Spotlight - 06/12/23

A Q&A with Biomaterials Expert Mitchell Heinrich

15 min

By Meghan Day

“Often the role of the designer is to find the commonalities and the connective tissue between different skill sets and meld them together to create a new story.”

A Q&A with Biomaterials Expert Mitchell Heinrich, What For Design x Checkerspot

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Mitchell Heinrich, the CEO and founder of What For Design and a consultant for biomaterials innovator Checkerspot. We’ve mentioned Checkerspot before, in our post about sustainable prototyping materials. Mitchell has worked on the development of Checkerspot’s algae-based biomaterials for years. He has also worked with innovative companies like Bolt Threads, and Google X to imagine how biomaterials might show up in our lives and offer sustainable solutions to big issues. We asked him about how he got into material innovation, what makes a material sustainable, and what advice he has for designers who want to incorporate biomaterials into their practice.

Q: How did your collaboration with Checkerspot start?

A: Early in the pandemic I was looking for new work and new opportunities, specifically in biomaterials. I’d heard about Checkerspot because they’re local to me here in Oakland, California.I I reached out on a whim to Charlie, the CEO, and said, You know, I’ve got a background doing product R&D specifically with bio materials. I’m really excited about your technology. I’d love to see it succeed in the world and see if there is any way that we could collaborate.

He and I had a number of phone calls early on, just understanding where we were both coming from. We realized that we were basically both on the same journey of trying to commercialize biomaterials and to displace a lot of the less sustainable materials that are out there in the world. We found a lot of mutual interest and mutual respect. I started working with the business development side of things. This new material…what does it want to be when it grows up? How can it be the world? That’s how it started. My first project with them was essentially getting buckets of goop and trying to figure out: what are some really charismatic and interesting embodiments that help to tell the story of the materials and how can it be applied to the real world and solve problems.

Q: What are some of the unique properties of Checkerspot’s sustainable materials, and how do they differ from traditional materials?

A: First, It’s good to get a sense of the underlying technology, which is a fermentation process that uses an algae to create an oil. It’s almost like brewing beer but instead of getting alcohol at the end, you’re getting this oil. The oil is interesting because it is this base material that can be applied to a whole range of different products and applications

In the same way that fossil fuels and petroleum are put into the plastic shopping bags that you use, they’re in skin care products, many other oils are used in cooking, things of that nature. So, similarly, the Checkerspot algae oil has a whole range of applications, including cooking including skincare, plastics, and plastic replacements. Where I have focused is on the plastic side. It’s essentially an algae-based polyurethane, which can be a rigid and very durable material. It has these great properties in that, through different formulations, you can also come out with something that’s very flexible, which is compliant and accommodating for certain applications. As a polymer it has this great range. This is a bit of the reverse commute for a designer. Instead of thinking about an application and trying to select the most appropriate materials for it, I’ve got this material that has these amorphous properties and I get to figure out what applications might make the most sense. Then I go build them and see how they perform.

Q: Did you have any parameters around the kinds of things you might make?

A: I decided that, because of my ethos and what I’m trying to do here, I was aiming for things that have the most impact: objects through which I felt the materials could gain traction quickly, where the consumer’s willingness to pay in that particular product category was good enough, so I wasn’t just chasing the cheapest possible product. Also objects in which the material was really going to sing. It had to have a reason to be. We’re not just making more landfill, we’re making a meaningful replacement that’s going to last a long time. 

I got to thinking about different product verticals and different types of consumers. I thought about action sports, which often take place outdoors. You’re already thinking about the environment because you’re partaking in the bounty of nature: hiking, skiing, camping, surfing. Those consumers are already predisposed to thinking more about the materials that they’re using in the products they’re buying. I thought about surfing fins, skateboard wheels, things in that world. 

