea, companies such as Samsung and Daewoo have their own power plant. Because of their company policy, they only use green, sustainable, or renewable energy. What had started with green marketing, is now an operationalization of companies’ core production processes.
It’s also interesting to see how markets in Indonesia and Malaysia are producing gigantic amounts of palm oil, which has enormous environmental impact, damaging the natural habitat.
The politics and corruption in countries where we get our resources from are changing too, not necessarily because of the political leaders in these countries, but mainly because of companies like Unilever, their local counterparts, and suppliers, which are triggered by their consumer demands. It’s a constant development process.
Green solutions are already broken through, but it has yet to become a reality in the Netherlands, where we are the third worst [polluter] in the European Union.
We have a big mouth full of sustainability, but in reality, our energy import, export, and energy-driven port equals lots and lots of gas. It is hard to get rid it, since it’s very addictive and profitable, we cannot see the future without our past.
I don’t hate oil, I just don’t like the use of it for transport. Oil is actually a beautiful product since you can do lot of stuff with it.
We do everything with it!
Yeah. The funny thing is that Mr. Rudolf Diesel invented a bio diesel engine instead of a diesel engine. Because of growing demand during the first World War, diesel was synthesized. Processes and ideas, for instance, biomass fermentation, bio-digesters, and windmills, are coming back . The Netherlands had 15,000 windmills, the force of our economy, which we have taken for granted.
There will be many people who are going to have a hard time; people are probably going to die because of food and water problems if we don’t do anything about it. Luckily, the trend is going towards this general opinion that we have to act.
The same happened in the Netherlands with the flood in 1953 — we built dikes then. Because of this, the Netherlands is now a global player in the land reclamation industry. It is crisis-driven innovation.
What is your vision for SUGU?
SUGU is a platform for future growth that makes it practical and feasible to accelerate positive defiance. We use advanced manufacturing in order to produce environmentally friendly design and make technology products from bio-based raw materials.
When I was in Indonesia and Malaysia for biomass waste projects, I would never say, “What you’re doing here is stupid.” It is better to show individuals how to do it differently in a successful and attractive way. Show people how you can create value from a current waste problem, then you may open their eyes, start working together, and eventually many others will copy this because of being the so called “positive deviant”.
The transition will take place in developing countries and Asia. If countries like China dictate policy change (when there’s no more clean air and people are dying from it), then suddenly things will change.
What is a surprising thing you’ve learned?
That we need quite some support in regulation and infrastructure. It’s important to cooperate with each other. One thing you don’t want to do is to copy everybody. Everybody is saying that a windmill is good. Everybody is saying that solar panels are good for nature and for humanity. Go and have a look in China where they make them and where they take the raw materials to manufacture a solar panel. These are places you’re not even allowed to come anymore, since there are hundreds of kilometers of toxic lakes and polluted areas where we get our raw materials for phones, solar panels, and new technologies.
So there’s that side to all of this, and there’s also a price side. When we look at food, you can’t afford healthy food if you are poor. Food and energy relations are very problematic. You need to have much more local green products. On a social side, people are becoming producing consumers and local economies give hope for a large part of the global population.
On the positive side when you go to countries like Brazil, South Africa, India, and China, you see a lot of young people starting local businesses with the help of technology and internet from an eco-friendly standpoint .
But on another note, small companies are being bought by big brands. For example, Ben and Jerry’s was a very sustainable ice cream brand with a social impact, but when Unilever bought it, that aspect of it was gone.
I was hoping that Ben & Jerry would affect Unilever’s business practices from the inside out. Initially, they kept working with farmer coops and maintained their foundation…
But since then, their carbon footprint grew immensely, and not because they don’t want to change, but because it’s the intrinsic cause and effect of being part of a big company.
After my bankruptcy [of Happy Shrimp], I started my PhD in Industrial Ecology. The big question in my dissertation is about what happens when you have a small green company and are then successful. Then there’s two ways to go: you grow yourself or are bought. With both parts, you see diminished sustainability per produced units.
Is sustainability after all, not scalable?
That is the billion dollars — unicorn — question.
What do you think?
Yeah, if you start cutting up big companies into competitive units, inside of the company, it becomes part of the ownership question. If you feel responsible, you get a better team with an improved result in sustainability, as well as improved financial results.
That’s why I’m interested in large companies and talking with them to in order to transform them. If you add everything up and you divide it by one product, the carbon footprint will rise, compared to the former smaller green business with only one offer.
A large company’s impact is huge, right?
That’s actually the good part. If you want to achieve something, then you should talk to a big company. For instance, because E.ON, which is a $116 billion company and the second largest private energy company worldwide, decided to cut up the company completely, the coal fire power plants are for sale now.
With the rest, and with so much E.ON money, experience, and networks, they could start developing solar panels and wind fields, since they have ways to pipeline everything. They separate this and then connect that to their consumers.
Energy companies are in a different field than food companies. Actually that’s a problem with energy companies, they seem to have a big impact. For food companies you need a lot of energy to make food, transport, pack it, and grow it.
I will not buy an organic kiwi from New Zealand because of the whole supply chain and everything around it. There’s much more [negative] impact on soil, water, and air.
What is a consumer going to do?
They were not willing, and are still not willing, to pay more. That’s the average consumer. There’s a positive divide, people that take the first step, pioneers. In the West, it’s kind of a different kind of attitude. Sustainability became dull or really posh in which driving around in a Tesla is a status symbol.
My son, he’s eight, really doesn’t like cars, but he knows that electric cars are clean. His generation is much more able to transform, or to accept a higher price, because sustainability should a key part of consumption.
Who is someone who made an imprint on your professional DNA?
Friends and I built a huge wooden skate park when I was 16 – 17. We challenged each other constantly. I think that that the friend group was the first one.
Later, I worked for the City’s [Rotterdam] recycling industry program. I finished my thesis and worked in the recycling industry, where I met Frank van Vliet, who is a PhD in innovation and change management.
We’re going through a huge change as a society as companies change. There are layers you have to look to where you can steer the change. Van Vliet really helped me on how I should think. Sometimes you have to blow it up and start over again because if you’re very strict and believe that the path you’re looking for is the right path constantly, then you don’t look left or back.
That’s why I think my bankruptcy was a good one; I lost quite some money but I learned a lot. I also learned about people, how companies work, and how to do things.
The owner of the chemical technology I worked with helped me out of my bankruptcy, so there’s also a human side, which is really important. You can go bankrupt and never get back on track again. I hired a lawyer and told the lawyer, “Okay, give them [creditors] what they ask for and start negotiating.” So now, I’m completely debtless. It took about three to four years.
I could name some others: Michael Braungart, who wrote Cradle to Cradle. William McDonough and Michael Braungart, who changed the Ford factory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana into a sustainable car factory.
The book has funny facts about the biosphere. In kilos, there’s five times more biomass of ants on this planet than humans. Ants can organize themselves easily since we don’t see them, they don’t make wars, they don’t have a big problem, and they don’t have scarcity.
Or a cherry blossom tree that is abundant. I like abundance. That’s not allowed a lot of times. I’m not a tree, [laughs] but if a tree can ask itself questions, it would never ask itself, “Am I using too much water?” We should celebrate abundance in nature and bring it over into our technology systems, which is not happening.
Give me a word that describes your journey so far.
Positive and energetic. It’s also happy. You know it’s a happy story, happy yet difficult, and overall, I really live for it.