#173 Heidi Kujawa, CEO and Founder of ByFusion
Heidi Kujawa is the founder and CEO of ByFusion, an innovative manufacturing company on a mission to clean up the planet and block plastic waste for good. ByFusion’s modular systems convert all types of plastic waste (including marine debris) into a high-performing, reusable building material made entirely of plastic waste.
Heidi’s passion for innovation, technology, and sustainability propelled her to embark on a mission to develop a viable, scalable solution to help address the global plastic crisis that threatens our waste management systems and our planet.
She is an accomplished, visionary leader with a 25-year track record of developing, executing, and managing strategic plans that address complex problems across multiple industries including management consulting, technology, construction, and sustainability.
Bigger Than Us #173
This transcript has been lightly edited.
Host Raj Daniels 00:46
Heidi, how are you doing today?
Heidi Kujawa 01:29
Excellent, Raj, how are you? Thank you so much for having me on the podcast.
Host Raj Daniels 01:33
Heidi, thank you for joining, and I’m super excited to speak with you. I’d like to start the conversation with something that might seem like it’s out of left field. But I’m just curious, and it’s our shows we can get to do what we want. I would like to talk about your time in the movie industry, both at Sony and Paramount Pictures. I see that back in the arts, you were part of the InfoSec security team for both those different movie studios. How did you end up there?
Heidi Kujawa 02:04
That’s a really interesting question. I love technology. I think the fascinating story is, in all actuality, I grew up swinging a hammer. I loved building stuff as a little girl. Some of my earliest memories were on the floor of my grandfather’s factory, rooting around for scrap metal and wood to string together to figure out something to make. But I realized as a young girl that girls weren’t supposed to do that. And so while I rooted myself into technology, as a career, I never really dropped that hammer. Interestingly enough, technology has changed through the years and when I’ve started to get involved, and I have an insatiable appetite for — I’m very curious by nature.
So I love solving complex problems. Technology really enabled us to do that as a civilization. Some of the biggest problems that we faced in Hollywood was that filmmakers started shooting on digital formats, and the complex and movie acquisition and the whole process between film and DVD, and then television changed so rapidly, we needed tech to evolve that industry. And so I was wonderfully thankful to be part of that industry at that very moment in time when technology really started to change the way that movies were made. So the cool thing about it is, while we’ve built some solutions to help support those new work streams with technology, that’s when security started to enter the conversation.
It started to be like, “Okay, well, now this is a digital format, and how am I going to protect it?” It was easy to handcuff a film canister to somebody’s leg and make sure it didn’t go anywhere. But once you have a bit or bite floating on a server or hard drive or a thumb drive, it was a little bit more difficult. So I naturally gravitate towards really complex problems, which is why I’m at ByFusion also. But that’s how I got to information security. It was one of my life meanders down off the beaten path. I needed to answer the question, I needed to solve the problem, I needed to help solve the problem. And I was thrilled with the opportunity to be able to do that. It’s such a great studio.
Host Raj Daniels 04:30
So as we continue to meander down memory lane, I see that you next worked with EY in their cybersecurity sector. In 2014, Sony experienced a really large hack. What were some of the feelings in the industry when that happened?
Heidi Kujawa 04:45
Being at the firm overseeing the sector in cyberspace, personally and professionally I think there was a lot of things that happened. One is as an information security professional, we were always waiting for those big situations to occur because it shook up the boardroom. It got the attention of the boardroom. This was catastrophic. So I hated seeing some of my, my former colleagues go through that pain. But I also applaud their efforts, the heroics, and the camaraderie in the coming together of what that company did and adored.
And the leadership that some of my former colleagues exhibited was extraordinary to watch from the sidelines. But I do think it did change the landscape of cybersecurity in the boardroom. That particular incident, it touched every industry. And I think it was only then that people realized that this is something that they needed to pay attention to, that they needed to think differently about, and that for the first time ever, that it is a real threat, and that there are such things as cyber warfare, and it isn’t far away. And I think even if we take it beyond that situation at Sony Pictures, we’re starting to see some of that in our political landscapes now too. I don’t want to talk about politics. But we’re starting to see that, we’re starting to hear more about that.
