Everything about Andrés Mitnik and the founders of Strong by Form looks rugged.
You can see it in the way Andrés’ 70s haircut falls on his face, to the ripped jeans, the roughness of the walls of their pilot plant in Santiago, and down to the wavy look of their first wood-tech prototype; the Woodflow slab.
Strong by Form’s Woodflow slab is a thin, lightweight, free-form, digitally built timber-based slab of wood. It is capable of holding the weight of a mature chubby Holstein cow. The company has developed digital wood resistant enough to replace concrete and steel, two of the highest emitting industries of green house gases.
Andres’ story is about the flow from hard rock into hard wood.
Back in 2018, Jorge Christie, while doing his Masters in Stuttgart University, came up with the original Woodflow concept. Jorge, who was also the guitarist of the totally unknown rock band ThisCo, teamed up with Daniel Ortiz, a serial entrepreneur in digital fabrication. The jamming session got started.
Jorge and Daniel had a roadmap for the development of the technology, but like a rock band missing its lead singer, they lacked in the business planning. This is when Andres, Harvard grad, with a background on technology commercialisation and bassist of Ramires!, (an even more anonymous rock band) was invited to join the team. The band was complete.
Like a rock concert opening with a couple of punchy tunes, Strong by Form had a solid start; by early 2020, the team had successfully completed its first Woodflow prototype, won the wood startup of the year award in Chile, and received a quote from BMW stating that “if you deliver what you are promising, we are interested”.
Despite their initial progress, the company quickly faced pandemic hardships. Their initial government funding was running out and their efforts to raise venture capital at such an early development stage felt like as if they were playing tunes for an empty audience.
‘At that point we considered putting the whole project on hold’ Andrés told me calmly. ‘Local venture capital firms had passed on the opportunity. Our last government funding application had been declined. It was a dream that would take longer to come true. We were at peace with that’.
But just as promoters find the next big hit in scrubby underground gigs, Strong by Form was noticed by CMPC, one of the world’s largest forestry companies, when pitching at a forestry industry event.
This was the spark that led to their epic revival song. In late 2020, CMPC placed an expression of interest in investing. This incentivized angel investors to join the round. Saving one of its best tunes for last, the company won Chile’s 2020’s Startup of the year. They were ready to hit the road.
Flash forward to 2022 and Strong by Form is on its way to debunk some of the core beliefs of the construction industry. Firstly, that wood cannot be used following the logic of advanced composite materials; wood can actually be moulded into complex high resistance structures. Secondly, that productivity requires a large infrastructure. Strong by Form’s manufacturing model is based on highly efficient distributed robotic-based micro factories, situated close to the client. Lastly, changing the concept of adding more mass to generate higher resistance, by instead adding more intelligence in how we use the material to achieve superlative performance. Their vision extends from reduced consumption of raw materials all the way to recyclable buildings.
Backed by European construction giant FINSA, a global architecture and engineering company, and a major car manufacturer, Strong by Form is now on the verge of releasing the pilot of its first product for interior cladding. Their mid-term view is the launch of Woodflow Core, a wood slab to be used for structural building components able to save 75% of the trees required by current mass timber solutions.
‘Having a rock band was the best possible training to founding a startup’ says Andres. ‘We all have strong opinions. Loud voices. It’s all a profound synchronisation exercise. You need to leave egos aside in order to let in the collective thought. Ramires! Was a great band but our egos ended up breaking it up, I won’t make the same mistake twice. ’
Humanity may have lost Ramires! but now has a team of exceptional founders on their way to remake the construction industry. There is a long string of challenges ahead of them. Like a rock band prepared for several more years of hard concerts, they look rugged, and they are ready.