David Dellal: Co-Founder and CEO of Floe, Inc. – Ep. 147

About This Episode:

David Dellal is the Co-Founder & CEO of Floe Inc, a cleantech startup developing a smart solution to prevent the extensive, costly water damage caused by ice buildup on buildings’ roofs in the winter.

You know what I love? I love learning about amazing solutions to problems that I never knew existed, such as the fact that $9.5 billion in damage occurs due to ice on rooftops each year in the US alone.

Not only that, de-icing as an entire industry is archaic, harmful, and wasteful, meaning that it’s a huge sector ripe for eco-disruption.

David recently made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, and his idea was conceived in MIT and perfected at Yale, so I’m looking forward to a great conversation with an extremely smart dude.

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1:57 – “In the winter, what happens is snow falls onto everyone’s homes and everyone’s buildings but 90% of buildings are under insulated and under ventilated. And so what that means is that heat rising out of the building is going to heat the top of the roof and start to melt all that snow on top of the roof itself. The snow on that edge of that roof, that overhang or that eave freezes over and forms a block of ice. And so any melted snow water that’s trickling down the roof is going to pull up behind that block of ice and it can’t go to the gutters, to the downspouts and get discharge off the roof. And so it’ll go under the building materials and shingles, enter the building, and cause tens of thousands of dollars in water damage.”

3:37 – “The bigger problem, though, is actually the water that’s built up behind that block of ice. So you might not think about that block of ice holding a bunch of water behind it like a dam. And that water pantry inside that building, again, can destroy people’s interior homes, destroy your furniture, destroy your computer, destroy really everything you own because you have your roof leaking in the middle of the winter. And so a few of these folks in this team originally had dealt with this problem numerous times where they started seeing water coming in through the ceilings, coming in through their walls, like having mildew and mold and really things escalating out of control. And we wondered, ‘Is there just a better solution to tackle this right now?’”

7:25 – “The two key solutions right now in the market are one is called heat tape…which is basically just a heating film that that heats up and tries to melt ice and snow on the roof. The issue with that is that it’s really expensive. And so you’re just burning electricity all winter long. It’s really bad for the environment for that reason. It’s actually one of the largest energy hogs in a lot of cold states like Colorado and Utah and Maine, they just have major burns for heating cables. They’re also actually really unsafe. They can cause building fires and roof fires. And so a lot of folks don’t choose to adopt them for that reason. And the alternative is essentially to get guys to climb onto the roof in the middle of the winter and try to steam off with essentially these massive engines or scrape off the ice in some way. But there’s a lot of liability there.”

9:18 – “We, for instance, very early days, we just wanted to see like what is customer sentiment out there? Can we get some units just on some roofs just to see how things work? And so I found all these small Vermont and New Hampshire towns which were close to Boston, where I was living at the time. And I sent just a few emails off at 3:00 in the morning, not really expecting much of these listservs. And they had maybe 4000–5000 people on them, not very large. And they finally got approved at 9 a.m. and by 11 a.m., I had 55 calls and emails saying, ‘I need to talk to you. I need to buy this product.’ And so that was an initial indication that, wow, there’s actually real market demand here. And this is a real problem that I have the capabilities and a product that can really touch on these people’s lives in a significant way.”

11:40 – “I think a lot of entrepreneurs, when they get into venture, they say like, ‘I’m going to hit this next milestone and we’ll see where it gets us.’ I think mentally should be prepared to dedicate 5–10 years of your life to this. But I think when you first dive in, you should just hit one milestone, hit the next, and then just see where things end up. But I think ultimately the motivation there is, again, the customer really – if you relate to the customer and remain customer-focused and customer-centric and keep your ear to the ground in that sense, where you can relate to them and really understand how this is an issue to them, how this really profoundly affects their lives. I think that really makes all the difference. You can inspire a team that way. You can inspire the folks around you. You can inspire your partners to really try to go out there and make their best effort to try to make a big difference in someone else’s life.”

14:21 – “We pull weather forecast data from the National Weather Service and some other locations as well online, as well as we have some Iot sensors on the unit itself. And so the system itself is extremely intelligent and we’ve developed proprietary algorithms internally to essentially analyze the weather, to figure out when are ice dams forming or ice dams on the roof. And then from there we essentially use a drip irrigation line similar to what you’d find for agriculture or for gardening that’s installed on the eave of that roof or that overhang. And then from there, when necessary, it pumps up using a small pump on the unit itself, a non-corrosive, biodegradable pet- and plant-safe de-icing fluid that goes through this drip line and comes out in certain channels, essentially at given intervals, when the system determines it’s necessary. And it creates channels in the ice dam to allow the water to get discharged. So we’re not actually trying to get rid of the entire ice dam. It’s very good for installation, actually, but we’re trying to create channels underneath the ice dam that allows that water and snowmelt to get to the discharge rather than ending up inside the building.”

19:21 – “Our goal ultimately is to really try to revolutionize the de-icing industry for the 21st century. We’re starting with buildings but not just end up at buildings so do again, like roads, runways, train lines, planes, everything, you name it. And I think this is becoming increasingly apparent now, also, just with climate change, where everyone thinks that climate change is the climate warming up, which of course it is. But in the process, you also have these arctic winds and like winter vortices that we’ve been seeing the last few years where places that never had ice and snow before, like Texas or Oregon, are now starting to have these crazy snow storms. And they’re just totally not prepared for this. And I think there’s a real opportunity there to disrupt the traditional de-icing industry with one that’s intelligent, data driven and also autonomous.”

