The 2018 finals of Imagine Chemistry recently took place in Gothenburg, Sweden. Ten teams were selected to continue collaborating with AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals or one of our partners. We asked the winners to share their thoughts on Imagine Chemistry and working with AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals. Here we speak with Fero Labs.

“We really think that AkzoNobel has differentiated itself with Imagine Chemistry. We’ve seen the spectrum of large players across different sectors, and AkzoNobel is certainly showcasing itself as a leader.”

Team name: Fero Labs
Team members: Alp Kucukelbir and Berk Birand
Location: US
Mentor: Stefan Malmsten
Challenge area: Intelligent chemical plants
Award won: Joint development agreement

Fero Labs is a US-based startup focused on helping customers in the manufacturing sector improve their profitability. Their automated machine learning software analyzes data generated by industrial processes while continuously adapting to changing plant conditions, offering root-cause analysis functionality and probabilistic predictions. In doing so, it can help customers optimize production, reduce waste, and improve product quality.

Though Fero Labs is based in New York, their origins are a bit more exotic. Co-founder Alp Kucukelbir is Turkish Canadian but pursued a PhD at Yale and a post-doc at Princeton before ending up teaching computer science at Columbia. Meanwhile co-founder Berk Birand grew up in Turkey but did his undergrad at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He was pursuing a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science at Columbia when he met Alp through a mutual friend. Berk had always flirted with the idea of doing a startup, and as he explored applications of the Internet of Things he would occasionally pick Alp’s brain about machine learning. Eventually he set his sights on applying IoT to industrial settings, and the notion was promising enough to lure Alp away from a prestigious academic career in favor of the ragtag startup life. Fortunately, financiers agreed they were onto something and they were able to quickly raise funding and build momentum. In the video below, shot midway through the event, Alp and Berk give insights into their project and their Imagine Chemistry experience.

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Given that the team was one of the few data startups at the event, they were not expecting to win. Berk explains, “We assumed that AkzoNobel would be most interested in something they could develop and commercialize, and therefore that one of the chemicals startups would win.” Alp adds, “We were very impressed with the vision laid out by the keynote speakers and reflected in the way the event was organized, and when the committee decided to award a JDA to an unusual company like ours we felt like that really demonstrated that vision.”

Winning wasn’t the only pleasant surprise about the event. Berk says, “We've seen a lot of data challenges and it’s typically just some company using you for cheap labor. We did one and really didn’t want to do another one, but our head of sales insisted that this was something very different - that AkzoNobel was putting a lot of energy into it and it was about partnership and not just a typical challenge. I wasn’t convinced but he applied anyway. We’re all very glad that he did.” Alp adds, “We really think that AkzoNobel has differentiated itself with Imagine Chemistry. We’ve seen the spectrum of large players across different sectors, and AkzoNobel is certainly showcasing itself as a leader.”

When it comes to the team’s own vision, they are eager to help AkzoNobel’s factories learn from each other and optimize their performance. Alp explains, “Because AkzoNobel is so ahead of the curve in terms of unifying their data, they’re ideally poised to reap the benefits of a technology like ours.” Berk adds, “Our first thought in terms of use cases is yields, but a lot of interesting ideas came up during Imagine Chemistry revolving around sustainability, for example minimizing waste and optimizing energy usage. We’re very excited for the other use cases that will come up through our interaction with AkzoNobel.”

The team has submitted a proposal to AkzoNobel to deploy their software at a selection of plants and from there they will define the other elements of their agreement and get to work. Stay tuned to find out how the collaboration progresses!