4 Questions for… Minas Apelian

Vice President Internal and External Venture, he explains how the events of 2020 have turned the startup world on its head but how they have also acted as a significant catalyst for innovation.

1. What does Nova look for in a startup?

NOVA by Saint-Gobain is a small group of around 10 people spread across the world. Every year we look at about 1,000 startups, we downsize those to 500 that we actively evaluate, then we get into projects with our businesses in the 100s that we assess whether there’s an opportunity there or not. Last year we closed seventeen deals, about half of those were equity investments, the others were simply joint-development agreements of some kind and bringing in disruptive startups into the organization.

We look at things that are directly related to our business, like bringing efficiency to the construction value chain, construction tech; and creating more functional and higher performing building spaces.

We also ask ourselves the hard questions. How do we find the most innovative startups to bring in and partner with either as an investor, a codeveloper, a sponsor, or an advocate?  What value to these startups bring to Saint Gobain and what value to we bring to the startups?

2. What was the immediate impact COVID-19 had on NOVA’s partners?

COVID has created a big disruption in the hierarchy of opportunities, and startups acted very quickly to be able to adapt to that, either in acceleration, pivoting and shifting.

These are companies that don’t have a huge runway. Each of them had to act in a matter of days to figure out how to adjust their burn rate, how to do the things they needed to do to secure their position.

Almost immediately, in a very human and charitable way, our startups actively engaged on how they can help. We did that at Saint-Gobain. We repositioned our manufacturing capabilities, reached out to local hospitals and communities and said, “what can we do to help here?” Our startups were doing the same thing. There were 3D printing making parts for ventilators. Companies that reconfigured their technology to produce a new antiseptic wipe. With so many companies that are in survival mode today, putting the good of the world first and foremost was very rewarding and fantastic to see.

3. Has the Covid-19 crisis changed the SG venture activity?

The way we work with startups has changed. Traditionally speaking, we like to get in front of people, visit the startups, see how they are doing. Obviously, we can’t do that. It’s been a lot of calls over Microsoft Teams.

But it’s worked well in terms of seeing how they have been able to develop. We’ve seen opportunities with some companies where we’ve been able to step in and invest in them in a way that’s pretty attractive to us to help them solve a problem.

In terms of market activity, we’ve seen that while there was a bit of a slowdown in overall venture activity at the end of Q1 and Q2, it’s really picked up in Q3. I won’t say things are back to normal. But we have seen things pick back up.

4. Now that we’re in the latter part of 2020, what do you think will be the areas of opportunity for NOVA and your partners these next few months?

Broadly speaking, we’ve seen many startups use COVID-19 as an opportunity to turn challenges into innovations.

We have a startup partner that we work with that is a single-family residential builder that uses a prefab and initial design platform. They’re seeing a number of dynamics that are interesting. For one, people are now thinking about sanitation in their homes in a different way. Our partner has clients who placed a sink by the entry to their home, so that when people come in, they can wash their hands before touching any surfaces. This was an almost unthinkable thing four months ago that now is a customer request.

When you’re working with startups, you’re working with companies that are very much oriented in the future. At Saint-Gobain, when we think about long-range plans, we think three years into the future. For startups, three years is the shortest time scale they are working on, it’s more often longer than that in terms of the evolution of their business.

One of the biggest catalysts for innovation is crisis. How you succeed is by putting talented and passionate people into the crucible and you give them access to all the resources we have at Saint-Gobain and you ask them, “How can we help you solve this problem?”

I don’t lose a moment’s sleep over the capability and capacity of our teams to solve any problem.