October 29, 2020
Collin West
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Kauffman Fellow Evan Loomis and his NASA contract to 3D print a future Moon Base.

By Collin West

“Considering global population growth, we’re going to be in a pinch if we don’t figure out how to shelter ourselves without destroying the world,” says Evan Loomis, Co-Founder of ICON, and Kauffman Fellow (Class 21).  “Two of our values at ICON are courage and velocity.  There is no shortage of academic types that have been hypothesizing about 3D printed houses for a long time, but we want to just do it.  It’s called the global housing crisis for a reason.  There are 1.2 billion of our brothers and sisters that don’t have adequate shelter.”

ICON currently has built nearly two dozen homes around the world– with dozens more on the way– and it recently set its sights on the infinite expanse of stars that have enamored human beings since the dawn of time.

Through funding from NASA, ICON has begun research and development of space-age construction system that could support future exploration of the Moon. Launching “Project Olympus” this year, ICON co-founder and CEO, Jason Ballard, calls this “the most ambitious construction project in recorded human history and will push technology, engineering, science and architecture to literal new heights.”

Despite the exciting allure of printing houses on the moon, Evan urges readers to understand the conflict they’re looking to solve is “more humane than flashy technology.” (Apple recently did a great docuseries including ICON’s work in Mexico with the housing nonprofit, New Story, on the human story of ICON)

ICON was created to solve three critical housing problems:

  1. Affordability: the average human on earth can’t afford a home.
  2. Sustainability: the current modes of construction and material production are wasteful and damaging to the planet.
  3. Availability: over 1 billion people, or about 13% of the Earth’s population,  don’t have adequate shelter.

Kauffman Fellow Evan Loomis: Origins of Tackling the Global Housing Crisis

Evan notes that he is generally trying to optimize his personal life around two things: living near and working with friends.

“My big dream in life, aside from raising four wonderful kids and having a healthy marriage, is to be basically next-door neighbors with friends, and to work with really good friends,” says Evan. “These are the things that get me out of bed in the morning.”

Evan got his professional start in investment banking in 2004, and it didn’t take long for him to realize he was better aligned with his entrepreneurial ambitions.

“I worked for a former president when I was in college at Texas A&M, and he suggested that I go be an investment banker,” says Evan. “I had no idea what that was, but I decided to try out working at a bulge bracket investment bank. I discovered something that I just loathe – cubicles and being told what to do. I figured that if you don’t like those two things, you probably ought to find a different job or become an entrepreneur.”

The pendulum quickly swung from investment banking in New York City, a trademark of the corporate high finance world, into entrepreneurship. Evan spent the next decade launching a few businesses such as Wedgwood Circle, an angel investment group with a focus on the media and entertainment sectors, TreeHouse, which he describes as a Whole Foods (eco friendly) version of Home Depot, a handful of healthcare companies, and a family investment fund.

“As an investor, I realized that I was making a tradeoff I wasn’t comfortable with: I love to invest, but I actually like to create and build just as much,” says Evan. “I loved to create businesses from scratch, but not necessarily to run the thing as a full-time job, so I started exploring the startup studio model. This led me to join Kauffman Fellows.”

Evan joined Kauffman Fellows Class 21 with an itch to do something big and was exploring his options around his evolving personal mission:

“I remember Jeff Harbach speaking about inflection points within Kauffman, and I remember I hit my inflection point after the first module,” says Evan. “I realized I needed to leave my job to launch a startup studio– a hybrid venture fund if you will.”

Evan describes the startup studio concept as launching many startups at the same time and then doubling down on the ones that are working.

“A startup studio gives you the opportunity to author early-stage businesses, but you don’t have to be the one that finishes the book, so to speak,” says Evan.

Evan launched Saturn Five as a startup studio incubated within the Kauffman Fellows Program.

“We named the company Saturn Five after the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo Missions,” explains Evan. “This was a time in American history where technology and ambition brought us together, and I view that period as a bright spot of American history. The idea of just launching super ambitious ventures that will have a very positive impact on humanity over and over again gave us the rocket motif– and who doesn’t like rockets?”

The first business Saturn Five got behind was ICON, and since then, subsequently started a few other ventures and purchased a handful of companies.

“When we’re looking for business ideas, we look for places where there are tremendous amounts of human suffering,” says Evan. “If you spend a lot of time on Sand Hill road, there are many people trying to sell you apps that maybe deliver warm cookies on time or other advances in industries, but those aren’t ideas rooted in solving human suffering; they come from a place of decadence and preference.”

