Bricks And Bytes Podcast
April 28, 2023

#005- Henry Unterreiner- Transcript

Bricks and Bytes
Bricks and Bytes
#005- Henry Unterreiner- Transcript

Show Notes


Ideas don’t perform, you need to execute on them. Otherwise, they’re worth nothing. It’s important to find those allies. You’re a small team, you have limited resources. It’s important for you to find those allies because those allies not only will provide you with some capital, but these allies will also spread the word. They have become your ambassadors. So they will speak to potential future clients. They’ll speak to potential future investors. And suddenly it becomes this virtuous circle people are now interested in having a vested interest in your success. 

Welcome to the Bricks and Bytes podcast. I’m Owen Drury and together with my co-host Martin Peacart, we’ll be interviewing the people involved with transforming the construction and property industries through the latest and most innovative technologies. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see a bunch of robots printing reinforced concrete on your construction site? Well, I couldn’t imagine it either. We deep dive into 3D printed concrete with our guests, Henry and Terana of Hyperion Robotics. Stay tuned to hear about Henry’s story from France to Finland and how 3D printing is changing the way we construct from the ground up. 

 If you enjoy this episode of the Bricks and Bites podcast, please subscribe to us on your favorite podcast platform. You are listening to Bricks and Bites podcast, where we take you on a journey in construction, technology, and business. All right, let’s get this episode started. 

What about you and what’s your background? So, I was trained as an engineer and architect back in my school days. I’ve always been fascinated by combining both science and art, and I found architecture to be the perfect discipline to be able to combine both disciplines. From one project together, I joined ARUP. As a structural engineer, you know that ARUP is one of those large engineering consultancy firms around the world. One of the best. 

The way I started with ARUP was, I Googled “best structural engineering company in the world.” The first result I clicked, I didn’t even know what ARUP was or what a structural engineer was, and then I applied to 20 of their offices around the world. I got in in Beijing, so I spent a year in Beijing with ARUP and a year in New York with them again. By that time, I had finished my master’s degree in architecture and engineering. They liked me, and I liked them, but my visa in the US was expiring. So they said, “Why don’t you join the mothership in London?” – the headquarters of ARUP – and 

But it’s only really that I felt like I wanted something more. I wanted to spread my own wings in a sense. I didn’t want to be part of that big ship, this big machinery, and just be a small gear. I wanted to basically sail on my own or sail with my own team on my own boat. And that’s where the entrepreneurship journey starts. 

Yeah, it’s a sign of a true entrepreneur, right? When you’re working for the same people for a long time and you decide this just isn’t for me. I think people either have it in their blood or they don’t. Some people love obviously working for other people, and that’s fantastic, but we’re here because we’re not those people, and we like to explore what we can do and it opens the opportunity greatly to us as well. 

Yeah, I mean, it’s a mindset, it’s this kind of fire, that drive that is quite important, I would say, and also this kind of guts to handle risk. It’s obviously not been easy. For two years, I was literally living on a 1,000-pound-a-month budget in London. Sounds right. So, 75% of it went to my rent. A quarter, let’s say, was into food. And lucky for me, in a sense, 

And that’s where I started with this first failure of mine, a startup focusing on, let’s say, architectural cabins built around the world by this community of enthusiasts who loved actually making them. It was all to be crowd-sourced, crowd-built, and crowd-owned also. And then, well, that didn’t go really far, except it took me all the way to Cumbria. I was living in a small town called Ravenglass, where our first project was to happen, but unfortunately, it never happened. 

I went back to London, was a freelance, did a few house extensions, but it didn’t really feel like I was making a big impact, or I had too much appetite. So, I tried to do a designer 

And that’s why I brought this construction domain expertise. Yeah, nice. You went to an accelerator before you found, let’s say, Hyperion. Yes. That’s where you met the founders. And then you go into the next chapter of your life, shall we say? 

No, actually, Antler was, let’s say, just like a little break. I had met Ashish and Fernando before then, while actually working as a freelance engineer. I was still helping them all throughout, but I thought that Accelerator could be also another opportunity. So, I was still helping Hyperion as a freelance, but then we all realized that Hyperion, well, first of all, the Accelerator didn’t work for me, and Hyperion needed an engineer, construction domain expert, and that’s where I said, “Okay, I’ll be committing full-time with Hyperion.” I even moved to Finland while we had nothing. We had very little budget, we just had enough to pay rent for and a robot for three months. That’s all I was betting on. 

