Advancing Casting and Manufacturing Technologies - Jeff Burek | Masters of Engineering

Advancing Casting and Manufacturing Technologies - Jeff Burek | Masters of Engineering

Show Video

- Welcome to Masters of Engineering -- cool products, the people who develop them, and how they do it. Today's focus -- startups, product development, and startups, and we have an expert in product development at startups. Sera Evciman is a mechanical engineer, public speaker, influencer in hardware development and manufacturing.

She's advised a ton of startups in a whole range of different industries on how to build products. She's a mentor and coach, and recently founded her own startup advising and coaching company, Pratik. And she's been an all-star mentor in residence at TechStars. And her own podcast is called The Builder Circle, aimed at helping hardware entrepreneurs and builders and engineers with modern products and system development. She brings a broad range of experience. I'm sure we're all going to learn something.

Welcome to the podcast, Sera. - Thank you so much, Jon. It's such a pleasure to be here, and thank you for that introduction. I feel like I'm not worthy. - I'm so excited to talk to you because I think these days, everywhere I go people are, there are a lot of companies that are startups or everyone wants to know how to work like a startup. How did you get into advising startups? - Yeah, so I mean, when I started my career journey, I ended up, I would say not completely intentionally, but going into-- I worked in a space startup working on CubeSat satellites, and then I went to a consumer electronic startup and I started working on just like bracelets and mass production. And then from there I went to fusion energy and I worked at Commonwealth Fusion Systems on their very novel kind of technology.

And while I was at CFS, the entire kind of process to getting into mentorship and advising was incredibly serendipitous. It was not intentional, really. What happened was I went to a startup launch party and it was someone, a previous mentor and manager of mine that was starting a new company and he was, he was throwing a party and like invited a lot of people in the Boston ecosystem to that.

And I ended up meeting the managing director and the program director of TechStars Boston. And I, yeah, and I got to just chat with them, and afterwards I really got along with the program director. Her name's Jennifer. She's amazing. And I just, I kind of asked her if she'd be willing to do a Zoom call so that I can learn more about TechStars because I felt like what they were doing was very interesting. They worked with a lot of early stage companies, and I was very interested in early stage startups rather than later stage startups.

And as I talked to her, I realized that I was continuously talking about my hypothesis of how startups can be better and what they fail at, and what I've seen they fail at the most. And that resulted in her asking me to apply to be a mentor. And the rest is kind of history. I ended up mentoring for TechStars Boston. I got connected to TechStars Paris, which is their sustainability hub. So they work more on hardware.

And then the Paris office really liked me, and they asked me to be a mentor in residence and then they, I guess pitched me to TechStars headquarters to be an all-star mentor. But yeah, that's kind of how I got into it. - Okay. So you went from working in startups to TechStars and mentoring through that and then decided to start your own company? - Yeah, when I was doing TechStars, I was still working. I was still working. From CFS I went to

Axion Systems working on ion thrusters, and then I was at Toyota Research Institute working on robotics. So I was still working a full-time job, but doing kind of mentorship on the side. - Yeah. So you're not, you're not only an advisor

to startups, you're a startup yourself. - Yes. I feel like if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. - You're a meta startup.

Okay. And so you said, I want to go back to one thing you said. You said you were on the, it sounds like you were on the inside of startups building products and you said, you said you, you talked to the woman at TechStars, because you felt there were these problems that startups have and face and don't handle correctly, right.

Tell-- what are the top couple problems that you saw that you, sounds like you were like on a mission to fix - One-- I feel like people hire too quickly and that starts to influence their product in a, in a complicated way. Because I think the baseline of how you start to develop a hardware project is really falling in love with the problem that you're solving, but not the solution. And oftentimes founders have a very strong hypothesis on the solution, and they get a lot of people that emulate the same solution or are in agreement with that solution.

And what that tends to drive is kind of a very narrow perspective of approach. Whereas if they kind of start more holistically and say, okay, we're going to know every single detail on this, on this problem, and then we're going to find a few ways to solve it, and then we're going to get people on board after we've kind of, we've mastered the problem. I think that's a better approach. And I see that kind of happen all the time where it's, and then it becomes a sunk cost fallacy because now they're, they've invested so much in one solution and they keep going down that path and they're like, well, we've been doing this for two to three years, so there's no other solution. Whereas that's like the sunk cost fallacy that I like to talk about sometimes of just like, no, it's, if it's not the right solution, it's not the right solution. - Yeah. You get down the line.