I also thought about culinary applications. There’s an analogy in the organic food movement. Slow food is this wonderful success story about how we went from everybody just assuming that conventional farming was the way to go, it’s all about throwing as much fertilizer as you can on that field to be as productive as possible. But you lose flavor, you lose the land over time, right? You’re pulling all of the nutrients instead of thinking cyclically. So I’m trying to get products into the culinary world, where people are already thinking about sustainable ecosystems and circular economies. What products do people in that world need that might include a polymer like this? They might need knife handles, cutlery, things like that. I’m very fortunate that I get to partake in these kinds of projects. It’s kind of a dream for an industrial designer to have total blue sky projects.

Q: How did you start getting into material innovation yourself?

A: Earlier in my career I worked on a lot of renewable energy technologies, both at the small, human scale—charging laptops, charging phones, using renewable energy, especially in the development world—and then also at the utility scale—big wind turbines. I ended up joining Google X, the special projects team at Google, and was part of the early pipeline team. We were thinking about what Google X should be working on. What are those big challenging problems in the world? And one of the things that I got really interested in was the constituents of the landfill. What do we throw away? I combed through what data I could find around what we throw away and how we might mediate or remediate some of those issues. One of the big ones was textiles. We throw away an incredible amount of textile. Fast fashion, speculative buying, all of this, and I came across a company called Bolt Threads. They’re a materials company that was working on a spider silk polymer that would be spun into a fiber that would then have high performance characteristics and could potentially replace some of the less sustainable materials like polyesters.

I tried to figure out how to get Google X to either acquire them or fund them or otherwise bolster their efforts but it turned out they had everything that they needed. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, though. It was this little nugget of insight that I couldn’t let go of.  I approached them and said, Hey, here’s a bunch of ideas for how I can imagine your materials showing up in the world. You can have these ideas. I became their director of special projects and worked at Bolt Threads for about four and a half years. I ran their product R&D group. It was similar to my role at Checkerspot, partnering with the deep scientific bench. How can we adjust these polymers to make them perform this way? 

Q:  How have designers and manufacturers responded to these innovative materials?

A:  Biomaterials is still in this early stage wherein the materials that are developed exist in a bit of an echo chamber. There’s a materials world that a lot of these products get launched into, and not a lot of them break out of that smaller world. I did see some successes at Bolt Threads. We did a spider silk knit tie and that got a lot of press. We sent our very first one to Stan Lee, the Marvel comics icon. The biggest challenge for biomaterials is getting awareness in the general public about why it’s important, why it’s useful, and what’s different about it.

Q: How does Checkerspot ensure that its materials are environmentally friendly throughout their entire lifecycle, from production to disposal?

A: That’s a really complicated question because a lot of people think, when they first come across a new material, especially as a designer, historically speaking the most important question that they think to ask is, What happens when you’re done? Can you put it in the compost bin? While that’s a very charismatic end of life—when you don’t feel like you’re putting something in the landfill, you’re putting it back into this nutrient cycle— that’s just one small piece of the whole puzzle.

When I think about the sustainability of materials, I think about the feed stocks that are going into it. Are you digging it out of the ground? Is it petroleum based, or is it extractive in some way? If it’s a bio-based material, are you feeding it sugar? Where’s that sugar coming from? Is this clear-cutting the Amazon rainforest to plant sugarcane or palm oil to feed these materials? Does it require a ton of fertilizer? You need to think very far upstream. Another thing that I think a lot about is what is its useful life. This is more on the product embodiment side but is there a way to not have a product at all? If it does need to be, is there a way to make it something that can be shared or to make it last for years and years and years? The lifespan of a product can often come down to material properties. An example is when a friend of mine recently had to replace this dishwasher because one of the hoses had depolymerized, it basically turned into goop because it was seven years old. The rest of the dishwasher was fine but the damaged hose sprayed water all over the electronics and then it was dead. Had they used a different material in that one three dollar part, his dishwasher could have had a more useful life. Of course the end of life is a big deal as well. What do you do with it when you’re done?