The garage history 

Very adventurous personality, which I would love to say about myself. I am. So, I’m very happy with you. Great. Very good. Okay, so you mentioned a few times Hyperion. So, in a few words, how would you describe, what does Hyperion do? 

In simple words, we are basically building the machinery to facilitate the construction of concrete elements. And when I say facilitate, I mean these machinery, these pieces of equipment, also called 3D printers for concrete, are enabling both optimized structures. So, we get to place the material where it’s most needed. We don’t use the traditional way of large mold, monolithic structures made of concrete; we want to place that precious material, concrete, which is the second most consumed in the world, where 

Is it like only small structures? I’ve seen on the website like chairs also, but other supporting elements for, I think, a lamppost. Yes. So, in terms of scale, I would say that any size, basically, can be achieved. Obviously, as this technology is being developed right now, and we are currently addressing various challenges coming from different stakeholders, codes, and stuff, we are starting with smaller objects like foundations, let’s say two by two meter foundations, which is very little compared to the overall amount of concrete that is produced. But it’s the construction concrete industry. 

In terms of sizes, you mentioned a few furniture applications, but as a company, we want to focus on structural applications. We don’t want to do benches, we don’t want to do vases. We don’t want to do actually houses, because when you 3D print them, you just 3D print the walls, but there’s a lot more for it to become a house at the end of the day. As a company, we focus on structural applications for energy companies, industrial applications, and infrastructures. That’s where we see the most potential for our impact, our positive sustainable impact in the world. And we don’t want to compete too much with the other 3D printing companies that focus more on houses. 

Fair enough. Yeah. So in terms of how you see the 3D printing industry generally and sort of in the context of what you’re doing as well, what would you say the biggest challenges you guys are facing at the moment? 

I would say there are two of them. One is regulation. The construction industry, and you’ll know it Martin, is extremely regulated. It’s very slow. In other words, it’s also like there’s a lot at stake. If you were to 3D print a bridge and this bridge collapses, it might kill people; then it’s basically life at stake. So that’s why baby steps are needed, especially when you’re trying to promote a new innovation. 

And the second main challenge, I would say, is getting our clients into the right mindset. Right now, we’re dealing with, let’s say, early adopters, like construction companies, who are very enthusiastic about the technology. Although this technology, 3D printing concrete, has been around for 40 years, you don’t see it yet, like, widely spread. And one of my dreams would be to one day hear about 3D printing in the news, just have it as a common practice, just like you don’t hear about a building being cast on site anymore, because it’s just common practice. 

The thing with 3D printing is it seems to have been around for so long, but just seems very slow, like, just from a personal perspective, I’ve heard about it for maybe I’d say five, six, seven years, and I haven’t really seen any proper development or application. Maybe that’s just because I don’t look at it, I’m guessing if it was there, then you would know about it. 

Absolutely, you’re right Owen. It’s been there for 40 years, and when we say 3D printing, it’s 3D printing under all its forms. It might be concrete, it might be like plastic, it might be adobe, so soil. Yes, 3D printing as a methodology of manufacturing was holding a lot of promise for the future, but at the end, it’s very little used in a sense. But that’s also because 3D printing will not replace all the current methods of manufacturing. It’s much, much, much quicker and cheaper to build long straight beams or long straight walls. Why would one want to 3D print if they are just long and straight? Yes. 

That’s where we think that 3D printing will play a significant part in the construction industry. Whether or not it’s going to fully replace the existing methods, I’m pretty sure not. For the, let’s say, 10-20% of elements that have to be bespoke, that have to be very much based on your existing geometry, whether it’s also about optimization and wanting to 

Yeah, stuff like lintels or like wall ties or anything small which is manhandled on site and needs to be just installed in a place that can be actually printed rather than the whole building. But potentially, yes. Yes. 

So you guys clearly have done a lot of research to come up with the whole idea, the concept, and how to make it work. How would you say that you come up with it? And have you got any tips for people who are trying to do their own thing and it’s innovative, and they struggle with it? 

So I’ll try to answer the first question. Why 3D printing concrete in a sense? I would say that it started with our CEO actually, my co-founder Fernando, who I think four, five, six years ago already was dreaming about 3D printing robots on crawlers, building houses. He went through a roller coaster of victories and failures; at his low points where his previous company had failed. He met Ashish, who’s our CTO. He’s a 3D printing expert. He’s designed and built like 12 different printers with 12 different materials. That’s crazy. And he’s gotten a PhD from Aalto University. So he was really into that space. 

