Mehrdad Mahdjoubi makes the process of founding his company Orbital Systems sound easy. If the fact that the idea arrived while working with Nasa is taken into account, it perhaps sounds less simple.
Mahdjoubi's idea to use space technology to change the way we consume water here on earth has earned him backing from the likes of H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson and Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström. The truth however is that this wasn't the original plan. As a teenager, the Malmö native wasn't thinking about the earth. He was thinking about the greatest game on earth.
“I played football to a good level as a kid, in the highest junior league, the Juniorallsvenskan for Malmö as part of the 89 generation,” he explains to The Local.
The goal was to make it in football, and considering he was playing with Sweden's most successful ever football club at domestic level, there was a decent chance he would. As is so often the case with sport however, injury put the dream to bed, and he had to adapt.
“My original idea was to play football for a living, and if that didn't work, what felt natural was to become an architect, which my parents are. I grew up around this creative process of shaping things, thinking about how something should be done before it actually is done – the essence of a good product really.”
“As I looked deeper into architecture I realized industrial design is the same approach, but with more than just buildings – with everything. Perfume bottles, cars, vacuum cleaners, whatever. There's way more freedom, that attracted me,” he continues.
Choosing to study industrial design at Lund University proved to be a key moment in the entrepreneur's story. It was there that he connected with Nasa, collaborating with the Johnson Space Center to come up with design ideas for the Mars missions. Getting insight into the American space agency was an eye opener – it turns out it's not all moon landings and big dreams.
“What people perhaps don't know about Nasa is that while the raw technology capacity is phenomenal, with super smart people working there, the drawback is it's a government entity, operating on a state budget. It's not an open-plan office with the kind of entrepreneurial spirit people may think. It's like any other government building – which is a bit sad. I think it would be able to produce a crazy amount of great projects.”
Working with Nasa also changed the way he thinks about technology in general.
“You start to see the real barriers for going to space. I soon understood that sending people to Mars is not a problem anymore. We've sent robots there. Keeping them alive is the problem.”
“When Elon Musk talks about colonizing Mars, people think it sounds really cool. If he were to say: we'll colonize it, everyone will walk around in diapers and you won't be able to get a shower, suddenly the vision changes. Unless we completely revolutionize our way of using our resources, going to Mars would be about vacuum toilets and no showers, ever.”
The Orbital Systems production team. Photo: Orbital Systems
Which is where his idea came in. For the Nasa project Mahdjoubi came up with a shower that was far more efficient than the standard, saving water usage by up to 90 percent. Though obviously useful for preserving water on Mars, it could be just as useful closer to home, he eventually realized. But he was going to have to go it alone.
“The point for me was always about making the technology accessible. When I studied existing players in the market I realized traditional companies were largely about casting brass in different shapes. They didn't have much knowledge of water purification for example. Sanitation is a generally low tech industry. So there wasn't a natural fit there,” he recalls.
“Normally with other industries you would sit down with a group of in-house engineers and try to solve the problem, but that's not the case in sanitation. It made sense therefore to have my own company: it had to be built from scratch anyway. If there was a natural partner I may have licensed the tech for example, but as there wasn't I had to do it from scratch.”
And so, Orbital Systems was born. Within a short time after its foundation, the company had received investment from Skype co-founder Zennström and H&M's Persson. It became apparent that the idea had legs.
“Zennström got involved through his foundation. They were looking for sustainability companies in the Nordics to support and liked my idea, even though I actually didn't have the company in place at the time. It was a project to begin with, and my focus in the early days was to simply produce one working prototype that proved the functionality. Once we proved the concept, we had to prove the market wanted it, so we made some sales. Then the next step was to prove we could make it an industrialized product, for which we raised the capital.”
Though it may be plentiful in Sweden, in many parts of the world people are painfully aware of the scarcity of clean water available. The idea behind Orbital Systems is not to stop us from using water, but to improve the efficiency with which we use it, the founder details.
“There is a lot of pessimism about the water situation in the world. Every person in Scandinavia uses around 200 litres of water per day. Half of Europe uses around the same. Water consumption is driven largely by the simple desire to want to take a shower every day and have running water in your toilet. In China alone there are around 50 cities being built from scratch each year with a population over 300,000 people. All of them want to have running water to shower, washing machines etc. That's what drives the industry,” the Swede notes.
“It's not our job to stop people from showering, who are we to say that? Rather we should be enabling, but making sure that we can use less water while doing so. It's similar to what needs to happen with transport: we should still help people get from A to B, but you may not need a big car to do so. We need a shift in mind-set.”
Mehrdad Mahdjoubi. Photo: Orbital Systems
For every success as a designer, you also have to be prepared for plenty of failures, Mahdjoubi reflects. Ideas that didn't quite fit the bill or didn't quite turn out as good as you had imagined. He believes that the younger generation in Sweden is better equipped for that, which perhaps explains the country's success in innovation.
“I do think that one of the key reasons for Swedish success in innovation is that in the contemporary culture here, among our generation, it's not really cool to take yourself too seriously. That can help success: there's an attitude that you can try your own stuff, but it doesn't work, you can always try something else.”
“When I played football it was similar: if someone got an offer to join a foreign team, the attitude among our generation was ‘why not? Why not try it out?'. The attitude among the older generation at the Swedish clubs was ‘wait here, wait until you mature, then go'. But we thought: the clubs in Sweden aren't going anywhere, so try your luck. Worst case scenario you spend half a year abroad, learn a bit about their way of thinking, then come home. Worst case,” he continues.
“The same thing applied in business. We allow ourselves to try out stuff and don't shame each other if it fails. Of course most of the population is still quite risk-averse as in any country, but it can't be compared to somewhere like Japan, where there's much more shame if you fail. Or the Gulf States, where failure doesn't just soil your name, it soils your family's. It's a different level.”
But Sweden still isn't perfect. Nowhere is:
“I think we overestimate how good we are, which is just human nature. Every major city claims to be the world's innovation hub: Paris says it's the startup city of Europe, London says it is, Berlin too. Stockholm. It's understandable and not a unique phenomenon. Everyone thinks their startup scene and innovation is unique. What is good in Sweden is we're casual about failing, relatively. But of course remember, a lot of the engineers here are not even Swedish – though it serves a purpose to brand it as a Swedish innovation.”
Looking to the future, the Orbital Systems founder would like to see the focus not only on coming up with new innovations, but also exploring ways of putting them into practice effectively. That would be the real game changer.
“My main realization, and something I still believe is that we have plenty of really amazing technology that can do so much good for the world if we put them to use. A lot of resources go into fundamental research, which I think is great and should be increased – but not enough go to application and making use of these technologies.”