You are going to need a team around you who have complementary skills. They should be people who don’t think exactly the same way as you — because you need to solve problems by looking at the world in new ways, and those diverse perspectives will help you with this.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course, many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Francis Doumet.
Francis Doumet is a co-founder of Metaspectral, the company building technology enabling the real-time analysis of ultra-high-resolution imaging. He has more than a decade of experience in software and technology development for Fortune 500 companies. Doumet holds a M.S. in Engineering from Stanford University and a M.A. and MBA from the University of Pennsylvania.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I was born in Vancouver, Canada. My parents left Lebanon during the civil war that was consuming the country in the 1980s, but then we moved back to Lebanon in the 1990s. Having had the opportunity to live in both Canada and Lebanon, I have developed a strong appreciation for things that many of my fellow Canadians may take for granted — clean streets, safe air to breathe, and an overall high quality of life. I spent some years studying in the United States as well, and worked in technology and computer science in both San Francisco and Philadelphia. But throughout everything, I’ve always had a deep desire to find a way to use technology for social impact, to make the world a better place. And quite organically, that’s what Metaspectral has become. There is such a tremendous environmental problem with the sheer amount of plastic waste that exists. Metaspectral’s technology can be used to improve the quality of post-consumer recycled plastic while also being used for climate modeling and analysis. I want to contribute to making this planet a little cleaner and safer for the next generation, including for my own children.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’m fortunate to have had a few uniquely meaningful experiences in my career. I spent a summer in Singapore trying to build a new stock exchange that could value companies according to their social impact, and this meant figuring out how to quantify social impact in the private sector. I also worked with a non-profit called Engineers Without Borders, focusing on projects in developing countries, and developed a fuel-efficient stove for use in refugee camps in Darfur. That inspired me to co-found a nonprofit called Catapult Design, which won the prestigious Cooper Hewitt National Design Award from the Smithsonian Museum.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have to give credit to my parents, especially my father who was also an engineer. As a kid, I spent time investigating (or perhaps breaking) our home computer, pulling things out of the family desktop to study how it all fit together. So tinkering with electronics in childhood definitely influenced my career direction.
I was also a boy scout while growing up in Lebanon and we had service projects where we would visit refugees; this had an enormous impact on me. Seeing how disenfranchised, marginalized people are living inspired me to commit myself to become a positive force for change. My time in the boy scouts also gave me a deep appreciation for the natural environment. As you may know, the cedar tree is the symbol of Lebanon; its strength, resiliency, and spirit represent the Lebanese culture. But sadly, it’s quite obvious how deforestation and development have turned once lush forests into barren land over the decades.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t close the door on yourself. Similar to the way that Han Solo successfully navigated an asteroid field, don’t worry about low odds of success or you may end up sabotaging yourself by not applying for something because of the fear that you won’t get it. Put luck on your side. I knew computer science was a difficult field to get into but I applied anyway, and I got in — only because I put myself out there and tried to open that door. Every startup is a leap of faith in some capacity. At its core, trying to innovate to solve an existing problem or serve a neglected market space. That’s a little scary and the challenges are immense. But that’s how you know it’s worth doing and worth pursuing.
Secondly, a big life lesson for me was to let social impact, rather than money, be your motivation. You’ll be much happier.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
In my opinion, grit, the right mentality, and adaptability are the three character traits I rely on the most. For startups, you have to be in the proper frame of mind to deal with the extreme highs and lows that come with it. For example, applying for and getting rejected for grants and contracts are a big part of the experience. I used to take it hard when a grant application was denied. I’m not thrilled about rejection, who would be? But each time I’ve learned from what went wrong, put the loss behind me, and made the right corrections moving forward. The right mentality means being able to accept and appreciate all the small victories along the way to be happy wherever you are because it is a marathon, not a sprint. Enjoy the journey instead of just having a relentless focus on the destination. Not having quit and continuing on the journey is success in itself.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on the planet and the environment. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve? How do you think your technology can address this?
