David Cutler: Founder & CEO of Fortuna Coolers – Ep. 97

About David Cutler & Fortuna Coolers:

David Cutler is the founder of Fortuna Cools, an innovative start-up that’s going to completely change the way you think about coolers.

Ok, you might not be thinking about coolers on a daily basis, per se, but if you want to head out and bring some drinks with you on a hot summer day, odds are good that you’re putting your drinks into a plastic cooler.

But what if there was a better way of both keeping things cool and, you know, not creating throwaway products that will never decompose, forever polluting our oceans and land such that future generations will likely only know us as the “plastic era” people?

Too far?

You love plastic that much huh?

Ok, well, I’m deeply inspired by David’s Story. His optimism and determination led him to found a company that will have a profound impact on how foods are kept cool around the world, on an industrial and consumer scale. 

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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2:02 – “This was a student project before it was a company. And we started this thing in a design school class, called Design for Extreme Affordability, where we were partnered very fortunately with an NGO in the Philippines called Rare. And we were introduced to fishing communities that were struggling with cold chains, with how to keep their fish fresh from the time they were in the middle of the ocean, catching big fish, putting them in the back of their boat and trying to deliver them to markets in good condition, in top quality.” 

3:34 – “Essentially what we figured out was that Styrofoam, aside from being an environmental hazard, is also just not a particularly great insulation. It has the tendency to break all the time. So fishermen were constantly replacing it. It’s very fragile. It doesn’t even insulate particularly well. And really, the only thing that Styrofoam has going for it…is that it is so cheap. It’s kind of like the age old issue with plastics, even when they’re not the perfect tool for the job, it’s just really hard to compete on price.” 

*4:18 – “This was the kernel that we started working on in grad school. How can we find a product or a material that can do a better job of insulating than Styrofoam and that can also compete on price with Styrofoam?…The materials that we started looking at pretty quickly was broadly agricultural waste. So somebody else’s trash is very cheap…in the Philippines, it doesn’t take long to come across these piles of leftover coconut husks, and they produce about 16 billion coconuts per year in the Philippines alone…and no one is really doing anything with all of this amazing raw material. And it just so happens that the fiber of coconut husks is performing this insulation job already when the coconuts are on the tree. And it became our life’s work to take this natural insulation and transform it into a product and a material that could replace Styrofoam and do so cheaply and scalably.” 

8:47 – (Ross) “It seems like a nice balance between our motivations as individuals and as creators and the motivations of society at large. Because we know that we can’t get people to do things for no reason. That’s just impossible. As much as we would like to, it’s hard to make change. But if you create a product or something that somebody can use or they can buy and you build that in, it seems to me that it’s one of our greatest chances to get out of the mess we find ourselves in.” 

*9:32 – “The businesses and the business models that I think have the potential to really change the world are the ones where the impact is so deeply ingrained into whatever the core thing that the business is doing, that you simply cannot separate the positive impact from the growth of that business. And I think, as much as I respect and appreciate other businesses that do their one thing over here and then donate or devote a certain percentage of their profits to some environmental or social causes over there, I think it’s inherently a very fragile system when you’re depending on the good graces or these compromises where you extract this much natural resources, but then you, out of the goodness of your heart, do this positive thing over here. And yeah, I think it’s just such a powerful idea to have a positive impact, really embedded in the core thing that you’re doing. And I was inspired by a lot of companies that are trying to do that.” 

11:29 – (Ross) “I think it was Asimov who said those rules that we need to put into A.I., right? Don’t kill a human. There’s three rules. Don’t do any harm to a human. Now, whether they’ll follow that or not, we don’t know. But it seems like when businesses don’t have such rules attached to them as they grow, they can become the opposite. They can become something very different, something very monstrous. Compare what Steve Jobs had in the early days of Apple to what Apple is today. ‘We’re a pirate company. We’re an upstart company. We’re not the man.’ Now they are the man. Right? So it’s quick how a business can change. And if you don’t bake these things in at the start, it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll come in later. That a company will just one day magically decide to bake them in.”

