Welcome to our Meet the Founders series — where Liza Rubinstein, our Co-founder and Head of Impact, puts the leading innovators from our portfolio companies in the spotlight. Sit back, and discover what climate tech your capital (can) scales.
Remo Gerber is the CEO at LEKO LABS — a wood technology company that uses a patented structure of cross-laminated timber, robotics and AI to replace highly polluting concrete and steel in the walls and floors of buildings.
Having spent almost all of his career at technology startups with a focus on mobility, Remo joined LEKO LABS inspired by the impact the founding team and the company are having on tackling the problem of climate change.
- How does LEKO LABS fight climate change?
- Are you going to live in a LEKO LABS building yourself?
- Would you invest your own money in climate tech venture capital?
- Could you tell us what will this latest funding round will allow you to do?
- What does LEKO LABS do?
- Every wall within a LEKO LABS building will be different depending on what’s really needed. So, how does that work?
- We have a design that is fed into the algorithm, it comes up with wall segments, and then a robotics process that constructs the walls, right?
- Are there competitors or other companies also thinking about this?
- Could you tell me something about why you decided to join LEKO LABS?
- Every wall that LEKO LABS produces is actually carbon negative, right?
- So many benefits from a LEKO LABS building, are there any downsides?
- Who are LEKO LABS customers?
How does LEKO LABS fight climate change?
Liza Rubinstein: Cool, and how does Leko Labs fight climate change?
Remo Gerber: The key thing is 15% of CO2 emissions comes from concrete and from steel. And there’s some very novel, some, some great ideas how to make concrete and steel more sustainable, which is fantastic. But even if we find new ways, they still have challenges around sand wedging and drinking water and the process of concrete to decarbonize that is hard.
So, our thinking is simply like… not use it.
So, our buildings, what you can do, everything above ground, you can build out of wood and insulating materials with fiber.
So, we reduce simply 75% of the need for concrete and steel in a building. And our buildings can go up to 20 to 30 floors, depending a little bit on the structure.
So pretty much 99% of buildings in Europe, you can build out of the Leko Labs system and you simply don’t need the concrete above ground. So that’s one point.
The second point is that by having a lattice structure, it means we actually have space inside of the wall. And we fill that space with insulating materials and that allows for more insulating and then a much more airtight systems in the way our walls are constructed.
And that in turn, reduces the heating and cooling needs by about 90% versus the typical average of today’s heating.
So we are ending up with something like a dramatic reduction of material use and dramatic reduction of heating and cooling needs. And by that, when you look at 15% of CO2 coming from those two sources, you can tackle that in a very clear and straight matter.
Are you going to live in a LEKO LABS building yourself?
LR: So exciting. Are you going to live in a Leko Labs building yourself?
RG: I would totally. I’ve actually been to several Leko Labs’ and what’s amazing is even when it’s a raw construction, when you typically walk into concrete raw walls, it’s cold, it’s a lot of echo.
You kind of come in there and you really wait for it to be clouded out and to have furniture in there because it feels kind of cold.
And you come into a Leko Labs building… it’s actually warm. You have pretty much zero echo and that’s actually very important point by the wall itself having completed different acoustics properties. They’re actually much more similar to a sound studio when you come into a raw Leko Labs building. So it’s already a warm building.
Ever put your hand on a wooden beam versus a steel beam in the same room temperature?
One feels cold, the other one feels more. I’ll let you figure out which one.
But you come into the Leko Labs house and already you have that warmth and you have that incredible acoustics properties that actually the echo is absorbed by the walls and that in its raw experience is already amazing.
And then of course, you know, how sustainable the building itself is.
By 75% reduction of concrete and steel, and then having the whole stored carbon from the wood and the wood fiber, and we only source from sustainable forests from within three or 400 kilometers from our factory, you’re actually looking at probably one of the biggest ways of how you can reduce your own personal carbon footprint if you select to live in one of these homes.
To give you an example: a 90 square meter home in concrete, you’re easily going to emit at least 10 years of an average life by just going and building your building. And you can simply reduce, actually completely offset that, by using a Leko Labs type of system.
Would you invest your own money in climate tech venture capital?
LR: Cool. One last question. Remo, would you invest your own money in climate tech venture capital?
RG: So I have invested my own money in Leko Labs. So I’m actually an investor in the company as well. And, absolutely. So, I think it is twofold.
One of the most urgent things we need to do, but I also firmly believe that there can be great business opportunity as well. And if you manage that, if you actually make economics the driver of change, then we are winning. And I think that this is a bit like the philosophy. Of course, maybe one day we’re going to have even more opportunities with carbon credits at Leko Labs.
But we have an insane focus to design to cost. So we want to make the product as cheap as we can possibly make it in order to drive as much adoption as possible because the more we build, the more impact we can have.
So this is the philosophy and I can see lots of these big opportunities in climate tech.
