We wanted to develop a technology that allowed hardworking rural farmers to earn more from their labor and allowed families without a refrigerator in their homes to lose less money on wasted food.”
In part one of our series, we learned that Jeremy Fryer-Biggs’ path to Evaptainers has been one heavily influenced not only by his creativity, curiosity, altruism, and entrepreneurial spirit, but also dyslexia. He’s overcome the challenges of a learning “disorder” to succeed as an inventor, designer, maker, engineer, artist, and sustainability champion, not to mention a certified Mythbuster!
We hope Jeremy’s story offers your Nerds some valuable career perspective and some timely advice that will inspire them to follow their passions as makers and creative problem-solvers!
Here’s Part II of our Nerd Profile with Evaptainers CTO and co-founder Jeremy Fryer-Biggs:
Raising Nerd: How did you go from Mythbuster to “heat-buster” with Evaptainers? What need inspired the idea for the organization and your device, and how was the technology developed?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: Haha, I like what you did there ☺ A lot happened in between, actually. I left Mythbusters to go to engineering graduate school. Upon graduating, I ran the Strivers Business Launch Program in Uganda and then started my product development company (which was, in large part, inspired by all the things I enjoyed about working for Jamie Hyneman). Doing product development opened a number of doors and gave me the chance to start investing money and my expertise in start ups.
I was at MassChallenge (an amazing, free accelerator program based in Boston) with a company pioneering an early hybrid 3D printer, when I met Quang and Spencer (my Evaptainers partners). They had deep knowledge of development work and outdoor retailing but needed engineering help. I had extra time on my hands and offered to help them for free. I got so wrapped up in the project that I never left.
Certain global issues tend to garner more attention than others. It is estimated that a little over 20 percent of the world doesn’t have electricity – putting in an electrical grid is a tremendous capital expense that’s beyond the means of many places. What isn’t talked about as much are the downstream ramifications of this situation.
Areas without electricity also don’t have refrigeration. When I got involved with Evaptainers, I took my refrigerator for granted and didn’t appreciate how much waste was caused by not having one. Quang and Spencer opened my eyes to the fact that more than half of all of the fruits and vegetables grown in Sub-Saharan Africa spoil before anyone can eat them. That’s 90 million tons of wasted food and $15 billion in lost income EVERY year. The environmental impact of this is enormous: 36 million tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere from this waste.
We wanted to develop a technology that allowed hardworking rural farmers to earn more from their labor and allowed families without a refrigerator in their homes to lose less money on wasted food. We felt the best way to do this was by building a self-sustaining, for-profit, company. Unlike a donation model where we could only reach a few million people, our current structure allows us to scale as large as there is demand for Evaptainers – potentially 700,000,000 people, who live in dry places and do not have a refrigerator in their homes.
I believe good design is rooted in the needs of the user. Our technology had to work without electricity since none would be available in our users’ homes. By necessity, it also had to be extremely inexpensive, as we wanted to reach some of the poorest people in the world. Due to cost, this ruled out systems dependent on solar panels.
Quang saw something called a zeer pot while working in the field in Africa and was inspired by it. For those who haven’t seen one, a zeer pot is a clever “low-fi” refrigerator made from two concentric clay pots. Food goes in the inside pot and water-drenched sand in the outer one. As water evaporates from the sand, it draws energy out of food and cools it, extending its shelf life.
The process works incredibly well but is not conducive to scaling. Clay is heavy and fragile. We wanted to develop something similar that utilized the evaporative cooling effect while being cheap, robust, and collapsible. This led us in the direction of smart fabrics. We worked with textile companies to create a fabric that was optimized for evaporation – capable of holding liquid water while facilitating the transference of water vapor. It’s a bit of bio-mimicry inspired by humanity’s most effective and ancient cooling method: sweating.
The Evaptainers development process involved making a lot of different fabric samples, building a testing chamber which simulated the conditions in our target countries, putting together a sensor package and creating a testing protocol. We used iterative design, leveraging the data we generated from each experiment to further refine the material, until we had something that was both efficient and cost effective.