What talent. Yeah, it’s fascinating. He’s a library of technology applied for 3D printing. That’s exciting. And basically, so together, they tried to play with getting their foot into the construction industry 

But it’s also like one of the most polluting industries in the world, accounting for just the concrete accounts for 8% of global CO2 emissions. So it kind of like naturally tied between the two interests. And it was only strengthened when I came to the table, and I was trying to design and dream of all those large structures. I suggested that we try something new. No one had ever printed the foundations. People had overlooked it, but when you are, let’s say designing a 20-story building made out of concrete, 50% of the concrete goes into the foundation. You don’t see it. And the rest goes into the slabs, the columns, and the beams. 

How do you deal with the reinforcement then? Because I guess that your concrete is not reinforced, or it is. It is. We are experts from the construction industry. We are architects, engineers, and we know that concrete is a brittle material, that if it cracks, it will just fail. It just doesn’t hold itself. It doesn’t have ductility. And it’s not very good in tension. So steel reinforcement has been our priority since day one because we want to focus on printing structures. So we have developed a methodology to lay steel wire within each of the concrete bits that we are placing. But at the same time, we also have developed a design approach and a placement approach to place larger rebar, larger tendons into the structures that we print. So they are fully reinforced 

But obviously there’s a business aspect of this whole thing. Like research is fun and great, but at the end of the day, you have to be out there selling, right? And getting people to give you money, or you’re just gonna end up running out of money. So how does Hyperion deal with that? 

So the exciting part of our job, and I’ll be speaking about, on behalf of the team, is that we are constantly, constantly, constantly pushing innovation. Basically, every day is a school day, in a sense. We are always trying to learn something and implement it into our processes, our machinery, our software. So R&D is very much like the DNA of our company. 

And at the same time, yes, we need to deliver real projects. We have had the chance to collaborate with clients. And these clients have been able to fund their projects, obviously with us, which have been taken as R&D, also part of the money we received from CUNS was directed at feeding to that R&D research. So we were very lucky that over the last year we had the chance to collaborate with approximately four or five collaborators. They helped us basically secure the kind of bread to be given to the rest of the team. 

And we also were lucky to secure funding from a Norwegian accelerator program called Catapult Climate. So we secured some runway and as we progress, obviously we are a hardware startup. So 

Sure, fair enough. Okay, in terms of your target clients and how do you currently get work, is it outreach that you do, or is it referrals that your existing clients pass to new clients? 

Yeah, so it’s a bit of both. One of them is FOMO. We got approached after winning a contract with Iberdrola, which is one of the largest renewable energy companies in the world, designing and 3D printing those optimized foundations. We recently got approached by one of their competitors from South America who were really keen to say, well, okay, we’ve seen this in the news. We are curious. So there was a bit of flirting for the first two, three months. Then we locked in a contract and off we went with a beautiful pilot project that was demonstrating how we could apply 3D printing for the construction of their large-scale infrastructures. We’re talking about 1.2 kilometers of trenches, all different with different heights, to be 3D printed on site in Mexico. 

So there’s, let’s say, obviously media is an important part of our outreach. Our CEO Fernando is daily on the hunt for new collaborators, new clients, new potential basically like family members of the Hyperion tribe. And also, I would say, maybe trying to be proactive, not just reaching out to clients, but also answering some calls, whether 

This is actually very important to start. You just need to have limited resources, limited, let’s say like kindling or small sticks. So you have to kind of burn it carefully. And soon enough, people will start fueling it and your clients will start fueling it. You’ll already be too busy to accept projects. 

Yeah, nice. And you mentioned, I think we got introduced to you actually through Victor, who’s on the accelerator with you in Peru, is that right? Oh yes, yes, we are part of a Peruvian accelerator, yes. 

Yeah, how have you found the accelerator experience in terms of your business development? I would say that for all entrepreneurs who are listening, there’s obviously a trade-off of your equity. But I would say that at the start, ideas rarely matter in the sense that ideas don’t perform. You need to execute on them. Otherwise, there’s nothing. So it’s important to find those allies. You’re a small team. You have limited resources. It’s important for you to find those allies because those allies not only will provide you with some capital, but these allies will also spread the word. They become your ambassadors. So they will speak to potential future clients. They’ll speak to potential future investors. And suddenly it becomes this virtuous circle where people are now interested in and having a vested interest in your success. 