Of course, I’m now very focused on LEKO LABS and I’m super excited to also count myself as part of the investors.
But broadly, in general, I think it is definitely the right area. Yourselves, 2150, right? There are very, very smart ideas that look at this various different ecosystem and then there’s actually a lot of solutions that are needed.
So it’s not a one size fits all, right? LEKO LABS alone isn’t going to solve the climate challenge.
I mean, you look at the built environment. We need to look at like how we are cooling things. We should look at like, continued, there’s some great ideas around making concrete more sustainable.
We will continue to need concrete, right? It’s a huge, hugely important, building material in so many different ways. We will continue to need steel, right? So we need to look at technologies that made these materials more sustainable. And I think there’s just, it’s an abundance of opportunities there.
And I do believe it is venture capital that will make a difference. I do believe that a lot of the innovation will come from small, innovative companies that don’t come up in large corporate settings that can really disrupt the space.
Could you tell us what will this latest funding round will allow you to do?
LR: Congratulations on a 21 million funding round. I heard that LEKO LABS before that only raised 2 million, so it’s a huge step up. Could you tell us what will this money allow you to do?
RG: It will allow us to just scale. Uh, so it’s really meant to now bring the full automotive robotics to life.
So we already had it in lab tested, so a lot of, um, three years of R&D, but now we can actually buy the kits and expand the manufacturing process and go much quicker.
And it of course also allows us to go after much bigger projects because before without such an equity buffer and being properly capitalized, the projects were reasonably small… Big villas, right? But not like the huge development opportunities that we are now looking at.
And of course, it’s a fantastic group of backers that already take a very global view, right? So everybody comes in with the perspective of how can we apply this globally? The challenge is not just in Europe, it’s also in the US and in Asia.
So for that, you need to have the right group of backers to take this in a very, very global.
LR: Great. And I see you also have 23 vacancies on your platform so anybody who’s listening, who’s interested might want to take a look there.
RG: Absolutely. We’re looking for great talent and this is not going to end. The 23 is only the beginning. So of course now, we’re starting to scale.
I’ve scaled a fair bit of companies and this is a very, very exciting time to get involved in a company that you can wake up in the morning and you know why you’re waking up and you know why you’re actually doing this. And you can actually literally see it, touch it and smell it, the impact, it smells wonderful.
So actually holding one of these cubes.
LR: Oh, nice!
RG: So this is the product, right? So you see on the inside, first of all, it’s beautiful, right? So it’s Douglas Fir (tree). So this is what it’s made out of. You have the installation on the inside and it’s reasonably light for the size of it.
It’s just an absolutely beautiful products to be used.
What does LEKO LABS do?
Liza Rubinstein: So could you maybe tell me briefly, what does Leko Labs do?
Remo Gerber: Yes, Liza. Thank you for having me here, very exciting.
We essentially are addressing two problems in the world. One, uh, we have a 39% of CO2 emissions that come from the built sector. So, so actually building, uh, constructing, but also heating out homes.
And we also have a chronic housing shortage in the world. And what we do at Leko Labs, we developed a novel composite materials, predominantly made out of wood, that is therefore highly sustainable. And so we can address, uh, about 75% of concrete and steel that goes into buildings, but also it’s highly insulating.
So it takes about 90% less to heat and to cool our buildings. So proper passive house standards. And last but not least, we have a software solution that sits around the entire optimization of the building and creates a digital twin to mass manufacture these homes.
Every wall within a LEKO LABS building will be different depending on what's really needed. So, how does that work?
LR: It’s fascinating. So you’re telling me that every wall within a Leko Labs building will be different depending on what’s really needed. So how does it work? Do you make a design and just feed it into the algorithm and then that tells you which walls you need?
RG: Yeah, so there’s two core insights.
Our founder, Francois Cordier, is an architect by training. And architects do not like to necessarily be told how they need to build a building. So they like to have the creativity. It’s also true that pretty much all buildings are somewhat different. The plots of different or wherever you look.
And then we also want to have buildings that look different.
So, different to prefabricated constructions, we created a system that is highly versatile. But a wall is a wall at the end of the day, so what our lattice system allows is inside the way the wall is constructed to vary the amount of woods that goes into it. And that varies the strength of each wall segment.
But in order to do that, we do indeed take the architect’s plans, 2D PDFs or 3D models. Either way, for us, it doesn’t matter.
We isolate the wall segments. We look at that and then we do a static, basically the structural engineering optimization of the entire building. And vary how much a lateral pieces of wood need to go into each wall segment.
And then once that is done, and that’s all our proprietary code, we have a fully digital building as well so that also creates a digital twin for each wall segment that then goes into the manufacturing process, which today is highly automated already to the point where, we have reached the end to end digital manufacturing of the building at this point in time.
