SBE alumn and Reduse CEO Hidde-Jan Lemstra is having a very good year. After winning the UK Finals in August, his company has just won the Audience Award at the European finals of the Climate KIC Venture Competition in Valencia, part of the EU’s main climate innovation initiative.
Reduse, a spin-out from the University of Cambridge, has developed a technology to remove print from laser-printed and photocopied paper—“unprinting”—allowing paper to be reused several times before being recycled.
The Audience Award affirms Lemstra’s faith that unprinting is something that will take off in the business world. “The 500-strong audience voted overwhelmingly for us,” he says. “And they do that, I think, because they really think this can make a difference.”
How unprinting works
The technology, developed at the University of Cambridge, uses a laser to heat the ink that sits on top of the page so that it just “falls away,” according to Lemstra.
The process enables paper to be reused several times before being recycled and, according to Lemstra, unprinting is about 80 percent less carbon intensive than recycling.
Lemstra says it all stemmed from a conversation over a beer in Lemstra’s current hometown, Cambridge. “Through my wife (Nancy Bocken, also an SBE alum) I met David [Leal], the guy who invented this, socially,” Lemstra recalls. “And over a pint he told me he can remove print from paper. And I thought, ‘don’t be ridiculous. You can’t do that.’ So he showed me in the lab and it was fantastic.”
It was Lemstra’s idea to turn this technology into a business, but he had to first convince Leal that it could work. “I’m not so much the ideas guy,” Lemstra says. “But if you give me a good idea I will turn it into something really good. I’m good at making stuff happen.”
At the time, Lemstra was running a consulting firm, helping large corporates as well as small start-ups. “While consulting, I was always coming in, giving advice, and then going away; you never get to actually see something through,” he says. “I was always looking for that one idea that I really wanted to latch onto,” he says. “So when David Leal finally called me up and said yes, actually I think we should do something with his idea, I thought, yes!”
A viable idea?
The first step for him was to investigate the value unprinting would have in the business world. “I spent a lot of time considering one question: do people care?” He began doing a lot of research to get a feel for how viable the business idea was, because he says having a “sexy” or socially responsible idea is great, but it’s not enough.
“You can’t build a business,” he says, “no matter how good it is for the environment, for social purposes or whatever, if it doesn’t make anybody’s life easier or help them save money.”
He began researching paper costs and buying practices. “I have been to 25 companies now where I spend a couple of hours interviewing paper buyers, paper users, IT people,” he continues. “I literally dump paper baskets to see how much paper could have been unprinted. That’s the less sexy part of my job, counting paper.”
He estimates, based on this research, that unprinting technology can save business about 40 percent on paper-related costs. “Paper is cheap,” he says. “But it costs companies a lot of money to get rid of. Recycling, confidential waste recycling. The longer you can keep paper in-house, the lower your costs will be.”
Knowing what you don’t know, he says, is key when starting a business. “We were really quick to realize that we didn’t have the skills to do this by ourselves,” he says. “David is technically very capable, but he’s never built a product in his life. And I’m very good commercially, but I have never raised money for a hardware start-up.”
For one, they have to figure out how to take this technology and create a piece of hardware that they can deliver to businesses. “We don’t know what it will be exactly,” he says. “It may be a machine you put next to your printer, but we could also be building the ‘engine,’ that then gets built into printers; that we’ll need to figure out next!”
Lemstra says identifying the talent you need and building the right team is key. He brought on chairman Stuart Evans, co-founder of Plastic Logic, a spin-out from Cambridge University that has now raised over $500m to develop flexible displays for e-books and other applications.
“What Stuart does is flip the balance from two guys with a nice idea to two guys with a nice idea and one guy who has done this many times before who thinks it can work.”
The fourth member of the team is Tony Dunn, the Chief Technology Officer. “He has spent 25 years of his career simply going from an idea to a product,” Lemstra says. “And those two hires have really put us into a whole different spectrum. We are now really serious business. That is the most important thing we’ve done to propel us forward.”
The other thing they needed, he says, was some cash flow. The company was one of two finalists in the UK’s centre of the EU’s main climate innovation initiative, Climate-KIC, in its annual Venture Competition, in August. This followed the company’s participation in the Climate-KIC Accelerator Programme, which provided the company with €95,000 start-up funding as one of the most promising low carbon start-ups in Europe.
“Fundraising is really hard, for anyone, but it’s particularly hard if you’re doing hardware,” he says. Yet, the company is closing in on finalising its first round of seed funding, to complement the support from Climate-KIC and a £224,000 grant from the Technology Strategy Board.
The entrepreneurial call
Although Lemstra got his start working for Shell, he says he is an entrepreneur at heart. “I was a real corporate boy,” he says. “And I was doing well, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I was spending most of my time swimming through the political currents.”
Lemstra enjoyed the work he did, but says it’s a different experience to be an entrepreneur. “I did some really cool projects at Shell, big change projects and mergers and acquisitions work,” he says. “It was exciting, interesting stuff. But it was different; because it was someone else’s money I was playing with—no matter what there’s a paycheck at the end of the month. It doesn’t work that way in start-ups.”
And Lemstra couldn’t be more enthusiastic. “I have the best job in the world,” he says.