I actually, I think that's a whole podcast worth of great advice right there. What you say is fall in love with the problem. That's great, like the mission, but don't fall in love with the first solution. I've heard that called concept fixation.

Back when I was taking engineering design, they said, yeah, you tend to, you know, you have to think of a lot of concepts and what are, what are some of the other common problems that you feel you see? - One of the things is lack of product focus. I see a lot of startups coming in and they're, they have these beautiful pitch decks and they have these beautiful ideas and they're like, we have five product ideas. And they have all very different applications. Or they have like, they have different markets that they could potentially attack.

- Yeah. - And I ask them, great, how many people do you have? And it's usually around five to 10 maximum in the early stages. So what that ends up doing is, so this is kind of the opposite of what we talked about, right? Like there's the problem and then there's like one solution.

And this is kind of an opposite scenario where there are multiple problems that they like, they want to solve. And then now, they have multiple solutions for each of those problems. But now they lack focus. What that causes is for people to spread their team too thin, and then you don't actually get the depth of a product and a market. - Yeah, I think that's a great point. Too many products.

And may I make a friendly addition that - Please. - can also be too many things going into one product. - Yes. - Where they're like, oh yeah, well it's got to have this and this and this. You know, I always say, I don't know if you would agree, but, you know, I'm kind of a student of product development, because I meet product developers all day.

I've been on 40 site visits to product developers this year, our customers basically. But one of the things I feel is great products are often defined by what they leave out more than what they put in. Because it's easy to come up with long lists of what to put in. The courageous decisions are what do we leave out? What don't we do are the hard decisions. And I think that's consistent with what you're saying about wanting to do too many things. And you've got to, you got to narrow it down.

Let's, let me turn to some of the incredible range of products you've worked on. Tell me, like, tell me a few of them. Maybe map the space from one extreme to the other. - Oh, absolutely. I'm happy to.

I, I've worked on products such as there's a company called Tozuda. They're making these impact indicator devices that you can pop on a helmet to tell you if you've had impact that could cause a concussion. The, the CEO of the company, she's wonderful. She was a rugby player and got concussed and it wasn't identified, which caused her to have a lot of struggle with reading and writing and even speaking for a long reign. So she, she really like, grassroots effort of a company to be able to build these little impact indicators.

Super mechanical, nothing electric in it. It's just basically a suspended spring and it's a really smart design. And so I got to work on that as a part of the TechStars Boston portfolio, which was a much smaller kind of device. It's basically a mass production element.

And so I, that's kind of, I guess like on one end of the spectrum. And then on the other more I guess industrial, big equipment side of things. I got to work on fusion energy where I was in the R&D team working on the manufacturing, the development of the manufacturing for their superconductor cables that would exist in the solenoids that get put into the magnetic confinement tokamak, which are the kind of keywords. - Yeah. Yeah. Cool. - So that, those are kind of like to give a range.

- Okay. Can, can you rattle off just a few more? beause I know it's such an incredible range that, that I've, that I know you do and you probably have many others, I don't know. But can, can you tell us a few more? - Yeah. One of the really interesting ones that I worked on through TechStars Paris was a mycelium based styrofoam alternative that would basically be used for packaging, but it's completely, it's a bio-created material and it decomposes. So it's, it's not like styrofoam, and it's not toxic. So that was a really interesting, very different, more on the, I guess like chemical processing side of things that I didn't quite know, but I was able to help with.

This company is called S.Lab. They're actually, they're Ukrainian founders. Yeah. They are based in Spain. - How about, one more, one more cool product you've worked on. - One more.

- What's one that gets you particularly, or just one more, one more cool one. - One more. I really enjoyed working on CubeSat satellites. That was my first kind of, first job. And it was just an interesting space.

I mean, one of the things, and I'm sure that you share this, Jon, with me being an engineer yourself, is that I'm also very fascinated by the constraints of an environment that a product is going into. - Yeah. - So it's the, the constraints of space is very different than most other products that I've worked in. It's just the amount of vibration that it gets into, the amount, how important it is for, from an economic standpoint of how light it needs to be, how things just need to really be able to work 100% of the time, otherwise you lose your product, and you can't go into space and fix it.