So LEKO LABS feeds a design into an algorithm, it comes up with wall segments, and then a robotics process that constructs the walls, right?
LR: That’s really cool. And so what you’re telling me is we have a design, which is fed into the algorithm, it comes up with wall segments, and then there’s a robotics process that constructs the actual walls, right?
RG: That’s correct. So, the robotics process is literally what we’re setting up right now. So we have tested in the lab. Today, we are on the market and have already completed multiple different buildings where the final step, I would say, semi-automated this sort of a final manual assembly.
And now we’re setting up the full scale automotive robotics. The robots are already in progress and starting to train themselves on the system to really properly scale that globally.
For that, we just raised a wonderful Series A. Fantastic backers, 2150, Tencent, Microsoft, AMAVI from the Benelux region. um, a number of others. Freigeist from Germany to help us go and scale this.
And the point really is that the whole digital backbone is already there, and it’s a very smart system that allows us to build the exact wall segment that is needed.
And not sort of this reverse process of just building an unintelligent, big sheet of wood or a sort of a non-differentiated piece of concrete wall but it’s actually a highly specific component that is going to fit exactly to the building where it’s going to be needed and has the necessary strengths.
There’s lots of buffer on top. Um, but also it just shows what you can do in terms of optimizing the amount of material that goes into our buildings because it’s a huge race when you think about it.
So, it’s very often it’s the ground floor that defines how thick the walls are going to be. And the wall thickness remains constant in our typical buildings. And as I said earlier, that is absolutely wasted on the top floor where you have zero additional load bearing from, from the upper floors that you need.
So, having this sort of optimization and using first of all, natural resources and then optimize the amount of those of course allows it to be much, much more gentle on the planet.
Are there competitors or other companies also thinking about this?
LR: It’s interesting. I didn’t know actually about the optimization of walls. Is that something that’s done in other parts of, are there competitors or other companies that are also thinking about this?
RG: It’s pretty novel.
Um, we haven’t yet seen many, many other competitors that I can tell you who do. Because the traditional way of building is, as I said, uh, when you look at traditional wood building, it’s always the same sheets of wood that are being produced.
Of course, there you can make thicker and thinner sheets of woods, and I think that’s sort of one way of optimizing. So you sort of say like, this is now the widths for this building or for that building and then that that’s it. And that’s how it’s traditionally optimized.
Same as with concrete walls. Of course the concrete walls are more or less enforced with steel or not depending on what is actually needed.
But within the building, it’s a pretty novel approach to actually say that from floor to floor and also across the floor, you need different load bearing capabilities.
And for that, of course, you do need to have a completely new way of thinking about how you’re building. And you do you need to have, um, the ability and the system that even allows for that.
And that’s a pretty novel thing.
Could you tell me something about why you decided to join LEKO LABS?
LR: So cool. Could you tell me something about why you decided to join Leko Labs?
RG: I used to build electric planes. Vertical takeoff and landing electric planes. Fantastic company.
LR: Like the one behind you?
RG: Exactly, the one behind me. Love it. We brought that on to the stock market and what do you do after you build flying cars? And of course, I can’t wait until we finally have it certified and that will be coming…
But electrification of air transportation and flying, so aviation as a whole sector makes 2% of CO2 emissions. And it’s simply 20 times bigger what’s happening in the construction industry.
So, what excited me when I met our Founder and we started talking, is that the amount of impact we can have, it can probably get to 1% of the global big cake.
And that’s of course a crazy idea. That’s of course a massive, massive endeavor, but when you put two and two together…
So a completely new way of building a novel material that we can use and then being able to scale that up through automotive robotics, putting those ingredients together is simply that we can have impact on a completely different scale. And that got me very, very excited.
Yes, we need to have a few thousand robots in place. And yes, it’s maybe the size of a car company that you need to build, but, it’s that sort of challenged that got me extremely excited because it is possible and it is happening now, right.
So, so when you build an electric car or an electric plane… typically you always have an investment of CO2 and then over time you’ll be better, right? With electric cars it really depends as well the type of energy that you’re using.
And here’s an opportunity to have immediate impact. To actually have the impact today, and to today you switch off the use of steel and concrete for that particular building.
And I’m not delusional, right, it’s a huge industry. There’s so much to be done.
And of course that isn’t going to happen overnight, but I know now every morning I wake up and every square meter of wall that we build, actually every wall that we build is an average European compensated. So, it’s very tangible. It happens today. And so what we need to focus on is now growing and scaling the company.
You're alluding to something important, right? That every wall that LEKO LABS produces is actually carbon negative.
LR: You’re alluding to something important, right? That every wall that Leko Labs produces is actually carbon negative.
RG: Yup, that’s right. And it is carbon negative because thanks to the high degree of recyclability. So, at the end of the lifetime of the building, it’s very, very easy to dismantle the building.
