Expert Interview with George Rubin of Cerebral Strategy Group

“Perfection is death. Doing something for the first time is hard as it is. The idea of the Minimum Viable Product is to get to market as fast as possible to learn what cannot be learned in the lab.” — George Rubin, Cerebral Strategy Group

George-Rubin

We are joined today by George Rubin of Cerebral Strategy Group, who gives us his take on the future of the smart glass and building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) sectors.

George, you recently started a new venture called ‘Cerebral Strategy Group’. What are your main markets and what problems are you aiming to solve?

Over the course of my career I have encountered countless great technologies struggling to gain market traction and transform into a product customers want to buy.

More often than not, the problem is not the technology itself but rather the result of a go-to-market strategy that is either targeting a wrong customer group and misinterpreting the “problem” target customers have, or is setting the performance bar way above the “minimum viable product” level.

I find that this situation is independent of industries or geographic markets. It is independent of the company size as well, with the only difference being that for a start-up, a wrong answer could very well be lethal.

The initial go-to-market stage is perhaps the most critical time in a lifecycle of any young company. Over the years I have been fortunate to accumulate significant experience in developing and executing go-to-market strategies in a number of industries. The idea behind Cerebral Strategy is to use this experience to help other companies to navigate the same challenging yet exciting path.

You have experience in photovoltaics and electrochromic smart glass. What is your take on Transparent Photovoltaics and it’s potential to merge with switchable glass?

I think the potential for both BIPV (on the glass as well as a part of roofing materials) and switchable glass (such as electrochromic) is huge.

I think both sets of technologies have a very big future. I think both technologies have been a little bit ahead of their time, but it looks to me that the tide may be finally changing. There are at least two mega-trends in play today that in my view will be critical to adoption of both BIPV and electrochromic smart glass products. 

On the one hand, IoT and “smart home / building” technologies are going to (and already are) creating a real need for a dynamic window. Mechanical blinds can only take us so far in terms of creating the right blend of comfort and energy benefits. 

On the other hand, zero energy buildings will require both: reduced consumption AND generation of energy. Roofing and building materials that can combine their original “construction” function with energy generation make a lot of sense under this approach.

Overall, I think I am bullish on both sets of technologies. However, I am not sure if combining them together at this particular point in the development cycle is a right thing to do. Let us not forget that in both cases we are still talking “technologies”.

While some products are already in the market, none of them has been able to achieve market adoption. It is not obvious to me that BIPV can remove key adoption barriers faced by electrochromics and vice versa. At the same time, manufacturing cost IS one of the issues that each technology must overcome. Combining two technologies in one product is likely to make things more difficult not easier from this perspective.

Having said all that, there is a big overlap between the sales channels and go to market strategies for BIPV (especially when integrated as a part of the window or curtain wall) and dynamic glass. As technologies and product offerings mature, I think it is entirely possible that closer integration may make sense at some point.

For now, I think the two types of products would have to find their own paths to market.

In your opinion, is the business model in the global smart glass sector viable? How would you change it?

I don’t know if I would go as far as saying that the business model is wrong. However, there is no question that market adoption has been slow for both BIPV and electrochromics.

This fact, in itself, prompts a re-evaluation of the approach. I do not think there is one “silver bullet” type change that solves the issue. In my view, two areas should be at the forefront of such re-evaluation:

a) Cost and Value Chain Positioning

Product prices and ultimately manufacturing costs must align with the value the customer is willing to pay for, as well as with the structure of the sales channel that is required in order to actually deliver this value to the customer. 

I believe that comfort management is going to be the main driver behind electrochromic’s adoption. As a result, electrochromic smart glass windows would need to compete with a combination of traditional windows & mechanical blinds. The math on BIPV comes down to $/kWh and how it compares vs alternatives. 

In both cases, manufacturing cost targets must take into consideration inevitable value chain mark-ups as well.

I think some of the early technologies had issues with cost scalability. I think some of the early market entrants have been trying to side-step these issues by bypassing parts of the value chain and associated price mark-ups.

In my view, companies that have the cost structure and the business strategy to work with the value chain as opposed to against it will see a faster market adoption. 

b) Selecting the right market to go after first

One of the first things you learn in the window and façade industry, is that the cost of the window is nothing compared to the cost of replacing it.

The rate of market adoption of new technologies such as electrochromic “electronic blinds”  or “power generating windows” with photovoltaic coatings rests in the balance of financial benefits generated by the value added function vs financial risk of potentially replacing the product in the field.

The solution lies in a combination of testing and selecting early go-to-market applications with (a) higher risk tolerance due to lower replacement cost and (b) higher demand pull due to the greater market need for the product.

By way of example, tackling the largest and the most lucrative market such as commercial buildings may not be the easiest path to market for an electrochromic product. In combination with the right value chain strategy, residential market launch may prove to be a much better strategy.

You were a finalist for the 2008 ‘Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year’ Award. What advice would you offer startups in the smart glass industry?

Two things:

  1. Spend at least as much time getting to know your customers as you do in the lab. It will pay off big time when it comes to designing, building, and launching the product.
  2. Do not try to make it perfect. Perfection is death. Doing something for the first time is hard as it is. When we overlay it with a requirement of perfection the task can become impossible. The whole idea of the Minimum Viable Product is to get to the market as fast as possible in order to learn things that cannot be learned in the lab.

In your opinion, what is the future for smart glass technologies, and which sectors will they most benefit?

In my view, comfort management will drive the early adoption of electrochromic dynamic glass. I think markets such as high-end residential along with automotive, marine and transportation are likely to provide the most fertile ground for early adoption.

I think commercial market opportunity is likely a better fit for BIPV products. At the end of the day, I can envision both BIPV and electrochromics in a wide variety of applications.

About George Rubin

As CEO of Cerebral Strategy Group, George transforms great technologies into best-selling products through target industry analysis, market segmentation, technology capabilities vs market needs mapping, Minimum Viable Product (MVP) development and validation. George is a graduate of Moscow State University with Masters Degree in Quantum Radio Physics and a British Columbia Institute of Technology graduate with a Diploma in Financial Management and a Bachelors Degree in Accounting.

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