13:37 – “I have to think about the long-term future of the company. And there’s always a little piece of me that feels this great sense of relief and freedom when I think about the future. Because there’s no way that the products that we make, whether we are acquired by some enormous multinational company or whether we go public someday or whether we just become a humongous company ourselves, there’s no way that our core impact is sacrificed because every single cooler that we sell, every product that we make, it means more farmers have extra income, it means less plastic in the world, less CO2 being burned by this waste that’s instead being transformed into useful material.” 

15:27 – “Plastics are quite literally the leftover hydrocarbons after oil has been refined for the higher value products that we use oil for today, things like gasoline, aviation, fuel. And so all of those sort of products are essentially subsidizing the production of plastics. That’s why we take oil out of the ground is because we need to be filling up our cars with so much oil every day. And essentially the low grade oil that is leftover after that initial refinery step is the raw material that turns into plastic. And so it is such a such a sad but fantastic example of externalities not being priced into the material on any level.”

16:27 – “You’re not pricing in all the environmental harm that is caused by the general process of oil extraction and understanding where that root subsidy comes from. It would not be profitable to be extracting oil out of the ground just to make plastics. So already every single plastic is subsidized on the back of oil. And…the end of life of plastics and the enormous cost that plastic waste takes on the environment, on people’s health, those prices are also not borne when you see the sticker price of plastics.”

17:43 – “For the last 60–70 years, the amount of capital, the amount of academic resources, the amount of brilliance that has been focused on plastics and on this sort of inorganic hydrocarbon material is absolutely staggering. For a long time, things like materials science departments in universities were synonymous with plastics researchers. They were subsidized by these big plastics companies. And there was so much focus and attention given to the world of plastics…It’s an amazing material, and there have been amazing breakthroughs when it comes to plastics. But I would just say that there are so many other amazing materials out there in the world – coconut husk fiber being such a small example.” 

18:43 – “There are so many other materials out there that are so overlooked, understudied and underappreciated. And I think just in the last couple of years, you’re starting to see more and more companies, more and more researchers starting to wake up and remember that there are all of these other materials out there and starting to take a second look at that. So that’s what’s pretty exciting about the current moment in time.”

*20:17 – “If you think about the research and development arm of our company, which is nature…nature has been doing this kind of evolutionary tests for us for millennia, because it is so important in nature to be able to sit out there in the sun for long periods without the insides of the coconut spoiling and rotting. And so nature has evolved this amazing material, coconut husk, which can sit up there on the palm tree or it can sit on the ground after the coconut has fallen…nature had to come up with this material that could insulate for long periods, and that is the coconut husk.” 

21:57 – “I’m so bullish on these kind of natural materials, because if you think about all sorts of different use cases, all sorts of different objectives that you’re looking for, whether it’s strength, whether it is water impermeability, something being waterproof, and so on and so forth, it’s tempting to try to start in a lab and start from molecules. But you can also take a step back and just think to yourself where in nature is this already happening and where might we piggyback on those natural materials to get this kind of performance already?” 

23:44 – “Most coconuts are produced for coconut oil, but there’s a range of different valuable coconut products that the international economy has started demanding. Coconut water is increasing in popularity every year. Still, coconut milk is a popular ingredient, and coconut plantations are not quite as toxic or potentially harmful as palm oil plantations…palm trees in general are very strong in typhoons. And so there was already quite a lot of coconut trees, palm trees in a lot of these Asian countries already. So there wasn’t a lot of deforestation that was related to coconut trees. But, the fact of the matter is that it is just this enormous global commodity. And the way these commodity markets work is that they are super optimized for one very, very specific crop, one very specific output. And in the case of coconut, it is kind of the meat or the water of the coconut.”