It’s very easy to build the building in the first instance. So there’s a number of advantages commercially.
Let’s maybe quickly talk about why, what the other critical element is.
This company doesn’t depend on philanthropy and it doesn’t depend on people wanting to do the right thing. Of course, we love to work with people who want to do the right thing, but construction is also very price driven.
So we spent years on perfecting the technology. And today we are on par to build as with concrete. So you don’t have a cost penalty to that.
But you have a bunch of other incredible advantages. It’s dramatically faster to build a Leko Labs building than a concrete building.
Just last week, in a wonderful example of it. On the right hand side exactly the same home built in concrete and on the left different developer built it using Leko Labs. The concrete building to 12 months to get to the same point and we were after three weeks catching up to where it took them 12 months to build the structure.
So, you have a radically changed speed of construction.
So that is of course interesting commercial, right. But it is also interesting for the people that live in the neighborhood. You have less noise, you have less traffic, less site traffic, less waste and pollution actually on the building site because actually within a few days the entire building is there. And then afterwards it’s still a lengthy process, to do all the final installation, all of these other good stuff.
But first of all, on par on cost, very fast to install and last but not least, in quite a lot of instances, we’re seeing that we are creating more space on the inside of the building. Because thanks to the inbuilt installation.
So our walls already having some part of the installation on the inside, we reduced the size of the walls up to 40%. In some cases 20, in some cases 40%, but it leads to up to about 10% of floor space gain.
So you live in an expensive area where you do the math… One square meter gains can be 5,000 to 15,000 euros of economic benefit that you can resell and then repurpose as a developer.
So you build a hundred apartments, maybe you have another five or 10 that you can simply sell on top, or each apartment is slightly bigger thanks to that technology.
So it was really with that in mind that it has to be economically sensible to use the technology…
and you ended up doing the right thing.
So many benefits from a LEKO LABS building, are there any downsides?
LR: It sounds like there are so many benefits from a LEKO LABS building, are there any downsides?
RG: It’s new. A lot of people don’t like new things so, therefore, we have to prove ourselves like, like everybody else, but I believe it is a really fundamentally new way of building.
And thanks to the software optimization as well…
Is that one of the big risks with building with wood is always around moisture. So how are we adressing the moisture risk with wood? Is by using an AI platform that we built to simulate over about a decade, how each panel and each sort of like facing area of the building in the exact location is going to behave.
So winter, summer, evening, morning patterns, because what typically happens when you come from the moisture rich summer into the colder autumn periods, you have the risk of moisture buildup. And so therefore, we simulate that over a decade and make sure that we size the inner and outer installations so you don’t end up with that problem.
These are the type of challenges that you need to go through.
I’m starting to give you a much better answer than that. I think there are really some fundamental changes here of how we can build.
And I would simply say to anybody listening to this podcast, send us your plans. We can have a look at it, we can produce in Luxembourg and pretty much deliver across Europe.
It’s a very light system to transport so we can actually do this cost effectively, and we’re not killing the LCA from that transport because we can load a lot of walls on to a single truckload.
So you can’t do the same with concrete walls prefabricated.
And of course over time, we’ll have factories closer to you, but I would simply invite everybody, send us your plans. We can look at it. We can make you a proposal and you make up your own mind.
Who are LEKO LABS customers?
LR: Who are LEKO LABS customers?
RG: Essentially, mostly we work with developers directly, who then of course have their own general contractors to which we are essentially a materials provider.
But you have to imagine, the way we’re looking at a building…
Think about the building of a wall. But we’re not actually just building a simple piece, and highly repetitive, always the same piece of wall, but we’ll actually have wall segments slightly vary because then we can vary the strengths of our walls.
So think about a large building and the bottom floor wall and the top floor wall.
Actually, the top floor wall doesn’t need to be as strong as the bottom wall. And then what our lab technology allows is that we can vary how strong a wall segment is.
So what we do is, we work directly very often with real estate developers. There’s a number of different benefits that come from the Leko Labs system.
And then they give us the plans. We interacted with their engineering architects teams. And then from there, we take the building holistically and we actually optimize the entire building as a system that then creates a tailor-made Leko Labs wall system, but for the entire building.
Doing that allows us to save about 50% of the wood that you would typically need to just build that out of solid wood, because we can just vary the strengths and we optimize the entire building.
And it’s not only 50% of wood that we can reduce, we also use about 95% less glue then what you use in typical, traditional wood building mechanisms.
And that is of course very important because, you cannot these days, ignore the full lifecycle and I think that’s important that people understand that.
So, by reducing the amount of glue it also means a lot of the wood is untreat and remains usable again in a second life and can be recycled.
So, we dramatically changed the second life use of our product, by making it highly, highly recyclable.
So, and in that process, we work directly with the developers, but we will work directly, of course, in the end during the execution phase with the general contractors as a components supplier to the construction site.