So, that was just really fascinating. I got to work on some kind of antenna deployment systems that needed to passively work out of the gate. And if they didn't work, then we didn't have our comms. So stuff like that, it was just really, I personally loved working on it. - Cool.

Well, again, an incredible range of products. What's your approach to advising companies? How do you, how do you add value? Is there a common way or is there a broad range of things you do for the different companies you work with? - Yeah, I think one of the things that I try to do is one, give the founders a chance to really describe their vision, because oftentimes that's where either they, they struggle to articulate that or there is just-- they have no idea what the steps are to get there. I think one of the things that I particularly try to help them with is kind of create a procedure of what are the next actionable steps to be able to take to make the leap into this large vision. And oftentimes, this is another, I guess, comment pitfall that startups face is that there's, and I actually call it the startup paradox where there's a lot of stuff to do, but you don't have anything to do today, because it's, the way that I describe it is there's this huge pile of things that need to get done for a vision like a mountain and for that vision to actually exist and conceptualize in the world. But because there isn't anyone that's able to kind of put them into small, actionable chunks of things that need to get done, your day looks like it's empty because you don't know which part of that pile you're supposed to pick from. So I really, on the high level side of things, I really help them kind of scope those actionable chunks and give them space to be able to get turned into, to-do lists that people can do.

And then that also gives clarity around skills that need to exist in the, in the company for those to be able to get done properly. Because another thing is, a lot of people think that because they're building a hardware product, they need the exact kind of carbon copy of a hardware team of another company that's building something similar and they end up over hiring either mechanical engineers or firmware engineers. Every single problem and every single company has very different people in it and very different needs in terms of skills. So I really try to help them figure out what, what the skill deficits are so that either an existing employees can be trained or they, the positions can be filled systematically in line with the hardware team. - That really resonates when you say it. How do you,

how do you engage with the startup? Are you a consultant for a short term or long term? What does that look like? - Yeah, it, I mean, it really depends on the startup I'd say. I have the kind of ethical obligation to make myself redundant as soon as possible, because at the end of the day, startups won't be able to sustainably grow and exist and thrive if they constantly rely on my advice. So I really see it as, and that's why I say coaching sometimes because I'm like, I really want to coach people so that they can make decisions for themselves and use the methodologies and the fundamental infrastructure that I provide them, but they can do it on their own. So the way that I engage, I usually, if it's something that they're struggling with, say it's a kind of like a skill matrix. They're trying to see what their org chart is going to look like, and that's kind of like a higher level operational help I give. It's going to be a project-based thing.

I'm going to do it for them, and then I'm going to give my advice and they're going to move forward and do really well. Other times, I'm also a mechanical engineer by trade, as you said, and I really love working on development of manufacturing processes, which is what I did at, at the fusion startup that I worked at. So I have more embedded engagements where I really, I act at like a partner to a team, and I help them kind of develop the processes, find equipment to do it, find the right level of automation, if it should be insourced or outsourced, because that's always a tricky decision too that a lot of people rush into.

And then kind of go from there and really act as an engineer, a technical mentor. And I kind of also do a little bit of just like scope management and kind of go from there. - Wow. So pretty broad range. And just to bound it, what's the shortest, longest, average time, you know, clock, calendar, time duration, you work with your clients? - Yeah, I'd say I've had ones where the engagement complete, like the project completed in a month because it was just a really tight scope.

And then other ones where it's more embedded, a year, two years. It can go, go on for a bit. - So could be, could be a month, could be a year or two. And how many, how many clients are you advising, mentoring, embedding with at any given time? You know... - Usually I don't want, I don't go over three, because I feel like if I do more, because I also, one of my clients is one that gets me in contact with a lot of different startups.

So it's actually, I get a lot, a broad range from one of my client engagements. And then the other two are more embedded. So I like to focus my time and really dive in and not spread myself too thin where I'm not helpful for anyone. - So that means your clients get a lot of attention. Sera, can you tell the audience quickly how would they get in touch with you and also how to listen to your podcast? - You can listen to my podcast called The Builder Circle. I interview and have discussions with people on all of the things that I just talked about and more, and it's, you can find it on any type of streaming platform.