Evan wanted to tackle something extremely difficult that could make an enormous difference.

“While we were exploring solutions with ICON, the Texas Gulf Coast was being ravaged by hurricanes– Hurricane Harvey was particularly devastating for millions of Texans,” says Evan.  While resiliency was and continues to be on our minds, the world consistently struggles with housing affordability. “Many people who were moving to Austin couldn’t afford a house and we can’t build enough homes fast enough to meet demand.”

“Another key element to ICON was a terrible conflagration of losing a lot of builders– we went from about 100,000 builders to about 50,000 builders in the last housing crisis, so we didn’t have enough people that were actually building quality homes to catch up with the supply needs,” says Evan. “On top of that, everything was getting more expensive.”

“We imagined how we could solve this housing crisis with two things that have been wonderful arrows in the quiver of every other industry: digitization and automation,” says Evan. “What would a completely digital solution look like to construction? So, we looked at a bunch of different things like prefab, zip panels, modular construction, and whatever else modern technology could lend to the building process.”

Enter ICON:

“We landed on 3D printing because it could solve all the issues we were facing,” says Evan. “Better yet, it solved the speed challenge that faces construction. It takes an average of nine months to build a house, which really begs the question– why does it take so long? Homes aren’t that complicated. You can build a very sophisticated iPhone or rocket engine in a matter of days. It just didn’t make sense. If you can solve for the speed, you could solve for cost.”

While experimenting with the idea of 3D-printing houses, Jason Ballard and Evan tapped into their network for support. This support came in the shape of Taylor Jackson, the best man at Evan’s wedding with a house in East Austin, a hot spot for the annual South by Southwest conference.

“I asked if I could borrow his backyard to 3D print a house, and he said ‘no’,” laughs Evan.

After a series of negotiations that led to Evan gifting Taylor the 3D-printed house and paying for the mortgage, he had a deal, and soon, Taylor Jackson’s backyard was the launch site for ICON 3D’s first house.

“We planned for everything but success, but sure enough, a week before South by Southwest 2018, we started 3D printing,” says Evan. “By the time the event started, we had a full house printed, and that’s what really got our start. “Our first house was about 350 square feet. Since then, we’ve built a bigger robotic system that can do homes up to 2,000 square feet. These aren’t tiny houses– these are real houses that could have a full three-bedroom, three bathrooms set up.”

“Since then, we’ve been developing the robotics, material science, and software to the point that you can just give an operator a smartphone, have them scroll through it, click on a house they want, and push print,” says Evan. “It’s not as easy as I’m making it sound, but that’s the direction it’s heading.”

On meeting ICON’s lead investor in their seed round: Kauffman Fellows classmate Jason Portnoy

“One of the coolest things about Kauffman Fellows was that I ended up meeting ICON’s lead investor in our seed round, Jason Portnoy, who was part of my Class,” says Evan. “I remember asking our Class for advice on this crazy idea of 3D printing that house in Austin and Jason Portnoy happened to be in Texas, and he said he wanted to come by and check it out.”

“I remember Jason saying on the spot, ‘Hey man, I know this sounds kind of crazy because we’re buddies, but could I be your lead investor,” says Evan. “I said ‘of course’ this is actually the dream for me. I want to work with and live near friends. Jason Portnoy and Oakhouse Partners led our seed round, and we’ve had our proverbial hair on fire ever since.”

To date, ICON has raised $44 million from firms such as Oakhouse Partners,Citi, Vulcan Capital, and the Kauffman Fellows Fund, as well as a SBIR Strategic Fund Increase (STRATFI) contract through the AFVentures which including funding from NASA.

“There are many reasons I admire Portnoy, but here are a few of the reasons I was especially excited about him leading our round,” says Evan. “He’s had an important role in a number of prominent ventures. He was the first CFO of Palantir, and he’s had pattern recognition for some really great businesses, like Carta, Zipline, and PayPal– he also set up Peter Thiel’s family office.”

Evan notes that he and the ICON team have an admiration for Jason Portnoy as an operator that has gone through the joys and the hardships of giving birth to those businesses.

Jason Portnoy with the ICON team in Mexico printing the world’s first 3D-printed community for partner, New Story.

“Portnoy is also a guy that is attempting with just about every fiber in his body to become a virtuous human being, and I don’t say that lightly,” says Evan. “He has a weekly call with his coach about his highest allegiance is to become a wonderful human being and shed light on things that are not good, distracting, or just provide noise. He’s done so much to strip away noise in his life, and as a result, you want to seek advice from him. He’s not part of the hype machine. He’s actually clued into the more subtle signals that are happening with you and within your business.”

