Spotlight Series: Interview with Alex Murdock, co-founder of Thermulon

01 Nov 2021

Thermulon Spotlight

For November, we put the spotlight on Hub Member Alex Murdock, co-founder of Thermulon. Alex is originally from Canada and studied Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver before moving to London to co-found Thermulon, an insulation startup. He is passionate about science and engineering, and what they can bring to the world, and is happy to be wherever they’re being driven forward.

 

In your own words what is Thermulon?

Thermulon‘s mission is to improve the energy efficiency of homes and buildings in the safest way possible. We believe the best way to do this is by bringing a low-cost silica aerogel to the market at industrial scale, which is why we’ve focused our development on achieving this goal from the start. We are a chemical and process engineering company at heart that sees the biggest challenges in sustainability being solved with hard-science solutions.

Engineering is all about solving problems. What problem is your innovation solving?

There is a real gap in the thermal insulation market in that no single material is at once affordable, high-performance, and fire-safe. We are aiming to be the first to do it by commercialising a low-cost process for the production of super-insulating silica aerogel powders.

What makes your innovation ground-breaking? Can you explain to our readers/the public how it works?

It’s our novel chemistry that facilitates a lower-cost production of aerogels. We use the cheapest possible reagents in an ambient-pressure reaction that can enable continuous processing. A lot of existing processes are done at high temperature and pressure, or in low-throughput batch reactors.

What was the moment that made you think “I can turn this into a commercial opportunity”?

The commercial attraction of Thermulon is obvious. If you can bring an insulation product to market that provides this 'holy-grail' of affordability, performance and fire-safety, you’ll have no lack of people wanting to buy it. It’s now just a question of successfully scaling our novel chemical process to deliver on that.

Wading into unknown territory can be unsettling – what were you most excited by and what was most challenging for you when starting out?

I was most excited by the technical innovation and engineering opportunity, and the chance to build something totally new, from the ground up with our names on it. What has ended up challenging me the most is the administrative and managerial aspects of successfully running a company, but luckily we’ve all got up to speed with it pretty quickly in the founders team.

Can you share a time when failure mattered in your business journey?

I can’t say we’ve had a huge failure just yet, although missing / nearly missing out on some funding opportunities in our first round taught us to hedge our bets in the next one.

How did you go about building your team and finding your first team members?

I was the second person to join Thermulon - at first it was my co-founder Sam who had developed the chemistry and was looking for an engineer to join him. We then added our third co-founder Rozalie, who we met through one of our investors. We have since used everything from Indeed to recruiters and LinkedIn cold calls to find employees. We’re always looking for people with very specific skills, so it can be challenging, but great new team members can completely change the business.

What motivates or inspires you to keep going with Thermulon?

The opportunity to bring a really significant industrial innovation to scale, and all the people and institutions who’ve shown their faith by funding and supporting us.

What has been the most surprising aspect about your entrepreneurial journey?

It was a bit of a shock to adapt to how much personal networking was involved, but I guess on reflection it shouldn’t be that surprising. It just wasn’t something I was used to in any of my previous work.

What is your ultimate goal with Thermulon?

To see as many houses as possible insulated with a high-performance aerogel product, and to witness the energy and carbon savings that it creates.

Success is often subjective; it means and looks different to everyone. What do you pride as success so far for Thermulon?

When we started two years ago, we pretty much just had an idea on paper, a bit of money, and a rough sketch of where we wanted to go. We’ve since built a development team, and got a full lab space up and running for chemistry and process development. We’ve demonstrated our first prototype commercial product in the form of an aerogel lime plaster. I would call all that a success, especially in the context of the last two years!

Is there something you know now that you wish someone had told you when you started?

I wish I knew how all-encompassing the business would become.  I knew founding a start-up would be a tremendous amount of work, but I’ve definitely ended up more personally and emotionally engaged in it than in any other work I’ve done in the past.

What impact has the Enterprise Fellowships programme had on your business?

The impact of the Enterprise Fellowships programme has been tremendous. Firstly, it gave me a year of financial stability after taking the risk of moving to London to co-found Thermulon, and secondly, the backing of a reputable institution provided a huge vote of confidence in our business. Meeting other engineering entrepreneurs through the Enterprise Hub has also been hugely helpful in navigating the personal journey.

And finally, have you got any tips for potential applicants?

Really try to think of every potential challenge and opportunity for your business. While the jury are understanding of the early-stage nature of your plan, they want to see that you have at least thought-out at a high level a number of different scenarios in tech and commercial development. Aside from that, it’s worth the time commitment especially for the network you’ll develop.

Quick fire questions

Who is your role model?

I’m not sure I have one. You can learn a lot from the successes and failures of a number of different people, but it’s hard to point to one name.

Tell us a random fact not many people know about you

I have a two-page photo spread in a 2002 edition of Reader’s Digest Canada.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next (although I would not really classify it as guilty, it’s just a great album)

When I was a child, I wanted to be…

A professional skier

I am currently binging [tv show] on Netflix/Prime…

None really, although I re-watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy 2-3 times per year.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t plan too far in the future.

Conversely, what has been the worst piece of advice?

“It’s an easily walkable distance.”

I don’t understand why…

So much money is being invested in carbon-intensive commercial space travel

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Marie Curie, Simone de Beauvoir, James Baldwin, Greta Thunberg

What are your top three desert island items?

Walkman, a copy of The Brother’s Karamavoz, and a Bop-It

If you were an investor, which Hub Member would you invest in?

I think what Dr Alireza Monjezi is doing in water treatment is really interesting and could have a big impact. Dr Naa-Dei Nikoi also has a great entrepreneurial spirit, although her technology is totally outside my wheelhouse so it’s hard for me to assess.

If you had to start all over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?

Hire more people sooner. Having a great team moves you ahead way faster than the cash burn shortens your runway.


To follow Thermulon's progress, you can check out their website here. You can also learn more about the support we provide through our Enterprise Fellowships programme and sign up for programme opening alerts.

The Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub supports the UK’s brightest technology and engineering entrepreneurs to realise their potential.

We run three programmes for entrepreneurial engineers at different career stages. Each one offers equity-free funding, an extended programme of mentorship and coaching, and a lifetime of support through connection to an exceptional community of engineers and innovators.

The Enterprise Hub focuses on supporting individuals and fostering their potential in the long term, taking nothing in return. This sets us apart from the usual ‘accelerator’ model. The Enterprise Hub’s programmes last between 6 and 12 months, and all programmes give entrepreneurs lifelong access to an unrivalled community of mentors and alumni.

Our goal is to encourage creativity and innovation in engineering for the benefit of all. By fostering lasting, exceptional connections between talent and expertise, we aim to create a virtuous cycle of innovation that can deliver on this ambition.

The Enterprise Hub was formally launched in April 2013. Since then, we have supported over 220 researchers, recent graduates and SME leaders to start up and scale up businesses that can give practical application to their inventions. We’ve awarded over £8 million in grant funding, and our Hub Members have gone on to raise over £380 million in additional funding.

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