Cyberwarfare is a very, very, very real thing. And so I’m grateful that as an Information Security Professional at that time, at such a prestigious firm, that I was able to have some very different real changing conversations with some of the best leaders in the media-entertainment sector around cybersecurity because of that. And then like I said, I’m just extremely grateful and applaud the efforts of my former colleagues who endured that horrific time.
Host Raj Daniels 06:51
I appreciate you sharing that. And you mentioned ByFusion. Let’s fast forward to ByFusion, can you give the audience an overview of ByFusion and your role at the organization?
Heidi Kujawa 07:00
Sure. So ByFusion is a is a waste to infrastructure company. We’ve developed a system that converts all of the unrecyclable plastic, all the plastic that people have no interest in, no value, can’t be recycled or is very, very difficult to recycle, which includes marine debris and agricultural plastics. And we’ve developed a system that enables folks to take control of that waste and convert it into an alternative reusable building material called ByBlock that’s only made of plastic waste. There’s no additives or fillers or glues or mortars, or adhesives that are required to build these blocks.
Host Raj Daniels 07:46
And can you paint a picture of what one of these blocks look like?
Heidi Kujawa 07:52
Our zero-waste process creates a 22-pound, eight-inch by eight-inch by 16-inch, hollow cement block alternative. So it’s a little bit lighter weight than a traditional cement block, which makes it a little easier to use. But it’s the same dimensions.
Host Raj Daniels 08:10
And you mentioned marine debris and agricultural plastics. I think a lot of the audience will be familiar with the marine debris in the floating island. But what is agricultural plastic?
Heidi Kujawa 08:21
The agricultural plastic. So there are a lot of plastics that the farming and agricultural industry uses to grow the crops. Everything from creating fumigation domes to preparing the soil for planting, to humidity control once seeds are planted to help those seeds get a jumpstart, if you will, all the way down to the drip lines. A lot of drip line technologies advanced that enables them to have better control over water. And so drip lines are used a lot these days in agriculture, and that’s all plastic.
Right now, all of that stuff goes directly to landfill. It’s one of those single-use situations that nobody can do anything with. And we’ve spent a lot of time, especially during COVID, focusing on R&D and making sure that our system was prepared for this material. We’ve done a lot of R&D on it. So great, and they make great blocks.
Host Raj Daniels 09:26
What can the blocks be used for?
Heidi Kujawa 09:30
It’s a brand new material. So the best thing to think about is, our blocks can be used wherever lumber is used. So we are considered — I don’t want to get too technical, but we fall in the category of a general utility type-five construction application. Type five is where all of the lumber applications live. General utility encompasses anything from garden sheds storage, single-family residential projects, landscaping, fencing, kiosks, uninhabitable spaces, walling applications, I mean, a whole slew. It’s general utility, but it does include some residential applications, as well as commercial, but generally utility across the board.
Host Raj Daniels 10:20
And you mentioned you manufacture the block without any adhesives or mortars. Without obviously giving away any trade secrets, how do you do that?
Heidi Kujawa 10:31
We’re called ByFusion because we actually fuse the plastic together. So it is through our proprietary process that enables us to do that. Our proprietary process we like to refer to as a thermal reset. So melting plastic is not a good thing. So we actually don’t melt plastic. We fuse it together using our system.
Host Raj Daniels 10:51
So I had the pleasure of interviewing the Strategy Officer for a company called Ubiquitous Energy a few weeks ago. They’re manufacturing a solar-capable window. And he was mentioning one of the challenges they have is changing the mind of the current architects and builders to use their system in future buildings. What kind of challenges are you facing in converting or changing or influencing individuals who are in the building organizations, or architects, to use your product?