“For example, in our first couple of board meetings, he would ask for a few minutes of silence to temper the noise in the room and to be still,” says Evan. “It’s kind of funny, kind of weird, but it’s actually exactly what we needed because, in our heart of hearts, we all wanted to be present with each other, and we want to get to the real issues and not just put on a show or let the inner-PR agent inside of us take over.”

“He did an hour-long weekly standup call with our CEO Jason Ballard for two years to ask how he’s doing, what we can work on, and it had more to do with leadership transformation rather than simply solving problems together. It’s been a gift to see Portnoy deploy superpowers that way.”

Can you walk us through how ICON is more effective for construction?

ICON 3D prints with a proprietary material that is concrete-based, a relatively cheap, durable, and readily accessible material.

“We find concrete to be a far more superior building material because it’s much more durable against the elements, and it happens to be the most ubiquitous building material humans have ever come up with since the Romans invented it 2000 years ago. Concrete is also the cheapest building material, which is perfect for our target market that needs low-cost housing. We started this business to explicitly solve the housing crisis. We’re not going to solve this problem with fancy, super-expensive houses. It’s going to be solved by delivering something that the lower-income and middle-market customers can afford.”

500 square-foot, 3D-printed Welcome Center at Community First! Village in Austin, TX. Photography: Philip Cheung

By owning the construction process, Evan posits that ICON can expand into dozens of new avenues to further simplify and reduce the home buying process costs.

“This is a natively digital approach to construction, and it’s opening newfrontiers for us,” says Evan. “For example, we have the opportunity to own the entire end-to-end home buying process, including automating the mortgage and paperwork that amounts to massive dollar amounts and time that financially prohibit and needlessly complicated the process of buying a house for many people. If this is all automated and on your phone, we should be able to drive costs down further, as well.”

“3D printing homes also solve for design freedom,” says Evan. “Not every house has to look like the same sum of parts that fit on the back of a truck. You can think beyond just right angles. You could use different and more resilient materials like concrete that would last hundreds of years, not just 40 years or just the typical lifespan of a house.”

Can ICON’s homes be used to rebuild areas devastated by natural disasters?

“If I can be overly simplistic for a moment, there are two ways to build a house: you can cut down big, beautiful trees in Canada, chope them up, put them on the back of trucks, ship them to Puerto Rico or to wherever, and build a house out of them,” says Evan. “The second way is to take stone or dirt, heat it, and turn it into cement, and start building. You can turn dirt into building material, and you’re not killing anything that’s living. Granted, it does takeenergy to produce cement, but those are the two ways humanity builds basic structures, outside of skyscrapers, which use steel.”

“One of the great things about this technology is that you’re 3D printing with concrete, which is a very water-loving material,” says Evan. “For example, the reason many of the homes built on the island are already made out of concrete is that they tend to be much more durable than their stick-built counterparts. You can essentially get concrete anywhere in the world, with a few exceptions like Antarctica and Greenland.”

ICON’s Vulcan 3D printer extrudes “lavacrete” layer by layer to construct three homes simultaneously at Community First! Village, part of a six-home project or those experiencing chronic homelessness.

Final Thoughts: To Infinity and Beyond

Zooming out to the heavens, Evan views ICON as a two-way feedback loop– humans will gain the advantage of building a new home over 250,000 miles away and simultaneously learn critical insights for better construction back on that pale blue dot of Earth.

“One of the things NASA has always had a challenge with is getting people on Earth to appreciate what they’re doing,” says Evan. “When it comes to consumer-applications for space industry-innovation, we’ve got Velcro, few other notable inventions, and that’s it. 3D printing is one of those technologies where the innovations that we discover on the moon are going to have an almost one-for-one correlation on people and housing on Earth.”

ICON partnered with Bjarke Ingels Group and SEArch+ to imagine our home on another world as part of Project Olympus.

With 500-degree temperature variations, craters that are thousands of feet deep, extreme radiation, electrically charged super abrasive dust, and the ruthless vacuum of space, the moon presents an infinitely more hostile environment than almost anywhere on Earth.

“Most things that happen in space are relegated to the box of space, but this is one of those projects that I believe has some very special attributes where all of our breakthroughs on the moon are going to inform us on how to build more resilient, more cost-effective, and longer-lasting homes for people on Earth.”