And in terms of getting in contact with me, you can either directly message me on LinkedIn or you can reach out to my directly to my email, which is That's - Fantastic. Okay. You work a lot with you, you focus on startups, but I bet you there's a lot of people who are going to be listening to this who work in larger companies, and I find a lot of larger companies talk to me about, Hey, we want to work more like a startup. Do you have any advice for people who are out there in a larger, more established company who, for whatever reason, typically agility, speed, innovation, cost savings, they want to work more like a startup.

What would, do you have any advice to offer our listeners in larger companies? - Yeah, I think in larger companies, oftentimes there is a lot of structure and frankly, bureaucracy in place that really makes innovation struggle. So what I would recommend is if there are any, any ways that big companies can create almost, I want to say in my mind I'm visualizing a sandbox, where it's kind of a separate little sandbox organization where the, the company is very well aware of the risk profile and is comfortable with kind of allocating enough funds to be able to take different risks and have kind of an agile hardware development and testing environment where ideas can be seedling ideas could be pitched, but I do think it's moreso guarding the innovation kind of hub with your life to not have the same bureaucratic systems and processes of the larger organization and having that be a protected sphere ecosystem of its own. - Oh, that's great. And if a larger company came to you

after hearing this and said, Sera, we want you to help us think like a startup internally in one of these sandboxes, would you consider advising them, mentoring their team? - Absolutely. There are very large companies with-- there's so much going on for them, and they have the ability to also make a really large impact because they have this built in megaphone. And I'm also very passionate about making these large companies be able to create this very unique path of impact that they aren't doing it. So, absolutely. - Let me ask you, you recently spoke at the WEC in Prague, right? Could you tell us, tell us what that was about and what did you learn, you know, from that experience? - So it was actually, I feel like you're going to find the topic really interesting, because I know that you think about it too.

I talked about AI integration and challenges into hardware development. So yeah, my conversation there was very much focused on what parts of the engineering and hardware development process require-- are currently inefficient and how AI could strategically slot itself in so that we are basically as engineers worrying about harder problems than having to do kind of the busy work and then the small things. And then also inefficient in a sense of, I feel like a lot of startups and honestly even big companies, sometimes over test even at times. So there are very interesting AI tools now coming about to do some level of virtual testing and virtual parameter parameterization, sorry, that's a hard word to say. - Yeah.

- And so that you are more selective with what tests you physically do in the world. - Very, very cool. I mean, AI and product design, that is fascinating topic.

Are you seeing any of your clients or prospective clients using AI today in product development in any particular way? - I wish there were more. I'm actually, so this is super interesting. On the hardware and mechanical side of things, I see a lot of resistance to transition over to the AI revolution. I think a lot of people think it's overhyped, which parts of it are. - Oh, it's definitely overhyped. - It's overhyped.

- But that doesn't mean it's not useful. - Exactly. And I think, well, like the most common usage that I've seen is just people using note taking AI tools in Zoom. But that's not really what I'm personally that interested in. I mean, there's a lot of generative, like generative design tools that I'm fascinated to see how that works.

But the challenges with that that I spoke to was IP and how, how that's going to be taken care of and what kind of governance is going to be put around it so that it's ethical. - I'll just tell you that I'm seeing AI used for generating code, other podcast guests talk about that, which is part of building hardware products, firmware code. - Very much so. Yeah. - And I think that we're seeing a lot

of synthetic data generation and public data like the Onshape public model dataset, the ABC dataset, sketch graph. There's a part assembly database out there. People are generating data that don't rely on, on proprietary data. But Sera, I want to thank you for being a fascinating guest.

The time has flown by, if you want to hear more from Sera, you could, she only works with three companies at a time, but you could be one of those three. Sera, can you once again tell people, tell our listeners how would they learn more about you? - If you want to visit my website, it's That's the same - I love the episode of your podcast about capital stack. That's one I'll recommend to the audience if they're interested in fundraising. Very interesting and unique framing of the financing problem.

So with that, I want to say a big thank you to all of our listeners. I'm your host, Jon Hirschtick. See you all next time on Masters of Engineering.

2024-03-06 00:04

Show Video

Other news