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By Emma Broomfield
Data is the new gold – but it’s also dirty. Bhupinder Bhullar explains how he is helping lower its environmental impact.
From wearable devices, smart homes, self-driving cars and precision medicine to bitcoin mines, the global digital economy is dependent on thousands of data centres that store data from billions of users. Each data centre uses megawatts of electricity to support data operations on tens of thousands of servers. Energy consumption has a high infrastructure cost and, and regardless whether it is generated by renewables or fossil fuels, the carbon footprint is very high.
Data centres already consume 3% of global energy production, and growth in demand is accelerating so rapidly that, if the present rate of growth continues, experts predict that 10% of the world’s energy will be needed to manage data storage by 2025. What chance, then, of meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 to combat the effects of climate change? Responding to that challenge is the driving aim of LBS alumnus Dr Bhupinder Bhullar (EMBA2017), co-founder of Swiss Vault Systems, a technology startup based in Basel, Switzerland. Here he discusses the company’s journey to date and future plans.
I trained in molecular oncology at Harvard Medical School. While at Novartis Pharma, I led a project to understand how cancer samples acquire drug resistance, utilising next-generation DNA-sequencing technologies to identify the mutations that confer resistance. This led to another problem: the raw data output from a single whole DNA-sequencing output is one terabyte (TB) per sample (equivalent to ~1,000 DVD films). We hypothesised that this technology would be a ‘big-data’ headache for hospitals, who would not be able to manage that volume on their limited resources. We framed this unmet need for a dramatically more cost- and energy-efficient way to secure patients’ data privacy and help manage digital health records for the lifetime of the patient. With my co-founder Doug Fortune, who builds data storage systems, we started to design new models and methods to manage the data with lower costs, less complexity, and lower impact on the environment. Thereafter, every test we did in the market validated our hypothesis, despite industry experts and investors telling us that we had it wrong. These tests emboldened us to keep going and Swiss Vault was born.
Our solution addresses hospitals’ key pain points: sheer volume and continuous growth of data, lack of physical space to store it, high demand for energy to operate and cool the systems, and managing the data over the long-term (eg 100 years – which is the lifetime of a patient). Our systems offer quiet operation, low power consumption, low heat emission, low weight, low noise and higher data storage density. These features enable us to install in existing office buildings, and eliminate the need for costly data centres. The solution is also based on a cradle-to-grave philosophy using the 4 Rs – reduce, recycle, repair and repurpose. We diminish the environmental impact of electronic waste by reducing the number of components and designing the system for longevity. Taking all of this into account, we can decrease data’s carbon footprint by more than 10X. More importantly, our systems reduce the complexity of managing data and the data ownership costs, so that hospitals can easily manage their data assets.
The epiphany to dedicate myself to starting my own venture was like a light bulb moment, a spell when I was searching for meaning and purpose. And once the light bulb went on, I did not need further convincing – except clearing the nagging doubts of the unknowns. But the mind shift and transformation from researcher to entrepreneur occurred gradually over the first two years after I started the journey. I like the research, engineering and design part, but the entrepreneur has to develop all aspects of the business, including PR, HR and finance, etc. As we built the first prototypes, it became clear that the product, no matter how brilliant it is, needs momentum to get it to the customer, and I had to start learning new things to run the business.
Fortunately, the training I had at London Business School was very helpful for laying the groundwork. My classmates were great resources, and the interactions with the faculty along with the coursework built an excellent foundation. London has a very vibrant startup scene, and the connections through the meet-ups helped me learn from the journeys of other startup entrepreneurs.
Everyone in the team wants to go faster – but, at our early stage, we have to fight that urge. Heading in the right direction is more important than speed. Thus far, we have been capital-efficient in developing our disruptive technology. Keeping the right team momentum, balanced with business growth and financing, is the constant challenge.
The generosity of people. We got to where we are by having conversations with strangers who opened up to working with us. Our early adopters do not know us, but are willing to go on this journey with us, and this has been energising.
"The epiphany to dedicate myself to starting my own venture was like a light bulb moment, a spell when I was searching for meaning and purpose. And once the light bulb went on, I did not need further convincing – except clearing the nagging doubts of the unknowns."
There have been many. First, stay focused. It’s very easy to be diluted with too many activities on the team’s plate. The consequence is that it may take longer to deliver the first product at high quality, delaying your market entry. Getting the product out has many positive benefits and the team has to say ‘no’ to activities that do not have impact on the most critical deliverable. Second, involve the customer as a partner in the process. We want to simplify the tech and decrease the complexity. We can only do that with the help of our customers over a long period of commitment, and getting this engagement is important to evolve our product for the market. Third, temper the urge to grow too fast. I have learned that it is important to build solid foundations of culture, business processes and getting our fundamentals right. Growing the business by building a solid foundation takes a lot of restraint, and I am confident it will help us immensely when we are challenged.
Our product designs. Our designs are far advanced compared to the current state of the art – they are years ahead. I like to think that the market is catching up to us. Basically, we aimed to build more energy and space-efficient data-storage techniques. Today, our data storage systems are 10X more energy-efficient and space-efficient compared to the standard systems on the market. We aimed to have a lower environmental footprint, and our designs reduce the carbon footprint for data by a factor of 10. We also wanted organisations to be able to keep their data near them and not have to build massive and costly data centres. With our designs, it will be possible to install a data centre anywhere the client is located.
What we could have done better is learn to map the customer profiles better. When we started, our growth model was akin to a customer-funded business, which is inherently a slower growth rate. But we went after clients that were too big, such as government departments. We could not get past the ‘procurement wall’, and this almost killed us because it diminished our resources. It would have benefitted us to do more discovery work and map the customer profiles earlier, which I had to learn to do better later on.
Data is global and our aim is to be global, but product development and team growth always start locally. We focused on leveraging the strengths of Switzerland and Canada to start because of our network and connections, but expansion globally is within our horizon. The world’s data is growing exponentially, requiring more energy and space. It is not feasible in emerging economies to build expensive data centres to participate in the opportunities provided by the global data revolution. Using our technology, we can enable these countries to manage their own data with lower costs.
Start another business. Deep-tech entrepreneurs are solving the world’s problems. The next generation of entrepreneurs has embedded in their DNA ideas of disruption of old business models, sustainability and social good. They involve their customers in creating better products and building communities. I think the future is looking better because of them. I have many project ideas in health, medicines and space, and I would like to continue disrupting to help improve the lives of people.
My advice is try to cultivate a mindset of making a positive difference in society, one aligned with higher universal truths. That way, no matter what you do, it will always be good and you will find traction. When I look back at my commitment point, it was the moment when I found my purpose. While it is not necessarily easy to find purpose, as long as you never cease to seek, you will get closer and closer to eventually discovering your true purpose. With your purpose in mind, you will have more energy and drive to fulfil your goals. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Swiss Vault Systems won the Real Innovations Award People’s Choice under the Alexander Fleming Serendipity category last year. Read more innovation case studies here.