by Dylan Walsh
Alex Bratianu, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, never planned to be an entrepreneur. He was sitting on an airplane one day when a voice came over the intercom and announced a 30-minute delay: the plane needed to be deiced. Twenty minutes later, another half-hour delay was announced. The pattern repeated for three hours until trucks rolled up and hosed the aircraft down with glycol.
Bratianu thought: we’re in the twenty-first century, inching towards gene therapy and reaching for fusion and maybe someday quantum computing, and this is how we remove ice from airplanes? In a car, you flip a switch and the rear window defrosts. Why don’t planes do that?
The question resonated beyond passenger convenience. In a conversation with the ex-CFO of JetBlue, Bratianu learned that a 30-minute delay can cost tens of thousands of dollars. If deicing could be done using an on-board technology, then companies would not be dependent on a fleet of trucks and they could run the process concurrent with deplaning and boarding.
During his final year at MIT Sloan, in 2015, Bratianu banded together with Ruben Toubiana, now a co-founder, and the two of them enrolled in Bill Aulet’s “New Enterprises.” In that class they learned a profound lesson that has informed their work ever since. “Typically, when engineers have an idea for a new device, they go into a closet, raise $3 million, build to perceived perfection, and two years later go out to sell what they’ve made and learn that, say, women won’t buy it because it won’t easily fit in their purse,” Bratianu said. “Before you put a single dollar or minute into R&D, you need to go talk to customers and understand what they want. Then you can spend your time and money building according to their specific needs, as opposed to your assumptions.”
So that’s what they did. In the first few conversations with customers, Bratianu asked if the technology was desirable. Everybody said yes. Though that confirmation felt good, advisers back at the Martin Trust Center noted that this response isn’t helpful. “They explained that we should push customers on details, try to find out what they would not want,” he said. “If you go for a ‘no,’ then you get really key information that can be translated into technical requirements.”
By the end of the class, Bratianu found himself at an interesting junction; work in finance in New York or continue to try to solve airplane de-icing. With a push from the Martin Trust Center, including a patchwork of small cash and in-kind grants, De-Ice was launched.
Once again, the principle of customer-centricity proved essential as the company turned its attention to regulation. Before making any permanent design decisions, they spoke with regulatory experts to fit their work within federal regulations. Over time, these conversations yielded detailed guidelines. “So we had design constraints from talking with customers in the spring of 2015, and then we had objective constraints from the regulators,” Bratianu said. “We could overlay these two into a Venn diagram where we design within the intersection of the circles and have something customers would buy and regulators would approve of.”
The global market for this technology currently exceeds $10 billion, but De-Ice, ignoring the allure of this number, is focused on one small segment: companies that maintain a fleet of business jets. Like the recommendation to first talk with customers, this narrow focus came upon advice from mentors at the Trust Center. “I see a lot of startups struggling to pick a single thing and do it really well,” he said. “If you don’t focus very tightly on one thing then you’ll simply run out money.” Though requests come in from other segments—the military, for instance—De-Ice “neatly puts them on the back burner so we can succeed at one thing before we move to the next.”
The company is nearing the end of research and development and moving into product certification. For the past two years, they have survived primarily on grants through MIT and the State of Massachusetts. In 2017, they finally got a seed grant when they were able to demonstrate demand for their product through signed business commitments. “Given the challenge we were trying to overcome and the fact that we had a young team without contacts, and none of our own money, MIT and the Trust Center really, really helped us launch this,” Bratianu said. “The resources, the mentorship, the engineering help—this was critical in actually allowing us to get to the stage where we are fundable and able to pursue the work full-time. There is no way we would have gotten here otherwise.”