22:29 – “I’m currently doing my PhD so I’ve been taking classes in four years, but I think the reason why I’m finishing up my Ph.D. is that a Ph.D. itself is in a given topic, but it really teaches you how to think and how to develop essentially like a hypothesis-driven mindset where rather than saying, ‘I know this is what’s happening and this is what I’m going to build off of,’ you’re actually saying, ‘Everything’s a hypothesis,’ where it’s, ‘I think I know this is going to happen. How can I test this in order to move forward with this idea and validate it or figure out I’m wrong and figure out a new approach to that?’ And I think that actually holds very true for startups and business in general, rather than having these essentially die-hard principles where you believe everything you’re saying, you should go off and you figure out like, how can you design a test to figure out, is this actually a right assumption? Is it not? Can we fail faster or can we not? And figure out what are the next steps moving on from that.”

25:41 – (Ross) “The truly smart people throughout the ages have always operated in such a way. And I’m just, I’ve just been rereading Plato’s Republic, the dialogues with Socrates, supposedly, and I love that he spends an entire section arguing with this person using logic and trying to get this other person Thrasymachus to agree with his point of view. And at the end of this incredibly long debate, he says, ‘Well, I still don’t know what the answer is.’ He spent, let’s say, 2 hours convincing somebody incredibly, but at the end he just freely admits, ‘I’m still no closer to understanding.’ And I think that is a leap that is hard for a lot of people to make, to admit one’s own ignorance. And, it’s just something that I wish we had more of.”

29:49 – “I’ve worked in a number of different research labs, and I think the ones that have been most successful are the ones where you really bring in people from completely different backgrounds. You have like even humanists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, biologists, you put them in a room together for 6 hours and see what they come up with…I also think it’s, just again, staying curious and just learning about things that might not seem relevant on paper right now but you never really know when you’re going to pick them up again. And so if you see an article in The Economist about the future of tanks, maybe it’s worth just giving it a read and seeing what they talk about there because it might be relevant for something you’re thinking about two years down the line.”

30:33 – “One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is how do you just document everything that’s going on that you’re reading and consuming? I think all of us these days are listening to podcasts and audiobooks and reading and just trying to capture all this information. And I think all of us take in that information and then we lose it very quickly. And so I think another key piece is figuring out a really good notetaking habit for you that works well for you, to essentially jot all that information down and be able to retain it over time.”

42:40 – “I 100% think that, I think my life from here on now is going to be dedicated to climate change, whether it’s in this company or the next. And the reason why I say that, is that, is I actually started off my career in, medical technologies. And while I find medical technologies really interesting, we’re at a point where medical technologies is now – the four leading causes of death, and the reason why essentially, the average age in the U.S. is actually decreasing now is not because of technologies anymore. For a very long time it was increasing because technologies were working well. But at this point, the leading causes of death in America are depression, opioids, obesity and COVID. And we have solutions for all of those. It’s a question of can we get those solutions out there at scale? And those are questions for politics and policy and society at large. But it’s not a question of technology anymore. But if we stopped intervening in climate change today in a hundred years from now, we’d be in a very, very bad place. And so while there are, of course, terrible issues out there with health care and terrible diseases out that have yet to be solved like cancer and Alzheimer’s, we’re in a pretty good place from a human life expectancy standpoint where if nothing changed in a hundred years, we’d still be in a pretty good place. If we change nothing in one hundred years about climate change, we’d be in a far worse place than we are right now.”

45:18 – (Ross) “If you ask a lot of people, ‘What would your dream be? What would you like to contribute?’ They’ll say, ‘I would love to, my ultimate dream would be to create a cure for cancer.’ That’s something every kid can say. ‘I’d love to create a cure for cancer.’ It just strikes me as so funny that nobody could have imagined, there’s this woman who creates the mRNA vaccine, a breakthrough vaccine technology, and it works, and in record time, and it applies to COVID – this woman is not the greatest hero of the world. Should she not be celebrated just at an enormous scale. Like why is LeBron James more celebrated than that woman? And then instead of the world cheering her on, there’s hatred and animosity…So I have my serious doubts whether the person who actually does cure cancer will be celebrated or hated.”

49:14 – (Ross) “I always just think about myself on my own deathbed. What am I going to wish that I had done? What would I regret not having done? And of course, fighting for the enemy or just being on the wrong side of history, as it were, that’s a pretty big thing that I’m afraid of. Very much don’t want that.”

52:01 – “I think really it’s just staying open to yourself, one, knowing yourself and understanding who you are and what are your core values? Is going down this career path that you’ve looked upon because maybe there’s financial incentives or like there’s prestige involved, is that really – maybe that is – but is that really who you are? And two, just keep an open mind, because once you know who you are, there are going to be opportunities everywhere that are going to pop up, whether you expect them or not so even if they don’t fit in a 10-year plan, just keep an open mind to them because they may open opportunities and new avenues you never thought about but could ultimately be very fruitful and very fulfilling.”

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