Checkerspot as a company is evolving and learning, they’re building and iterating on their materials to date. They’ve focused a lot on those feedstock and longevity issues. They’re starting to look at what that end-of-life holding looks like with the Checkerspot material.

Q: What does your research and development process look like, or what might it look like?

A: I do a lot of sketching, thinking, 3D modeling, and physical fabrication. It’s about, What can it be? And then, How do I make the best possible version of that to see if it has legs for the Checkerspot team? They have an amazing, vertically integrated group; everything from people who are designing the genome of an algae to people processing the fermentation and then processing the result of the fermentation, and people extracting the oils and figuring out what to do with the biomass so that it can be put back into the process. Then they also have a retail company that is designing and selling backcountry skis. It’s wild. They’re taking their own materials and applying them in the world, and they’re using that as an extension of the lab so that they can understand how they’re performing and how they can do better. They then feed that back in all the way back to the beginning. Always asking, Is there some tweak we can make to the algae’s molecular structure so that we can have a higher performing, better material?

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a bunch of folks throughout that spectrum, mostly on the polymer science side but a little bit on the fermentation side as well.

Q: What are some exciting new materials or applications that you’re currently working on?

A: One of the most exciting things that I’m working on came to me as a result of the pandemic. I was thinking about isolation and how we were all stuck in one place with our lives mediated by screens. Here I was playing with his new material that has interesting properties, and I could make whatever shape I wanted. At the same time, I was seeking more analog experiences and teaching myself how to do different electronics projects. I got a record player and I was playing records, and it dawned on me that I should be making records out of biomaterials. So, I did.

Records are made of PVC, one of the materials most toxic to humans and the environment, and they’re seeing an incredible resurgence in popularity. They’re the highest selling media format right now, they overtook CDs. A lot of people are buying records for that analog experience, so much so that the record industry can’t keep up with demand. There’s not enough record production capacity, and the people who make the machines that make the records are booked out for years in advance. So here’s this new technology, that’s a more sustainable material and that can also make playable records. When you look at a record, the audio component of it is really just the geometry on the micron scale. The Checkerspot material can easily take the shape of something at that scale. I’m essentially getting oldies from the record store and duplicating them to play around. How can I increase the audio fidelity? How can I figure out how to scale up production to be able to meet demand and to try to displace some of that gnarly PVC out there?

Q: What advice would you give to industrial designers who are interested in incorporating sustainable materials into their work, but don’t know where to start?

A: It can be super intimidating. I felt the same way because I was pretty far along in my career when I started working with biomaterials. I felt like I was starting over because I had to learn all about how fermentation processes work and how this biology fits in. As a designer you think about materials, but a lot of it has to do with the tactile component. With biomaterials, we’re starting to talk about the molecular component. You have to go a lot deeper. My advice would be, first and foremost, getting your hands dirty. The way that I can get up to speed the quickest is by just trying. I’m a tangible learner and I think a lot of people in the design field are, it’s probably a self-selecting group in that way.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is that there’s a lot of interest in biomaterials, so people are creating these open source libraries, basically handing out recipes. That can be really helpful in understanding the components that you need in order to make a material. You often need an aggregate and a binder. Maybe you’re getting coffee grounds as your aggregate to give your material structure, and then using some sort of agar as the binder. Some of these recipes just use stuff that you can get from the grocery store. That’s an easy way to start playing around without a lot of cost.

The other thing is to hang out with people that know more than you do. For me working at places like Bolt Threads and Checkerspot meant being surrounded by a lot of folks with completely different areas of knowledge. I would seek them out and ask questions and like, What do you do every day? What does it look like when you’re doing this bench science?

I tend to be the person who connects the dots. Often the role of the designer is to find the commonalities and the connective tissue between different skill sets and meld them together to create a new story. It’s like designing yourself; who are the people you can go and talk to to build more of that connective tissue?

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