Getting to Know: Dr. Satish Agrawal, CEO, Bambu Vault

Satish Agrawal, Ph.D., who serves as Chief Executive Officer of Bambu Vault, the technology arm of Bambu Global, will celebrate his 15th year at Bambu Global. He joined Bambu in 2004, after an illustrious 30-year career at Polaroid, where he served as Group Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. At Bambu, Dr. Agrawal has led teams of scientists and engineers to create four technology platforms, each of which can create multiple products that will disrupt a variety of industries, such as lighting, life science, renewable energy, defense, and the tattoo industry.

In this blog, we interviewed Satish to get more insight into his experiences and perspectives.

What did you do before you joined Bambu?

As a young Ph.D. embarking on a professional career, working at Polaroid was a dream job. Polaroid invented instant photography, which was viewed as one of the more significant and impactful technological inventions of its day. Dr. Edwin Land, who founded Polaroid, created a technology platform that was the basis for creating 50 or so highly successful products. Studying for my Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering back in India in the 1960’s, I had been fascinated by the Polaroid invention which made it possible to have instant photographs. In fact, upon arriving in the U.S. in 1965 for graduate studies, my first purchase was an instant camera.

I spent 30 years at Polaroid, where I was Chief Technology Officer. I worked my way up the professional and managerial ladder there and was given the opportunity to design a next generation platform for instant imaging. The technological and managerial challenges were gratifying, and even more so, I found that overseeing the launch of multiple products to be exhilarating. Unfortunately, as with many other imaging companies, Polaroid was unable to successfully navigate the transition from chemical imaging to digital imaging.

My experience at Polaroid awakened a strong hunger to create not just revolutionary technologies but also to conceive and launch commercially successful disruptive products that alter the business landscape. Understandably, it is hard to get market data from people for disruptive products, since without experiencing the product, it is hard to get reliable opinions form potential consumers. Both technological and market risk is high. However, a successful execution from creation to commercial success can be not only personally rewarding, but also highly profitable for the company.

What was a formative experience at Polaroid?

Starting my career at Polaroid, I joined a team engaged in a very ambitious project to enable Polaroid to manufacture its own film, which hereto had been made by Kodak, a competitor. As a $150M (a significant sum in the 1970’s) film manufacturing plant was pressed into service, we encountered numerous problems causing film defects. I contributed to solving many of them, but one difficult problem stands out.

A water drop-like defect was being created on the surface of the film somewhere in the manufacturing process. We could not move forward until the problem was solved, and the production delay cost $1M+ per day), which caught the attention of the CEO.

I hypothesized that the cause of the problem was water condensation onto the surface of the film in an early section of the plant. The Senior VP of Engineering didn’t agree, and based on his assessment, senior management rejected my hypothesis.

But I had a strong conviction and a burning desire to prove the naysayers wrong, I stayed through the night to run tubing from the relevant section of the plant through the ceiling back to my lab and gathered convincing evidence that the specific geometry in an early section of the plant was causing the air to get saturated from flash evaporation and cause condensation. Management, while being mad that I stayed overnight without permission, were highly appreciative that I had the courage and conviction to stay the course and solve the problem.

For repeatedly exhibiting decisiveness and boldness, I was eventually given the responsibility to create the next-generation film platform. To help understand the magnitude and scale of the new film platform project, more than 5,000 people (including hundreds of Ph.D.’s) worked on it. The total project cost was $1B in three years. That project served as the foundation for all of Polaroid products starting in 1985. It taught me a lot about dealing with complexity, personnel, and more specifically how to manage uncertainty and risk. This capability has come in very handy here at Bambu in our quest to develop market-disruptive products.

What do you do at Bambu Vault?

Bambu Vault is the R&D hub for Bambu Global. I lead teams of scientists and engineers to create four technology platforms, each of which develops multiple life-saving disruptive technology across a broad range of industries and markets – from defense, lighting, signage, automotive, construction, safety, health, and even tattoos.

Our strategy is not to just create novel technology for its own sake but to create disruptive products that can be commercially successful. For any technology platform, our goal is to fill an unmet and unidentified need with something that’s transformative, much like instant photography was or the Apple iPhone.

Solving problems that people didn’t know needed solving is very exciting because we truly find ways to help improve people’s lives.

Can you share some principles that you have lived by throughout your career?

There are four key principles that I have lived by:
1. Work outside your safe zone.
2. Have confidence in yourself.
3. Do not be afraid to sign up for difficult challenges.
4. Help others selflessly as they will help you when you have a need.

One of the challenges in life and career is feeling complacent. The four key principles I just mentioned are important. I owe my success to making sure I work outside my safe zone and I always sign up for difficult challenges.

I learned to do that back at Polaroid, when I was encountering and solving many challenges when getting a new film manufacturing plant into service (film manufacturing knowhow being in the exclusive domain of a few companies). Many of the solutions were not mainstream and contrary to prevalent thought and practice. Stepping up to the plate in such environment and being successful is a tremendous confidence builder. One does not have to be successful every time. The risk and effort are appreciated.

The other key principle is to help others. Whatever you do in business, you succeed only with teamwork and collaboration. You have to work hard but you also have to help others. It makes for a more pleasant work environment, better team spirit, and, you never know, the person you help today could help you tomorrow.

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