RN: What positive impact has Evaptainers had in areas where your devices are deployed?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: In limited field trials in Morocco over the past three years, families have saved up to 10 percent of their monthly income using an Evaptainer. A portion of that comes from the food that no longer spoils because of our cooler. But an even bigger portion is a result of the time that the Evaptainers saves.
People don’t normally consider refrigerators a time-saving technology. But when you don’t have one, you have to buy much smaller amounts of food much more often. When you are poor and don’t own a car, the time to make those trips really adds up. On average, one of our users named Hamid takes six hours to go to his local market to get food. Before having an Evaptainer, Hamid was doing this three times a week, which represented a lot of lost income.
“I think you have to become OK with the idea that to succeed you need to fail a lot. This means learning from your mistakes while not continuing to beat yourself up over them.”
RN: At Raising Nerd, we believe failure is just an important part of the learning process. Can you tell us about a time where you had such a learning moment? How did you use that event as a way to help motivate you for or propel you to future success?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: This is SUCH a good question! I guess it depends what you define as a failure. I have pitched ideas people turned down, I have started companies which failed, and worked on research projects that didn’t go as planned. If you look at any event over a short enough time, then, yeah, it can be perceived as a failure. But if you examine it more broadly with a bit of context, then it’s just part of the process of getting where you want to go.I failed freshman math at Chicago. I got placed in an advanced class and my pride of being there won out over other, more-rational sentiments. I was pretty introspective in the aftermath and, while incredibly embarrassing, it served as a motivator. It didn’t stop me from graduating with honors, going to grad school, or starting companies (in fact, in a weird way, it probably informed all of them). But strictly defined, it was a failure.
I think you have to become OK with the idea that to succeed you need to fail a lot. This means learning from your mistakes while not continuing to beat yourself up over them. I don’t think it is said enough in the scientific or entrepreneurial communities, but failure is a totally acceptable outcome provided you are completely committed to learning everything you can from it.
The primary investigator (PI) of the cancer lab I worked in during college told me after a Lupus research project didn’t find what we had hoped it would, that writing a paper about what didn’t work is just as important, scientifically, as writing one on a project that did. It’s just not going to win you grant money or land you on the cover of a journal. That knowledge, however, can inform your next project, and all your future decisions, which lead to achievements you are proud of.
RN: What would you say are the most important skills to develop as a designer/engineer and/or as a technology entrepreneur?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: Tenacity. There are a lot of good ideas out there. There are far fewer people willing to see them though. I think that’s because undertaking anything new is really hard. You are going to have days when your prototype fails, and your peers tell you you’re crazy for continuing to pursue the idea. In that moment, the easy thing to do is give up. Anyone who is successful confronts a lot of these days and learns to be dedicated to seeing their vision through while open enough to change course when presented with new information. It’s a tough balance to strike because if you are just stubborn, it’s impossible to learn. And if you don’t stick to your convictions, it’s impossible to focus long enough to work through the problem and find a way forward.
[Another one is] creativity. Science, engineering, and math, when done well, are unbelievably creative professions. Tough problems demand new ways of thinking. A strong foundation in the fundamentals of physics, biology, and chemistry is critical to having an underlying framework to understand the world. But if you aren’t simultaneously building your creative muscles, you are doing it wrong.
RN: Furniture making is also a hobby of yours and you’ve even had some of your work displayed at ICFF New York, a prestigious international conference/expo for global design. What got you interested in that and do you have any favorite pieces?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: It sounds a little crazy, but I got really interested in furniture design when I was in Uganda for Strivers. We had a unit in the curriculum devoted to visiting local businesses and we spent a day teaching the students about fabrication with the owner of a metalworking shop in Kampala. He was a really interesting guy. He studied engineering in college. But the technical job market in East Africa is extremely limited, and he wound up opening a machine shop making everything from roadside billboards to custom, tricked-out party buses to pay the bills.
The timing of meeting him was perfect, as I was itching to get back to building things. We became friendly, and he allowed me the use of his outdoor space after our school day ended. Watching his ironworkers gave me a new appreciation for how much you can accomplish without sophisticated tools, if you are patient.
