Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Alex Blum of Applied Bioplastics Is Helping To Change Our World

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Efficiency for efficiency’s sake is hollow. I believe when treating your employees as human beings, they will always return that loyalty to you. The question everyone should be asking themselves is “what is a business for?”. Making money is an obvious objective, but it’s also a place that can create opportunities, personal growth and learning, deep friendships and respect.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Blum, CEO of Applied Bioplastics.

Alex Blum is a founder, humanitarian, and award-winning philanthropic filmmaker. Alex has a long history of creating significant value for companies large and small, including Oracle, Amazon, and ThousandEyes (now part of Cisco), and for the past five years has been a leading voice in the bioplastics industry. Alex lives in Austin Texas, where he leads Applied Bioplastics as its CEO, making decarbonized plastics for manufacturers and refugee housing for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I spent most of my early career as a salesman, and my last role consisted of selling network monitoring software to the enterprise. I did very well in that role, and in my second year I closed my entire annual quota in the first two months of the year.

As a debt-free 27 year old, I made the decision to donate 100% of my bonus check to charity. I gave to local Austin charities anonymously, but that didn’t scratch my itch to actually help people. A few months later, a friend called and told me that 2 million refugees had crossed the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. He said Bangladesh could really use some help with this crisis, so I booked a flight.

When I arrived in Bangladesh, I realized the scale of the problem was beyond what I could ever imagine, so I settled for the second best thing: I spent my own funds to hire a director and a film editing studio. Together, we made a documentary in the world’s largest refugee camp in only three weeks, a film that I wrote, narrated, and was the sole producer of. This film went on to win multiple awards including the Special Jury Remi Award at the WorldFest International in Houston, where it was picked up by a distributor and put on Amazon. Parts of the film were also used as evidence against the government of Myanmar in international court. I was then introduced to Dr. Mubarak Ahmad Khan, a senior scientist in biopolymers, who had invented a technology that enabled the use of a common agricultural product and a common thermoset resin to produce rudimentary housing using zero power, specialized tools, or even particularly well-trained labor. I asked him if he wanted help commercializing the product, and he told me in no uncertain terms that the invention was his baby and he would not partner with me in its use.

So I went home, but couldn’t get the idea of highly sustainable housing that would benefit the host community of the refugees off my mind. I presented the idea to my housemate, Colin Ardern, and asked him to help me. Together, we spoke with and then hired a number of plastics experts. These scientists told us they thought they could convert the housing technology into something that would be highly beneficial to the plastics industry as a whole. I had stayed in touch with Dr. Khan, and after about 6 months of negotiating, Colin and I flew back to Bangladesh to sign an IP transfer agreement for the housing material and an employment contract with him. We worked together for two years, and eventually began a pilot in the refugee camp. which created villages for the people located there. We incorporated the company in June 2019 after quitting our jobs to focus on Applied Bioplastics full-time.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Two years ago, my team and I were given our very first term sheet by a venture capital firm. The catch was that this VC firm demanded exclusivity. We accepted this because we were novices and didn’t know this was a poison pill for a business. The VC firm promised us a $4 million investment in exchange for about 40% of the company. But later on, we found out that the VC firm intended to tranche the funds, and the term sheet they wanted us to sign did not guarantee the receipt of the full $4 million.

This put us over a barrel because we agreed to the exclusivity, and it nearly put us out of business. I had to beg and borrow to keep the company alive. If we want to look at this from a humorous perspective, I made this same mistake at a different juncture and nearly killed the company both times. My father always told me I was a natural scientist– if I failed the hard way, I’d do it a second time just to be sure.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My team and I had hilariously unrealistic expectations about the speed of development and adoption of our polymers. Our mindset was “oh, we’re going to make this amazing product and everyone is going to love it immediately”. We were under the impression that this would be a slam dunk for everyone involved, and that we would raise at least $10 million within the first two to three years. Tempering your expectations is a valuable lesson learned here. As Bill Gates said, “Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Our business was born in an act of charity, and impact is core to our motivation. We have been able to provide homes — made of our product– to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet known as the Rohingya refugees. These refugees were victims of the Rohingya genocide that was taking place in Myanmar. Even in sourcing we look to make a positive social impact — we are empowering rural communities in agricultural areas of developing countries by purchasing non-food natural fiber from them.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