Heidi Kujawa 11:23
I think we actually have a different kind of problem. While I would agree that, you know, one of the challenges that we face in the building materials industry, or even in the construction industry, is that as a civilization, we haven’t really changed how we built stuff in centuries, really. And so change is hard in this space.
But, unfortunately, I think our problem is a little different. We have a lot of demand for our block, I think people are in search of finding alternative building materials to build with. There’s a lot more incentive for architects and builders to use sustainable products. And so I think windows are a little different because they’re such a major part of an exterior, both in form and function and aesthetic. And our product is much different. It’s intended to be clad. So it can be mirrored to match the aesthetic of any. And it acts very much like an insulating filler product.
So it’s just a really, really versatile material that has a lot of demand. Our problem is that we just can’t keep up with the demand right now, we got to get some more machines out in the world.
Host Raj Daniels 12:38
Well, speaking of keeping up with demand, where do you source your plastics?
Heidi Kujawa 12:42
So this is the interesting thing. So our mission isn’t necessarily to build a bunch of ByFusion brick-and-mortar facilities around the world. Our sole mission is to enable communities and corporations the ability to take control of their own plastic waste, to convert their waste into a building material that can then be used within local communities to serve and service those local communities. And so we look at ourselves very much like a platform that enables change, to enable cities to take more responsibility, accountability, and more transparency in the waste management process. So we don’t necessarily source plastic, we provide the hardware and infrastructure required for cities and corporations to do that themselves, to process their own waste. Does that make sense?
Host Raj Daniels 13:36
It does. And I’m gonna cheat because I’ve spoken to you before, but you have a modular system. Can you give us a breakdown of how the system works?
Heidi Kujawa 13:43
Yeah, so the one thing that’s really important to me as we develop this system is that it’s scaled to meet the volume demands of the city or the operation where it was going to be installed. So it is very modular. Our base model is in a shipping container. So it can be dropped and plugged in virtually anywhere that has the right power resources, of course, and then we scale from there. So we have a modular containerized version. And then we have an industrial line of equipment that again, sort of daisy-chains together to meet the volume demands of the operation.
Host Raj Daniels 14:22
And earlier you mentioned that you can use all the plastic, so no exceptions, all one through seven?
Heidi Kujawa 14:28
All one through seven. Now clearly, there’s value in several of the plastic types today. Most of the food-grade products that we see, the packaging or the water bottles, if the community or operation has an outlet to put that material back into the recycling that can be reconstituted with traditional recycling methods, then do it. There’s a lot of value in that material. So yes, we can make blocks out of that material. But why would we, if we can leverage traditional mechanisms to keep it into the stream. But everything else, no problem.
Host Raj Daniels 15:09
And you mentioned communities and cities. If a community is interested in purchasing one of your units, again, I don’t want to hold you to this, but can you give a ballpark figure of what that might cost, and also, do you provide ongoing training?
Heidi Kujawa 15:21
Yeah, I mean, we’re all about transparency. And the other thing is, we’re about our services. So we don’t really view ourselves as a transaction or a business, we recognize that cities don’t necessarily know how to sell building materials, nor do they need to. Our goal is to be a service provider to cities.
Our services actually vary in two different ways. We do a hardware-only service where we come in, plop the system down, we’ll help train local operators to run the operation, as well as work with local builders on how to build with the material. We’ll also come in and do all the quality inspections, make sure the building material continues to live up to the standards that were required, and then also provide services and upgrades along the way. If the city does have a surplus or makes enough blocks that they can’t use it, then we’ll come in and help move that material into the market. And we do that with either a guaranteed buyback program or a revenue split.
So there’s a couple different ways to think about the services that we provide. The base service that we provide starts at about $300,000 a year. So really affordable piece of equipment that enables companies or communities to take control of their waste and create their own building materials. So there’s a lot of upside from a cost perspective.
