Cleantech Startup 101 – Sam Grill, CEO of International Material Recovery
As part of our ongoing “Cleantech Startup 101” blog series, this week we interview Sam Grill, CEO of International Material Recovery (IMR), a Foresight client. IMR is a BC-based company that separates and recovers gypsum from waste drywall. The recovered gypsum is processed and used in the manufacture of new construction materials.
What led you to develop this idea/product?
We saw an opportunity to take garbage (waste drywall) and turn it into a secondary product (gypsum for cement manufacturing). Canadian cement manufacturers are looking for alternative inputs and our recycled gypsum product ticks a bunch of boxes. A significant portion of the cost of gypsum is transportation costs so, since we’re only transporting 4-7 hours away, we can offer a deep discount. In addition, we’re displacing mined gypsum, we’re reducing the greenhouse gases associated with transporting gypsum, and we’re also taking the gypsum out of the waste stream so it doesn’t contaminate the end products in recycling plants.
What is the best thing about being a cleantech innovator in Canada?
Working with people who have typically worked in resource-based industries and seeing how passionate they are about coming to work every day for a company that offers a recycled product and that allows them to make a difference in the way cement is manufactured.
What is the hardest thing about being a cleantech innovator in Canada?
It’s easy to get inputs (waste) for our product; what’s challenging is building out the market and finding the right people who are willing to risk their jobs to work with us. Finding investors is also challenging, but it’s tough to make a 10% return anywhere these days. When you’re offering a simple system that has recoverable assets, it’s easier to get a second look from the investment community.
How did you go about building a market?
By building trust and delivering on what you say, you’re going to deliver. In four months I grew revenues by 75% by driving 300 kilometers a day and building relationships within the cement community. It took me another six months to build strong partnerships.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned so far about starting up a cleantech business?
Nothing is as easy as it looks, and everything takes double the time you think it’s going to take. It’s also difficult emotionally – when you’re relying on one customer or one employee or one piece of equipment, it can be a rollercoaster of ups and downs.
So is it worth it?
It is, because I’m passionate about this business. It’s a way to make an interesting living – but it’s not for everyone.
What has been the most important contributor to your success so far?
Building relationships and trust has been the backbone of our growth. Foresight and industry organizations have helped with key introductions to investors and people in the cement community. Having the right introductions at the right time is critical, and then you need to nurture those relationships and grow them.
The Foresight Executive in Residence I work with has helped me think bigger picture – she has not only helped me grow the vision for the business but helped me figure out my role as manager.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?
That the human capital aspects of running a business are challenging: the hardest part is not creating a product but finding the right people to help you. From the earliest stages, focus on your team as they will be your partners and who you need to work with every day. If you don’t have the right people the company won’t work, no matter how good your idea is.
For more information on IMR, see www.imrcanada.com
For more information on the services and support that Foresight offers cleantech startups, see foresightcac.com/services