We’ve got this accelerator in Norway, Catapult Climate. We are part of Relab. We are part of this. So Relab is in London. And I hope 

And I guess this is like enough to build some momentum as a young startup. We are like a year and a half, two years max, to propel us into the real game of clients and projects, that’s sales. Yeah. So this is about networking and building a base of people around you that you can also rely on and they will become your sales force at some point. It’s about teamwork. Yes. 

Yeah, in terms of Hyperion, then, it’s obviously we’re limited for time and I feel like there’s lots of questions we could ask, but is there anything maybe that we haven’t asked you? It’s quite a difficult question that you might want to mention about Hyperion. 

That is a good question. And I never come prepared for those. One thing I’d like to add is the importance of the team. We talk about teamwork, having your team is crucial. For the team that we have managed to build, to keep, and the team we are planning on doubling it over the next few months. So it’s almost like a small call for action to look at our website and see the open opportunities to join the Hyperion journey and adventure. But so far, we’ve had the chance to work with great engineers. We’ve got a great automation engineer, a mechatronics, material scientists. So that journey is very much a story about people. And I’m hoping that through this podcast, I can also share their stories too, because it’s very hard to do it by yourself. 

Yeah, a big shout out to the rest of the team at Hyperion. They are doing a great job. And although it’s a very intense, very intense pace, there is not for everyone, I have to admit, there’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of deadlines to meet. And it’s hard work, hard work, but it’s so rewarding to see something come to life so easily. I was speaking to my ex-colleagues a few months ago, and they were so amazed by how much Hyperion had built, had grown in just a couple of like six months. And you don’t often, as an entrepreneur, you don’t really often take the time to look back and see what you have achieved, but it’s fantastic to see through the words and the eyes of others that there is actually progress being made. And hopefully, our positive impacts on the industry will be felt soon. 

Sure. Yeah, it’s so important to agree with what you say, to reflect and look back on where you’ve come because we all get caught in the trap of looking at what we haven’t done and what we’ve still got left to do and thinking, oh my goodness, I’m never going to get there. But when you actually take the time and even get external validation, like people saying to you, look how far you’ve come, this is what you’ve done, it’s great. Being recognized can only be a good thing. 

Yes, and external validation, maybe one of the best compliments we have received so far is when some of our clients, the engineers working for our clients, start to apply for job posts that you have actually put 

Yeah, I feel there’s a big, possibly a big thing in the industry, because there’s a lot of, like, because construction has been so resilient to the adoption of technology, when companies like yourselves actually put their foot forward and start creating these companies, people in traditional businesses, like old school, kind of doing it the way it’s always been done, I feel like a lot of interest will be piqued and those people will want to start joining startups like yourself and come on board with you guys. And obviously, you’ve seen it firsthand. 

And we would have welcomed them because we need to grow. So, how would you say that what are the principles of building a great team around you? Because you sound like a very positive, energetic person, which is great to have a boss like that. This is definitely attractive to potential employees and people that you would like to work with you. But as a kind of a leader in the team, how would you say what is important in building a team around you? 

Yes, sorry, maybe a bit cheesy what I’m going to say, but you mentioned both boss and leader. And there’s a clear, a clear preferable title I’d rather have, which is not the one of boss. I think that right now we’re a small team. So we are quite leveled in terms of responsibilities, and we get to guide each other and work with one another. I would say that one of the, perhaps, key thinking in terms of building a strong team, especially in this age of remote working, which we allow, is basically trust. 

We trust our employees to choose the right location for them and for the team to work at. So we have actually our operations in our lab near Helsinki. That might be actually occupied by half of our team. The other half is online, but we constantly try to have basically daily meetings. That’s a super important one. It’s almost like when back in the days when you are on the ship, I don’t know if it’s still the case, but when you were on these old sailing boats, the whole crew would just meet on the deck and every single one would tell, okay, this is my plan for the day. We are literally doing this plan for the day. What’s holding you back? And it just facilitates communication between members, because at the end, it’s about collaboration, very much about exchanging knowledge, exchanging workflows. 

We try to actually have a cool outing. We are renting a big chalet for the midsummer to gather in the woods on the lake. And that’s going to be fantastic. We will be there. Can we come? Most welcome. There’s going to be a place for 15 to sleep. It’s going to be magical. But we also went surfing. We will see. Last December, we went surfing with the whole team and had this big Christmas party. 

Great. I feel like I want to join. 

