Q&A  | 

Laying the foundations for change through deep tech

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Cristian de Santos and Ignasi Aliguer founded specialist engineering firm SAALG in 2016, and were part of the first edition of The Collider. With their geomechanical analysis platform, Daarwin, making waves in the construction industry, we spoke to them about being the little guy in an industry full of giants, and how their Collider experience helped change their perception of running a business.

What drove you to set up SAALG?

Ignasi: We’d been doing research together for about seven years. We liked research but weren’t comfortable in the academic world; we were always more comfortable with the application of our research to the real world. I was working in the oil and gas industry developing software for real-world environments. Cristian had been consulting on civil engineering projects. We wanted to apply our research to the real world, so we started a company together.

 

Cristian: We’re both technical engineers. We saw that ground behaviour during construction has a huge impact on the actual design: if they find soft ground, they pour more concrete, use more steel. We make models from the designs, gather data from the construction site, and calibrate the design during construction to make better predictions. It optimises design and uses less material.

How does Daarwin address the geomechanical challenges?

Cristian: At the moment there’s a huge amount of data, but it’s not being used or analysed – it’s just compared with predictions. We see that this data has a lot of value, and we take advantage of it. We have an enriched view of soil behaviour.

 

Ignasi: But there are challenges to overcome in terms of go-to-market strategy. We want to apply our technology to large, big-budget infrastructure projects, but we’re a start-up. Large-project sales cycles are really long, while we have limited cash funding, and in big construction projects there are many different stakeholders. There are existing contracts between them, and a bureaucratic framework. We want to change how things are done.

So there’s a disconnect between the market and what people are doing in geomechanics?

Cristian: In Spain, there isn’t a huge relationship between universities and industry. In the United States the universities promote interaction with industry, whereas here in Spain, to get promoted, you have to produce more papers.

 

Ignasi: When the big companies encountered problems during the high-speed train construction boom, they called the universities. Those universities were doing highly theoretical research, but they were also involved in those projects as consultants. So we’d had some access to the market, but we’d been applying different tools to the ones we’d been researching.

Are any competitors doing something similar?

Cristian: At the moment we don’t see any other company offering a similar solution to ours. For sure, some engineering firms are trying to do those calibrations by hand, but that’s a completely failed approach. The main challenge isn’t a technological one, it’s the actual implementation. Contracts, bureaucracy, the legal and risk implications of changing construction processes during construction – that’s where the main challenge lies.

Once a deal is closed, do you have to go to implement your solution physically?

Cristian: It’s a web platform, so what we need to know is the design of the project, which they can send us online. We define the protocols from the data available from the site itself. Everything is online.

 

Ignasi: If we need more info on construction progress, we may need to bother a project manager on site. But usually we get that information right away.

How has it been finding funding in Barcelona?

Cristian: It’s challenging because our industry, though the main players are huge and there’s a lot of money around, doesn’t deal well with innovation. When we explain what we do, they say, “Wow! We love that. That should be implemented.” But in the end, when it comes to putting money on the table, it’s: “Well, we prefer that others try it first, and we’ll wait to see what happens.”

 

We get money from tech transfer institutions like The Collider. We’re researchers who want to be entrepreneurs, to try new technologies in real environments. We try to find industry investors who can see the impact, but at that point, they have to be believers.

Tell us about your Collider experience.

Cristian: While we knew how to do research and produce the technology, we had no idea how to run a start-up. Quite apart from the money, which was extremely useful, they helped us a lot in learning how to run a business and manage a team. You need that because it’s totally different to creating a technology.

 

Ignasi: There’s a duality in business and technology at The Collider. They helped us go from a technology to the first version of a product that we could sell, helped with customer discovery and product marketing. Our coach helped us a lot, role-playing meetings, and asking certain questions to focus us on outcomes like getting value for our solution, and not doing pilot projects for free. All this helped a lot in securing our first clients.

 

One of the first things they did was to put us in touch with Cemex, one of our investors. They try to help as much as they can. They’re stakeholders, so we still have meetings every three months. We get media exposure through them. The relationship is good; every time we need help from them, they’re open to us.

What’s your most important piece of advice for aspiring deep-tech entrepreneurs?

Cristian: You have to be unafraid to show the product to customers before it’s completely finished. You need to show something. Coming from university you want to have control of everything, feel that everything is perfect before you show your baby. You need to go with the first thing you have to show the market.

 

Ignasi: Your solution may be awesome, but you can release something maybe not that deep that the market can accept faster. That might help your core solution.

 

Cristian: Sometimes you doubt yourself. I can see my vision of the future clearly, but as time goes on, not getting clients, one after another, you think maybe it’s too early for the market. It’s not easy.

What are your plans for 2021 and beyond?

Cristian: I may be going too far but I hope our platform becomes the standard for analysing, managing and visualising all the geotechnical information during the whole lifecycle of infrastructure. From planning, design, construction and maintenance, when you think about geotechnics, you think about Daarwin. At the moment, you have a vision on paper, and you build that. We want the paper to be just the starting point. That’s my vision: to be the standard for geotechnics.