27:30 – “We had graduated a year and a half ago, and we’re still working on this thing. And, you know, probably it’s time to turn this into a sustainable enterprise…We were producing some prototypes when we were in school. We felt like there was a lot of excitement among the communities, among the users, also among our advisors and a lot of external people. We were just getting a lot of positive feedback and we were having a lot of fun in the process, which is not hard to do when you are tinkering on coconut farms and in fishing villages in the Philippines…And we had too many really amazing partners on the ground that were basically counting on us to continue working on this and to continue helping them sort of unlock all of this value. And so it was sort of a no brainer.” 

30:33 – “I’m never going to be the best person to scale some sort of hyper-local supply chain in the Philippines or Thailand or Vietnam. I love being the spark and I love starting things and kind of unlocking all the brilliance and resourcefulness that is already in these places. But there is a little piece of me in the back of my mind that thinks, the place that – even after all this time – the place that I understand the best, my comparative advantage, is being able to really scale this thing in a place like the US. And so I think sooner or later I will be back in the U.S. and the work in Southeast Asia will really be driven forward by our employees and partners in Southeast Asia that are so good at navigating and driving forward all things on the ground.”

32:16 – “Travel for me is basically what I live for. I think of the most profound learnings that I’ve had over the course of my life are basically things that I noticed being done as second nature when I travel. So basically just learning from the people and the places that I have been able to visit and live with over many years at this point. These are the most important parts of my life. And, yeah, I don’t think I would be the person I am or have the insights that I do if I had just spent my days sort of tinkering in a lab by myself or with colleagues who had the exact same background that I do.” 

35:52 – “I wouldn’t say my insights have been as simple as ‘we’re all essentially the same.’ I think, it’s even deeper than that, which is that the diversity of backgrounds and of expertise around the world really holds within it so much insight and resourcefulness and differences in terms of the way that people see the world, the way that people develop solutions to problems. And so my favorite thing is just learning about something that someone does in some other place that is so obvious to them and something that I had never thought of before.” 

*37:04 – (Ross) “I lived for an extended period of time in Europe, so I was there for nine years. That was my taste. My wife is Dutch and it’s obvious things to them. When you buy beer, you buy it in a crate of glass bottles. When you’re done, you return the empty bottles and the crate and you get money back and those bottles are refilled with new beer. How simple is that? It’s the easiest thing in the world for them. And here in the U.S., we say, ‘Nope, garbage, all of it. Start over.’ Do we really have to do that? No. And single use plastics in general. Shampoo. That’s stuff that I’m always thinking about how to get away from just shampoos, soaps, all these things in your bathroom, in your kitchen, single-use plastics everywhere. Does it need to be that way? Do we need to store all of these things with water? These are questions that I ask myself all the time. Or could we have a powder form and not ship water around? Big questions from this show, but I agree that people around the world, they have interesting solutions and their lives are different. So they’ll do different things.” 

41:17 – “We had been hearing this request for years, since the very first prototype that we made, random people around the world were asking if they could just buy one to take to the beach, to take to the mountains, show their friends, and be an advocate for the impact, as well as the beneficiaries of this really interesting, cool material that we’d been working on. And so, COVID was like it was for so many people. It was this opportunity to rethink things and launch something new. And so today the product that we developed out of this rethinking process, the Nutshell Cooler, is this product for individuals, it’s a great way to put your money where your values are.” 

44:26 – “We like to say that our products are made to last years or decades, just not millennia. And we do definitely prioritize durability. The Achilles heel for a lot of these so-called sustainable products has, or in the early days the knock against them, was that sure, they were made with organic materials or something, but they don’t work nearly as well. And they fall apart. You have to replace them more often. And aside from being a worse customer experience how sustainable is a product really if you constantly have to go out and buy a new one. And so we were super aware of that. And the materials that we’re starting with, again, naturally have a lot of durability baked into them. And then in our processing, we really prioritized making sure that although we don’t compromise the inherent biodegradability of the product, we really put an emphasis on durability and performance over time.” 

51:03 – “Life is good for me right now. I’m super lucky to be working with the best team I could possibly imagine…social entrepreneurship…it attracts and retains the best people in the world. I’m sure of that.”

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