We built a 12-foot steam bender together out of old 55 gallon drums as well as some really interesting cantilevered furniture. When I got back to the US, I started exploring the craziest materials I could get my hands on (e.g., piezoelectric glass, translucent concrete, and carbon filaments) in order to push boundaries of what was possible. I am a big fan of using materials in surprising ways as well as making things that look like they have no business standing up.
For me, furniture isn’t just about aesthetics, it’s about playing with materials science and physics to construct comfortable and functional, gravity-defying objects. Plus, it creates a never-ending supply of holiday gifts.
One of my favorite pieces from ICFF was a collaboration with a mechanical engineer friend, who is also a hobby furniture maker. We built a one-legged bench capable of supporting two adults. The leg was positioned far to one side, which should have weakened it structurally. The secret was that this leg doubled as a fulcrum, which allowed aramid fiber cables on either end to use tension to keep everything stable. The bench is a little like a stringed instrument – under enormous tension – and it took trying a number of different fiber chemistries before we found a material with enough tensile strength to allow someone to sit on it.
RN: What advice do you have for Nerds out there that dream of pursuing a career like yours – or even ones that think they’re interested in STEM or green tech but aren’t quite sure which direction to go? Any advice for their parents on how to encourage/support their kids in their pursuits?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: Pursue what you are passionate about, not what looks good on a resume. Ultimately, being great at anything takes a lot of work no matter how much natural talent you start with. Passion is the purest motivator. It drives you to keep asking questions, and learn as much as you can. Having that body of knowledge is critical to being able to then creatively challenge the status quo. Plus it makes the whole process fun!
Work with people who inspire you. I think a lot of people get hung up on what opportunities are available when one of the best things you can do is make your own. Think of someone you really want to learn from. Come up with a list of reasons why and a list of what qualities you can offer in return (your particular interest in what they are doing, your enthusiasm, your ability to solder – whatever). Now find their email address and contact them. It doesn’t matter if there is a formal job or internship available. Odds are, you will get rejected (and we already discussed why that’s no big deal). But there is also a chance they say yes. Two of the best opportunities I’ve ever gotten came from sending out a cold email and expressing real, deep enthusiasm for what that person was doing.
Also, for those planning a career as a tech mogul, a few thoughts have been on my mind lately about entrepreneurship. I was asked by a major accelerator program with which I’m affiliated to speak to a group of visiting high-school students. The purpose was to inspire them that they could, one day, own their own company and do amazing things. As I stood there on-stage in front of them, it occurred to me I might not actually be doing them a favor.
The technology scene tends to mythologize people. Students are shown example after example of individuals who started companies in a garage and made $19 billion dollars at IPO by age 27 (e.g., Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg). And, honestly, who doesn’t want to hear they have a chance to be the next Elon Musk?
The reality is 75 percent of startups fail. The people we hold up as successes are the vast minority and a large subset of them were just in the right place at the right time. But nobody wants to hear that. I sure didn’t.
Entrepreneurs want to believe they have the winning lottery ticket. Accelerators want to believe they are incubating the next batch of world altering companies. Venture capitalists want to believe they have invested in the next Google. No one really talks about the probability of failure because everyone is trying too hard to visualize success.
What I wish someone had told me when I started is that, despite all anecdotes to the contrary, this isn’t an easy way to make money. That most of the time, it isn’t glamorous. That my idea (whatever it was) wasn’t as good as I thought and that it’s what I do with my idea that matters most.
Things almost never click immediately. There are going to be days when you are at it for 20 hours and your [significant other] is angry you aren’t home. There are going to be months where you don’t pay yourself so that your employees can go home with their paychecks.
You need to find the smartest people you meet who have different skills than you and convince them to work with you. Be open to criticism but don’t beat yourself up. Make a lot of friends in the industry and build an amazing team of advisers and funders. They will provide a diversity of thought and ensure that you have the capital to reach your objectives.
And even with all of that you are going to need an incredible amount of luck. Luck that your technology isn’t too far ahead of the curve to be viable. Luck that you aren’t so late to the party that someone else owns the market by the time you release. Luck that you meet just the right people at just the right time. Most importantly, luck that the world finds what you are doing cool enough to pay for.
If you internalize all of this and think that you can handle the level of failure required for success [in your chosen field/industry], then it’s probably the right career path for you.