More than 350 years ago, Saint-Gobain, the Paris-based building materials company, was just starting out as a glass manufacturer. Their first customer wanted them to install the windows and mirrors in his new house. The customer? King Louis XIV. The house? The Palace of Versailles.
Today, the company — a supplier of insulation, siding, roofing, and glass, among other products — operates in 66 countries and has more than 170,000 employees. So how has Saint-Gobain continued to innovate and change over the years?
“There’s an element within our DNA and within our R&D organization where we recognize that to be successful for another 350 years, which is our intent, we have to identify those things that are going to disrupt our current businesses,” says Minas Apelian, Vice President of Research & Development and Global Director of External Venturing at Saint-Gobain and its subsidiary CertainTeed Corporation. “It’s a balance between doing the work that we need to drive innovation across our existing businesses, developing new products, solving those problems, and then finding those things that are going to take us to the next level — that even threaten the existing businesses that we’re in.”
One way Saint-Gobain is working to disrupt their businesses is through partnerships with various external incubators, accelerators, and startups. One such partnership is with the largest cleantech incubator in the United States, Greentown Labs, located in Somerville, Mass. Saint-Gobain is a sponsor and member of the Greentown Labs community, providing product donations, partnering with startups from Greentown, and using lab space at the facility to test new technologies. We spoke with Apelian and the Director of CertainTeed’s R&D platforms, Todd P. DiNoia, about how the organization works with startups, partners with incubators and accelerators around the world, and promotes innovation internally.
Working with Startups
One of the main programs Apelian runs as head of external venturing is NOVA, a unit dedicated to creating strategic partnerships between Saint-Gobain and startup companies across the globe.
“Primarily, what we try to find are opportunities where there’s a synergistic relationship,” says Apelian. “We have a lot of capabilities, we have market access, technical capabilities, as well as funding resources that can benefit a startup, and in turn, the startup can provide new ideas, inspiration for our teams, and help us to see new possibilities. We try to work together with them…and find ways we can both advance our interests. Sometimes it winds up [as an] investment, sometimes it ends up in joint developments, sometimes in a commercial agreement. …We don’t want to crush the startup. We’re a $50 billion company, and so it can be a little overwhelming because we have to have governance and policies and procedures, which we need, but a startup doesn’t exactly need the same thing. It’s a bit of a fine line to walk, in terms of how to do that in a sensible way.”
One startup that Saint-Gobain has partnered with through the NOVA program is the textiles startup, Brochier. Through this partnership, they created ONIRYS illuminated fabric, which combines fiberglass and fiber optics.
Partnerships with Incubators and Accelerators
Another way Saint-Gobain finds startups is by partnering with different incubators and accelerators.
“We try to find opportunities where the incubator is proximate to us,” says Apelian. “We want our people to be involved. It’s great to support an incubator financially, and we’re happy to do it, but it’s better for us if we can become a part of that community. …There’s [also] proximity in terms of what the incubator is doing. Is it something where we can bring value, is it something of interest for us?”
A main focus of Saint-Gobain/CertainTeed’s is creating sustainable building materials, which is what drew them to Greentown Labs.
If you’re interested in developing “new energy-efficient sustainable technologies,” Apelian says, “[Greentown Labs] is sort of center-of-the-fairway for us in terms of our corporate vision. Startups that come in and out of here are people with ideas that have the potential of fundamentally changing how you build buildings, how you design them, what they mean, and we want to be part of that. We want to help them to advance their ideas, and we’re frankly inspired by what they do.”
Saint-Gobain first partnered with Greentown Labs in 2014, agreeing to a two-year sponsorship where they would both operate and share research space in the Greentown facility and connect with the startup companies that are based there.
“[Greentown Labs] is also uniquely positioned with their ability to prototype,” says CertainTeed’s DiNoia. “They are actually taking in startups that are building their first prototypes and products, so we’re able to join them in the labs and help them on that piece of their journey.”
Through this partnership, Saint-Gobain has collaborated with two Greentown Labs members in the form of investment, joint developments, or a commercial agreement:
- Building Envelope Materials: A Greentown Labs start-up exploring innovative ways to improve the energy efficiency of old buildings.
- Crowd Comfort: A startup that developed a unique and simple crowdsourcing application to gather real-time occupant input about comfort and other building information to improve efficiency and service levels. The Crowd Comfort app is currently being utilized at Saint-Gobain’s Northborough R&D Center, in Northborough, MA.
The partnership between Greentown and Saint-Gobain was recently extended through 2019, as Saint-Gobain has agreed to provide product donations and building science expertise to support the construction of Greentown Labs’ expansion site, the Global Center for Cleantech Innovation. This new center, just a short walk away from Greentown’s current location, will triple the size of the incubator.
Saint-Gobain also has significant partnerships with two incubators outside the US: Impulse Partners in France, which focuses on construction and energy, comfort in buildings, social housing, and more; and CUBO in Brazil, which focuses mainly on digital startups. Both partnerships have been in place for about a year.
Internal Innovation at Saint-Gobain/CertainTeed
CertainTeed has five different product lines, each with its own R&D organization.
“Saint-Gobain has a large R&D center [in Northborough, MA],” says DiNoia, who leads the R&D group there. “The team there really focuses on upstream research, around the building space and the built environment. So we look at things relative to building science— energy, insulation, moisture, acoustics. Basically, any problem you would incur in an environment in a building.”
The company also encourages individuals outside of the R&D centers to come up with new ideas.
“Projects start from the business,” says Apelian. “We have strategies where we articulate a vision for where we see each business evolving. Then across our businesses, we have a vision around trying to build better living spaces, trying to find solutions for the world’s problems. So, it’s part following our insights around how the markets are evolving and part what the businesses are saying. But it’s also a little bit about our own people looking at that and driving their own ideas, so challenging the businesses a little bit, stretching them and maybe making them even a little bit uncomfortable, and I think that tension is healthy.”
There’s also a mechanism in the company for allowing employees to submit ideas — and if they gain support, to leave their day-to-day responsibilities behind to develop them.
Apelian has only been with Saint-Gobain for four of its 352 years of existence. He knows there’s the perception that a company with such a long history must be “a little bit conservative and slow moving,” he says. “But there’s a real passion to be able to encourage this kind of thing with the company. I think it comes from the fact of our long history of reinvention. [Innovation] is encouraged, and [DiNoia’s] organization is trying to drive that within our North American building materials business, and we have pockets of it happening all around the company.”
“When you come closer, you see that one out of four Saint-Gobain products did not exist five years ago.”