Interview: Fahmi Al-Shawwa, Founder & CEO Immensa Technology Labs

It was the instinct of a small company: survival. We needed to ensure that we can survive the next month, the next quarter, the next year.

We interview VSQ portfolio company Immensa Technology Labs’ CEO & Founder Fahmi Al-Shawwa who recalibrated his 3D printing business to provide medical face visors and address supply chain disruptions amidst COVID-19.

Tell us about your journey leading up to building Immensa Labs

First 8 years of my life were spent in the investments and financial sector working for Arthur Andersen then a VC fund followed by a PE company. In 2006, I realized I’m more interested in the operational side of business than just the financial side. I left PE and set-up a small firm where my partner and I raised 3rd party funds to acquire 2 schools and took over revamping them then went on and sold them. Over the following years I acquired and/or set-up over 4 companies and each time I took over as CEO and either set-up the business or took on turning it around. During that period I had the benefit of working across a number of sectors, which taught me a lot. In 2014 I was stepping down from my role as CEO of Circle K and was looking at the next business to acquire.

As I was exploring different companies and concepts to acquire and set-up, I came across 3D printing and it caught my attention. I spent most of 2015 visiting various companies across Europe, North America and Asia that have adopted 3D printing. I fell in love with the technology and saw that our region was years behind the rest of the world.

By early 2016 I decided to embark on setting up an industrial-focused 3D printing company. Immensa was officially established in November 2016 and operations started January 2017. It was 3 people and 4 machines and over the past 3 years we’ve grown to 22 people and over 60 3D printers with 3D printing facilities in Dubai, Sharjah, an office in Kuwait and on our way to expanding with a production facility in Saudi Arabia and an office in the US before the end of 2020.

How are you coping with the current situation

It’s been an interesting time to say the least. Trying to balance staying safe while keeping the operations at Immensa running. We had to keep our factories operational since we started producing tools to assist in the fight against the pandemic. Trying to keep everyone around me safe was stressful. The people I work with, I needed to ensure they are comfortable and safe, at the same time I had to go home every day and wonder if I had caught the virus and if I am exposing my wife and kids to it. That’s a mental killer, if I get sick I can deal with it but if I get my family sick that would eat me up. Lost many hours of sleep over this. 

On the bright side, I became very disciplined with my time. I had more time to focus on operations, more time to work-out, more time with the family, and that felt great.

What was the catalyst for your deciding to recalibrate your operations amidst the pandemic breakout

In mid-February we started sensing that business will slow down with a remote possibility of shutting down. Our clients in Kuwait went into a lockdown on Feb 25th and have still not opened up as of date. Our international O&G clients in the UAE stopped accepting meetings and there were restrictions on getting parts and products into their facilities and vice versa. As it became more obvious by the end of February that our business will stagnate, we started looking at what’s happening in Europe. We joined two task forces that were set up in Europe to provide 3D printing services to assist governments in fighting the pandemic. We learnt a lot in the first week of March. This coincided with an emergency visit I had to make to the dentist.  As he was working on my tooth, he mentioned how they were struggling to procure face shields.

A few hours later, I headed back to the office, rounded up the team and told them we needed to figure out an effective and efficient way to produce face shields. It’s amazing, when you put together 16 young and energetic engineers and give them a challenge I can assure you they can accomplish anything. Love my team, and we love the challenge. In less than 8 hours they had identified the best material to use, a bio compatible material that is safe on contact with human skin, they studied various designs ensuring something comfortable and practical, developed a process, programmed the parameters and we had our first few Immensa face shield prototypes. 

Within 24 hours, our team was able to produce around 400 to 500 face shields a day. Within a week we ramped up to 1,000 a day, then 2,000 a day, today we’re producing 15,000 a day and will be ramping up to over 30,000 a day by next week. 

It was the instinct of a small company: survival. We needed to ensure that we can survive the next month, the next quarter, the next year.

What did you need to adapt or change in your business or operational model

The mindset. Physically we didn’t have to make any major changes, 3D printing is an extremely agile manufacturing process, that’s the beauty of it. We just needed to ensure that we’re developing products that adhere to our quality standards despite them not being our core business. We needed to ensure that although this presented a great business opportunity we don’t lose focus of our core business, we needed to ensure that we get everyone involved since there was so much adrenaline going on and more than half of the team working from home.

Has this changed the way you're thinking about your business, if so how

There was a major revelation in the way we think across the company. We always went out offering our services as a solution to clients’ problems. We knew we had a great proposition but getting clients on board took time, our business development cycle usually takes between 6 and 18 months, as our services focus on resolving complex issues.

What Covid-19 did was humble us. It made us realize we needed to simplify. Change our approach of making sales. Go to clients with a product range, let them start somewhere and then expand and develop and customize based on their needs.

Going with an open ended proposition telling potential clients “we can produce anything for you” probably isn’t the smartest way to go about it. We now know that we need to define the sandbox, we go with a range of products that clients can visualize, understand, and use as a starting point. We were doing it all wrong.  We were arrogant prior to the pandemic, by being the best Additive Manufacturing company in the region and being internationally recognized we felt intellectually or at least technically superior to our clients, that’s just wrong.

What happens for the business after the pandemic

We’ve already started strategizing and mobilizing for after the pandemic. We always need to stay 2 steps ahead of the current situation otherwise we won’t be competitive. We live in a world where the key words are exponential, infinite, etc. So we need to be super dynamic. Our USP is our digital warehousing solution. Our library of digitized parts ready for production stood at 1,000 before the pandemic, we have doubled it over the past month, and continue to grow it daily, we have developed propriety mechanical parts for use by O&G companies and currently putting all the documentations together.

The minute companies start opening up and going back to business we are ready to jump in and provide them with a service and solution they will be in dire need of. The Production of Spare Parts in Demand. No need to rely on unreliable supply chains anymore, an issue many of them faced due to the effect of Coronavirus on the global manufacturing and logistics sector. 

What is something that has surprised you during this time

  1. Human nature. I felt people reacted in two very extreme ways. You had half the people I know lock themselves up completely and still do, while the other half continue with life as much as possible in a normal way. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way, just interesting to see the different reactions and try to understand how and what drove them to act the way they do.

  1. How my team kept resisting working from home. They wanted to be in the office, were coming in at all times of the day, some working 24/7. It drove me crazy, chasing them out of the office. I realized how super blessed I was with the team we have.  

  1. Another surprise, which is unrelated, is how fast time is passing. One would think when things are closed time will pass much slower. But the sense I get from everyone is that time is passing by very fast. We are already in May. 

Lessons learned, final words of wisdom for entrepreneurs, investors or the wider community       

Be agile, be open minded, be conscious and be fair. And most importantly stop reading and listening to the news. 

Image credits: Immensa Technology Labs