David Ciudad Rodriguez is co-founder and CEO of Deep Detection. This tech company, created in The Collider 2019-20 edition, is building a new generation of x-ray camera with deep learning capability and potentially revolutionary applications across multiple sectors. We spoke to David about The Collider, gaining a broader world-view, his technology and more.
You began your academic career in chemical engineering, before moving on to management, leadership and R&D. How has that influenced your understanding of business?
When I was young I liked mathematics, and to get into the business world you need that! Having a solid background in numbers helps. And if you have a technical degree, you have some advantages, and you understand how the world moves. I wanted to understand everything. The chemical engineering degree was different to other degrees in Spain at the time. Some of the professors studied in the US and Canada, and had a totally different mentality. This was about 20 years ago, but we studied entrepreneurship, team building, etc. When you go into the business world with that, you’re more prepared.
You also studied environmental management. Has that influenced how you operate as a professional?
I’m very conscious of the fact that we have to take care of our world. As a chemical engineer, you go to the factory to produce something. That’s the focus, not the environmental part. It’s changing now, for sure, but I didn’t want to work in an industrial plant because I knew they pollute. I didn’t want to be on the hamster wheel.
Many of my friends who work in the industry want to change things, but in the end, it’s the figures and revenues that are the mandates. I wanted to create a company to improve both business and the environment.
With such a varied education, do you think it’s important for business leaders to continually seek out new learning opportunities?
Totally. My economics professor said that knowledge is power. You have to learn every day, to be ready for what happens in one or two years’ time. Otherwise you’ll get left behind. Just spend, say, five hours a week learning something different. It’s amazing – it makes a difference. The old way was to go to university, then get a good job. But that’s not enough as you have to pile on knowledge and learn more.
Moving onto business, what role does tech transfer play in Spain today? How has this evolved recently?
It’s a very difficult question. From what I’ve seen, universities in Spain don’t believe in tech transfer. They’re still in the 20th century in that regard. It should be moving forward quickly, but everything surrounding tech transfer takes time, and you have to spend a lot of money. So they have some amazing new technologies but they don’t want to talk to potential customers for five years. And they’re doing that with every single project – that needs to change.
Why are they so hesitant?
In my opinion, in Spain, if you’re at a university as a professional, you are thinking about your research, not about going to market. It’s a certain mindset. In the US or the UK for example, you know very well that if you develop something, sooner or later it’s going to go to market. It is changing, but we need more people thinking like this. We need more Colliders!
In the end it’s the way to move things, to shake them up. We need to believe in tech transfer. In other places, it’s the future and the present. In Spain it’s just the future.
So what’s missing in the collaboration between scientific and entrepreneurial talent in Spain?
Entrepreneurship, and team-building knowledge. If you’re already good at the technical part, but you don’t have an entrepreneurial mind, you may think you don’t need it. But we need the ecosystem. Although it’s changing in Barcelona, we need help from the government and institutions because in Spain there’s not a clear path. We’re lucky at The Collider because they’re promoting this, but we need more of the same.
Deep Detection, your The Collider project, manufactures multispectral x-ray cameras for high-speed continuous production lines, particularly in food and beverage. Can you tell us a bit more about the venture?
The existing technology has problems at high speeds as it can only detect high-density elements, and there are issues with low-density materials like plastics. Our technology is able to detect and categorise such materials at high speeds, and fully understand their composition. So, we can tell you how fatty meat is, for example, or which of three apples is the best quality. We can count every single photon. Currently, it’s disrupting the food industry but it has potential for a lot of applications.
So how did you get involved in The Collider? Which aspects of the programme are most beneficial to you?
I was taking a year’s sabbatical and I applied in October of that year after a friend sent me an email that simply said ‘Check out The Collider’. In December they explained the project to me. I met Colin Burnham, our other co-founder, ahead of time, then we met the team to find out about their interests. They were excellent, and because Colin and I had already met, we felt we could go quicker than other teams, so it was perfect. It’s an international team, with totally different mentalities, and that’s a very good thing.
The Collider is also very good at getting you in touch with companies. We talked to 60 companies in three months and we heard back from half of them! Ultimately, the most important element other than the technology is the team.
So which innovations can you expect in your industry in the ‘Industry 4.0’ future?
While we’re focused on food and beverages at the moment, we’re going to move into other sectors like security and supply chains, to name a few. Companies want to be more automated and digital now, so all industries will change a lot in the next ten years. Our technology will affect inspections and quality control, but there are other opportunities in production, security, supply chains. You have to bet on your technology – it may take ten years to change the industry, but you have to take the gamble.
Like you said earlier about continuing to learn to stay ahead of the curve, to predict the future?
You have to create the future, not predict it. In a year or two our cameras will be able to break down the composition of a liquid, or mix of liquids, in a bottle inside a suitcase. It will recognise the composition of materials. People say, “That’s impossible.” It’s not. You have to spend some money to change things, but the technology is here. I have to change minds!