The 1 Company That Embodies Everything We’re Looking For

A core belief of Shadow Ventures is that world-changing breakthroughs don’t all happen in Silicon Valley.Case in point? Earlier this week, I was in Austin, Texas for a private investor unveiling of ICON’s new 3D printed affordable housing solution.

Late last year, Shadow invested (alongside Oakhouse Partners, Vulcan Partners, Emaar, and D.R. Horton) in ICON’s first seed round. I have consistently been impressed with this team’s vision and execution — to put it bluntly, they’re killing it.

The plane ride home had me ruminating on what exactly makes ICON so special. They hit all three of the characteristics I think companies of the future absolutely must demonstrate in order to be successful and venture fundable. (It just so happens these are three of the major criteria we use to vet our portfolio investments).

1. What they’re doing is difficult.

What ICON is building is buzzworthy, yes. But I think what gets lost in a lot of news coverage is how hard it is to do what they’re doing. 3D printing housing in rural markets requires overcoming a whole host of complex technical challenges. We’re talking advancements in:

Material science: For every local market ICON delivers houses in, they have to come up with the precise, optimal concrete mix for that area. Maybe only civil engineers can truly appreciate how difficult it is to create exactly the right concrete (particle size, content mix, water ratio) — all of which is affected by local climate and resources — to build a safe and durable structure. It’s hard. And they’re doing it. Which doesn’t even begin to cover the challenges with delivering the material.
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Robotics: ICON’s approach relies on large robotics, required to operate to a high degree of precision. They must also be disassembled, shipped, assembled, and then function in remote areas under all kinds of conditions.

Software: Because ICON serves remote areas, it’s essential the entire system can be operated by a smartphone. It must be simple enough for low-skilled labor to successfully operate, with a design navigable by non-English and English speakers alike.

2. They’re solving a massive global problem.

Startups typically focus on customers with money — that’s the model. But ICON is turning that approach on its head. Instead of solving the lack of affordable housing with government subsidies, they’re transforming how housing is built. In other words, they’re disrupting an entire industry, not just iterating on a solution that already exists.

At the unveiling event, I learned the most recent statistic is 1.2 billion people around the world don’t have adequate shelter. ICON is tackling a problem for the good of all of humanity. That’s huge. And they’re figuring out how to make money doing it.
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3. It’s being done in Austin.

Like Shadow’s home base of Atlanta, Austin doesn’t top any lists of leading innovation ecosystems. What those lists don’t tell you is how many second-tier markets are home to at least a handful of transformative technology companies. That’s why Shadow is focused on emerging markets. Silicon Valley is tapped. But disruption isn’t. You just have to go a little farther, dig a little deeper, to find it.

I encourage you to learn more about ICON and get inspired. They are truly a company of the future and we’re proud to be in their corner.