While I was filming a documentary in Bangladesh, there was a child who I frequently interacted with who wanted to help his family and neighbors. This really touched me, because instead of getting bitter and sad about his situation, he wanted to immediately aid his community. He told me that he wanted to be a doctor so he could help the sick people in the camp. The refugee population he is part of has served as a motivator for our entire company, because we want to house the unhoused. The houses we create are made out of a depressed feedstock known as jute, which requires zero specialized labor nor power. You also do not need equipment or any sort of chemicals that are typically required. Our technology is applicable to improve situations, and we intend to spread this to the world.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

For the community, please demand better plastic. Vote with your wallet, and try to consume only bioplastics and recycled plastics. For society, make plastic recycling a government function. For politicians, please review the answers I gave to this question. It’s important that this is addressed so we can solve this worldwide issue.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Efficiency for efficiency’s sake is hollow. I believe when treating your employees as human beings, they will always return that loyalty to you. The question everyone should be asking themselves is “what is a business for?”. Making money is an obvious objective, but it’s also a place that can create opportunities, personal growth and learning, deep friendships and respect.

Your employees don’t owe you anything. You’re trading money for labor, but you can also trade respect for respect, leniency with efficiency, care for care. Because of the way Applied Bioplastics has treated its employees, we’ve had zero voluntary turnover in three years. The primary function of a leader is to put an overarching sense of care into their employees — knowing their spouses and kids names, what’s going on in their daily life, etcetera. If you put that level of care and sensitivity and attention into your employees, they’ll give you love back — not personal love, but a diligent kind of love.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

There are many things I wish someone would have advised me on before beginning this journey. To name five, it would have to the following: adding more buffer time than you think you would need, do not run out of money, close early sales as quickly as possible, patents take a lot longer than you would think — so patience is key, and the ratio of success to failure when pitching investors and selling products is very skewed so beware.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The endless national squabbling over resources, sovereignty, and trade deals is what grinds up regular people. I’ve always been fascinated by the world created by Genndy Tartakovsky, the author of Star Trek. The social movement I want to see before I die is a movement that desires to shed the false and poisonous trappings of nationality and sovereignty, the empty pursuit of national success at the expense of other nations.

Our planet is so small, in the grand scheme of things. Fighting over a few square miles here and there is so incredibly small-minded when we have an asteroid belt, filled with riches waiting to be exploited. I want to see the kids of today rally together and create something I call ‘The Terran Ascendancy’ in my head. One planet, one species, pushing the bounds of science and betterment beyond the horizons of what we can imagine today. Imagine if NASA had never stopped manned exploration of the solar system in the 1970s — we would have a colony on Mars by now. There’s an asteroid out there, a single asteroid that we’re sending a mission to in October, that contains enough mineral wealth to give every person on the planet $100 billion. We could work together and go get that, and share the prosperity with all. We could build a post-scarcity world, and that’s what I’d like to see.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“All of nature was a record of crisis and destruction and adaptation and flourishing and being knocked back down again.” I read this in The Expanse book series by James SA Corey, and it has been very relevant to me in the fight against climate change. When things seem like they aren’t moving fast enough, when I’m burned out by all the bad climate news, it’s important to remember that we are the apex organism on this planet for a reason. We are better evolved than anything else on Earth to adapt and change. When the cataclysms accelerate, there will be many of us that survive, adapt to the new circumstances, and overcome the new challenges. Humanity isn’t going anywhere if we have something to say about it. That helps me sleep at night.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to connect with Bill Gates. His philanthropy and humanity has really shined through his actions. While he’s rightfully regarded as a computing genius, he was one of the first people with that level of wealth to dedicate his fortune to charity after his passing.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me directly on LinkedIn, and can also follow Applied Bioplastics on Twitter and LinkedIn to stay apprised on all company updates.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Alex Blum of Applied Bioplastics Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.