We offer the world’s only commercially available technology that makes it possible to derive real-time insights from ultra-high-resolution, visible-to-infrared (hyperspectral) imagery thanks to innovations in machine learning, data compression, transmission, and data storage. There is no shortage of environmental, climate, and other scientific applications. Most immediately, we’ve focused on an application in the recycling industry, in which we can help to improve the quality of post-consumer plastic so that it can become an increasingly viable alternative to new plastic, enabling the success of the circular economy.
The two legacy alternatives for sorting plastic recycling are human sorters picking off a conveyor belt or machinery using infrared technology, which uses just one or two frequencies of light, offering limited resolution. Conversely, Metaspectral’s unique imaging uses 300 frequencies of light able to distinguish between materials far more granularly. This means that the recycled plastic can be sorted more precisely, increasing the purity of the resulting material — making it ideally suited for use in post-consumer recycled plastic.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
A Canadian federal government report showed that just 9% of all plastic is being recycled. The rest is going into landfills, is incinerated into the air, or ends up in the ocean.
What is interesting is that I had spent so much time looking for ways to give back, while also creating a commercially viable company and keeping the two separate in my mind — and I realized that with Metaspectral, I can actually do both at the same time. This is the opportunity that I’ve always sought. That union of engineering and social impact. Using Metaspectral’s capabilities to combat one of the largest sources of pollution. We’re in the late stages of developing our customizable product for the recycling industry and training machine learning to detect and sort each unique material.
How do you think this might change the world?
Diverting recyclable plastic from landfills is the equivalent of diverting 1.8 million metric tons of CO2. A report from Environment Climate Change Canada indicates that plastic waste currently equates to a 10 billion dollars loss in annual value from unrecovered material.
There are also other applications that Metaspectral is excited to explore including using our highly accurate imaging technology to visually detect methane leaks. Methane is a very potent and dangerous greenhouse gas.
I serve on the board of an aerial firefighting organization and we are now approaching a very dangerous wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest. Our technology could also be used to quantify and qualify the fire “fuel” sources on the ground and assess damage.
There is also the possibility of using our technology to monitor carbon emissions and record climate change data from space.
The greatest risk would be that the technology is too slow or inaccurate, but even this just puts us back to square one, where the world is today. We are working hard to ensure at least 90% accuracy with our system. Ultimately, the goal is to scale the technology and lower the price, to make the system cheaper and smaller which will increase the return on investment (ROI) for clients.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
- You can’t manage what you can’t measure: you must be able to accurately measure the impact that you are having. This could be CO2 captured, waste diverted, or another metric. You cannot prove your impact without this data, so it will be far more difficult to get the support you need.
- Passion: creating technology is hard, creating a technology startup is even harder, creating a technology startup that also has a positive social impact? That will probably be even harder still. If you are not passionate, and I mean truly passionate about your cause — you will be more likely to fail or simply give up, because you won’t have the innate drive to be able to deal with the incredible challenges that come along with this journey.
- Don’t try and do everything yourself: you are going to need a team around you who have complementary skills. They should be people who don’t think exactly the same way as you — because you need to solve problems by looking at the world in new ways, and those diverse perspectives will help you with this.
- Alignment: while you want people with diverse expertise, you do need to be aligned on the vision for the company. You all need to be going in the same direction and have the same goal, or you will not be able to get where you are going.
- Enjoy the journey: remember that you are going to be spending much of your time on this, so you must celebrate the wins, both the large and small. You should not go down this path for the end result only, you must love the journey or you will make yourself miserable and more likely to quit or fail.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
There are no shortage of opportunities to transform industries and efficiently deploy technology to contribute to social impact. Ideally, think about trying to get some experience working in an industry that interests you. That gives you valuable credibility and insight into the actual operations of an industry and what potential inefficiencies persist. Something I’ve learned is that investors value that form of “domain knowledge” within specific industries.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunnus is someone I’ve long admired. As you may know, he founded the Grameen Bank, and invented the concept of microlending. He built a product for a category of people that were being ignored and flipped the 21st century capitalist economy on its head by transforming countless lives and helping redefine social impact. Social impact does not have to be a non-profit, you can be a for-profit company and still create a big positive social impact.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.