Yeah, you’re selling it, man. You’re doing a great job. We’re looking for structural engineers. 

Mine’s just going to tell you. It sounds to me like what I get is that you’re really instilling quite a strong people-focused culture in the business. That’s the impression I get just from the start of this conversation up until now. 

Yes, absolutely. And at the beginning, obviously, a startup has different phases. I have the feeling that we’ve moved on from the phase where we have to kind of bootstrap things. Obviously, we still have limited means, but now our focus is less on money, but more on people, how to attract talent, how to retain talents. So we have this whole company structure to obviously give a bit of ownership to key hires. We have this emphasis on providing interesting work to each of those employees. And hopefully, we get to attract people to come all the way to Finland, to Helsinki. I’m okay with that. It’s a great place to live apparently. It has been ranked for the fifth year in a row as the happiest country in the world. 

It is fantastic. Like, since I’ve moved there, so well, actually two days ago was my anniversary, like my first year anniversary in Helsinki. Congratulations. Thank you. I survived. I survived my first winter at minus 25. You look super happy. Well, maybe it’s the, yeah, maybe it’s true that the ranking is true. Helsinki is fantastic. Everything works. The social system is great. There’s a great pool of talents, also great people. It’s a very international city. You’ve got nature. I’ve been kite surfing a lot because we’ve got the sea. I ride my bike 10 minutes and I’m already on the water. 

Mine’s a bit kite-surfing, by the way. I will definitely follow up after the conversation because I’m a kite-surfer as well. All right. We have to meet, I’ll be actually probably kite surfing in Poole at the beginning of May, actually. Okay. Yeah, for sure. 

Yes, so I mean, it’s fantastic. Like I felt a bit scared to lose my, to let go of my London life in a sense, established with my friends for seven years. 

But it was for sure like a really nice welcome chapter of my life, and Helsinki is a great place to write this new chapter. Well, everything interesting happens out of your comfort zone. So it’s just happening for you now. 

That’s one from me. So how do you see the future in like five, ten years? Are you guys selling the printers for people to just print their own things? Or are you having branches on various continents? And do you supply these printers from these places? How do you see where you want to be? 

Our vision is to really enable that automation and sustainability of the concrete industry. So we are a technology startup. So we want to focus on our tech, both the development of the 3D printer as a machine, and the science of the material, trying to enable the world functioning of our printers, wherever you are in the world, and whatever material you have locally available, that’s actually how we want you to power our 3D printers. And at the same time, we also want them to have access to our software, our library of elements from which they can just pick, customize some foundations, some beams, some trenches, whatever. And then, basically, easily create those concrete optimized elements within a matter of clicks and hours. So rather than saying we’re going to follow the traditional way, which would be, we’re going to start building this formwork. 

Then we’re going to place the rebar inside, that’s going to already take us a week. Then we’re going to pour the concrete. After three days, we’re going to strike the formwork, and then we’re going to let 14-28 days for it to cure. Already we’re just talking about, and here we are shortening this to a matter of days, maybe even hours until it can be placed in its final location. 

Very good. Yeah, nice. And we do have like a tradition on here where we ask everyone this final question, which is, if you had an unlimited budget to invest in any say, emerging business, technology, or trend within the construction industry, what would you spend it on and why? And you can’t choose Owen’s consultancy. 

That would be a good way to spend your money. I would hire Martin then. Very good. Okay. Nice talking to you. 

What can I say? I didn’t do my homework. I should have prepared this question. I would say that we’ve got friends at RebarTech, a very promising startup that automates the construction of rebar cages using robots. That’s actually quite exciting. That’s also a potential way for our concrete robots to actually collaborate with their steel robots. But in general, I would actually just invest in impact-driven, sustainable startups. There’s going to be an immense challenge ahead of us as a human race, in a sense. Global warming, construction is needed, populations are growing. 

We can’t really slow that down. So how do we provide our infrastructures or our buildings for this growing population in the most pragmatic and sustainable way? That will be actually one of the key challenges we are hoping to solve as Hyperion. And whatever startup can really tackle assembling things, erecting those buildings, that’s actually going to be a very promising business to invest in. 

Cool, so yeah, thanks, Henry. Very, very insightful and fun episode. We’ll see you on kites and by the lake. Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode of the Bricks and Bytes podcast. If you are enjoying the show, please feel free to rate, subscribe, and leave a review wherever you listen to your podcasts. We really appreciate it, and we’ll catch you in the next episode. 

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