Advanced Materials: Interview with Charles Dimmler, CEO and Co-Founder, Checkerspot

Charles Dimmler, CEO and Co-Founder of Checkerspot

Checkerspot, the high-performance materials company that designs materials at a molecular level, wants to bring new ingredients to the product design table.  “Right now, industry and product designers are stuck with the same old materials catalog to choose from for product production. In other words, everyone is baking a cake with the same old ingredients.” But Checkerspot is changing that.

The Berkley-based company optimizes microbes to biomanufacturer unique structural oils that have been discovered in nature but were not previously accessible commercially. In doing this, their first materials are next-generation polyurethanes and textile coatings designed to improve the performance of consumer products. Their mission is to grow the palette of unique technologies and materials that product designers can tap into for their future high-performance products.

Read more to hear how Charles Dimmler, CEO and Co-Founder of Checkerspot, sees the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

1. What issue/opportunity inspired the company to be created?

We, the founders, had spent a large part of our careers in the biotech business, improving the performance characteristics of a variety of products. We decided we wanted to continue to do so while leveraging the power of synthetic biology to design and produce high performance products with low environmental footprints. In 2016, we built Checkerspot, a company that designs and manufactures high-performance materials via fermentation-based assets designed for commercial scale production. We started with oils, given their unique chemistry, polyurethane (for enhanced composite) as well as textile coatings and finishes (for enhanced wicking and moisture management).

2. In your sector, what is the most significant issue you foresee in the 2020’s?

There will be growing global demand for access to information and awareness of the environmental footprint of products across their life cycles. As a result, consumer brands will demand better materials and product transparency, as they have done in recent years. The chemicals industry has not been able to move fast enough to significantly accommodate the changing consumer demand. Checkerspot can help the industry expand its portfolio of and access to biosynthetic materials as an alternative to petroleum-based materials.

3. What does the competitive landscape look like and what innovation does Checkerspot bring to the market?

Our three-pronged technology platform can be broken into the following:

  1. Molecular foundry to discover and develop new molecular building
  2. Materials science and chemistry that focuses on applications development with those new molecules
  3. Advanced fabrication where we use the newly developed materials and create products with them.

This helps us rapidly design, build and test iterations of targeted applications of interest, which means we can move through the discovery- to-launch process in days/weeks/months as opposed to years.

Right now, industry and product designers are stuck with the same old materials catalog to choose from for product production. In other words, everyone is baking a cake with the same old ingredients. Nature, however, has an untold amount of previously untapped molecular building blocks that have never been explored simply because there has been no way to scale them. Biotechnology changes that. It allows us to produce those previously unexplored and valuable molecules/materials in a matter of days using biomanufacturing. By using microbes and fermentation to make these molecules, we are opening up a new era of discovery and materials development. We see a world of collaboration, not competition, that will team up companies like ours with others who want to fully explore the palette of available molecules to improve their existing products. In the same vein, we aim to team up with innovators who want to create entirely new classes of products. Simultaneously during this paradigm shift, consumers are becoming more consciously aware and are demanding company transparency and safer chemistries. And companies are looking at ways to respond to this.

Our strategy is to be a technology enabler and partner. Our business model is reflected in our first announced funded JDA (Joint Development Agreement) with DIC Corporation whereby they are funding a program with Checkerspot and together we expect DIC to commercialize materials through their distribution network with license fees back to Checkerspot. Another example of this is our collaboration with W.L. Gore the makers and inventors of Gore-TEX® who we are working with on new non-PFC performance materials.

4. What initially drew you into the bio-tech space and how was the market when you started?

When I was in college, I was pre-med. I have always been fascinated by the incredible elegance and power of the design of biology and the intersection of biotechnology, genomics and human health. Ultimately, this interest drew me to work in biotechnology developing human therapeutics at a company called Geron. This was at a time that the tools of biotechnology were really taking hold and impacting human health. It wasn’t until around 2007 that I was exposed to the idea that these same biotech tools could have even greater impact at tackling industrial and societal challenges, such as climate change, energy security and food storage. It has been amazing to see that all explode into so many other arenas today and to be making such an important impact on medicine and human health. Flash forward to 2020, and we are seeing how biotechnology can affect materials innovation as well. It’s exciting to be opening new possibilities for improved product performance, including safer and better chemistries. The power and incredible diversity of nature’s molecular building blocks that we can now access with biotech is truly extraordinary.

5. What is Checkerspot focusing its efforts on today?

We are  focused on deploying high-performance materials in partnership with customers across wide ranging sectors to enhance the physical properties of their products, such as moisture management, strength-to-weight ratio, damping capacity solutions, and even their environmental footprint. We are also currently working with partners to commercialize offerings through joint-development projects.

6. Can you talk us through some of your example projects?

In May 2018, Checkerspot and DIC Corporation signed a JDA for the production of a novel, high performance polyol precursor to PU. By funding the R&D, DIC leveraged Checkerspot’s materials innovation platform for the targeted production of a material of importance to its portfolio. The partnership focused on designing enhanced products and formulations for adhesives, coatings, printing inks and lubricants.

In November 2019, we announced a collaboration with W.L. Gore, the makers of Gore-TEX™, to develop performance textiles. This brings together our expertise in bio-based polymers and biotechnology with Gore’s decades of experience in high-performance apparel. Together, we will explore innovative  materials development with the goal of delivering high performance textile coatings with improved environmental profiles.

7. What are your short-term and long- term growth goals?

Our mission is to expand the palette of molecular building blocks for high-performance and sustainable materials. Our vision is to deliver unique, inspiring technologies and materials into the creative hands of fabricators and designers, the makers that conceive the next generation of high-performance products. In 5 to 10 years, we aim to have penetrated an array of markets with new materials, inputs and building blocks. These markets include food, personal care, automotive, building materials, and home/office furnishings. In the future, we see a path that will allow for wide scale adoption of our approach. We want to empower companies as well as innovators with new materials and we see a future where we would license our technology platform to commercialize high-performance materials at scale. We also aim to continue to scale our outdoor brand, WNDR Alpine, to feature more high-performance products manufactured with bio-based materials.