Host Raj Daniels 16:47
I’ll also add that it also creates jobs too.
Heidi Kujawa 16:49
Yes, for sure. It is essentially like an adult Lego. So anybody can stack these blocks, which enables more people to participate in construction, do construction work — there is always influx of need in the demand for workers in that industry. And so it enables communities to tap into a whole other labor pool to help satisfy construction demands for their communities.
Host Raj Daniels 17:17
And speaking of the block, how long did it take the company to manufacture its first usable block? What was that journey like?
Heidi Kujawa 17:25
It was extraordinarily painful. It took us a long time. Well, it took us longer than the night than I had hoped. It was easy to get the basic formation done. The difficult part was being able to produce it in a consistent way that we’re able to uphold the American Standards for building material, right? And then, of course, do that continually at a rate in throughput that would make economic sense. So that’s really the fine-tuning. The concept didn’t take too long. It was making it scalable, and mass-producible at a high quality for the market. That took a long time. Years. We’ve been working on this for five years.
Host Raj Daniels 18:15
And what was the first use case when after you built one or manufactured one?
Heidi Kujawa 18:21
We initially figured, let’s just focus on the low-hanging fruit. I think that again, it’s an extremely versatile product. The products that we’re going to market right now are just scratching the surface of what’s coming. So we were focused on the low-hanging fruit: walling applications, landscaping, temporary structures, uninhabitable spaces, storage sheds, stations. There are so many applications — sound walls, privacy, fencing — there are so many things that we could do with the blocks right out of the gate. So that enabled us to get make them even better, faster, stronger. There’ll be more complex applications coming down the pipe.
Host Raj Daniels 19:07
I think it’s fascinating. And you’ve been part of this journey now for about six years. Do you have any ideas of just the scale or the magnitude of what we need to do as a society to help mitigate this plastic problem that we have?
Heidi Kujawa 19:22
It really comes down to two things. One, you have to just be mindful, and two, put it in the right bin. That’s really what it’s all about. The fascinating thing to me is that there are communities in our country in our great nation who do not have the capability or the means or the service to sort and recycle their plastic material, or even cardboard or glass. There’s one garbage can, there’s one pickup if you’re lucky, and it goes straight to the landfill. So it’s fascinating to me that if America can’t make this a standard offering for every community, then we’re in a world of hurt. So it’s really just about taking control of your waste and being mindful of where you’re putting it.
Host Raj Daniels 20:19
I like the idea of being mindful. But you know, carrots and sticks, incentives. If you had a magic wand, Governor, King for the day, Queen for the day, what would you recommend or suggest?
Heidi Kujawa 20:31
Well, the challenge is this. A lot of people don’t realize that not all plastic is created equal. We’ve made it extremely, extremely difficult. There’s no community. What you’re told to put in the blue bin in the recycling bin, if you have it, is different than your neighbor in the neighboring city. It’s very complicated. It’s too complicated, which I think is why people aren’t doing it. They’re like, “Why bother? I don’t know, I can’t tell what this says, I don’t even know if it’s supposed to be there. And then where does it go? It ends up in the ocean anyway. So who cares?” I think people are just exhausted by the whole notion of what’s going on in the space. And it’s a little smoke and mirrors.
I think people are getting wiser that what we’re doing isn’t working, and they don’t have another choice. It’s not like you can choose to select another garbage bin to put out on your curb and something else happens. That option isn’t available today. And that’s really where we’re trying to help change the course is. People also don’t realize how complicated the process is. Once you do have a piece of plastic, the journey that that piece of plastic goes through to get back into a raw material so that it can be remade back into a water bottle. It’s super complicated, and it takes a lot of energy. And it’s never a guarantee. You don’t even know if it’s going to work until the very last minute.
With ByBlock, it’s something that you can see and feel and touch. And you see the fruits of your labor immediately. There’s no third-party thing. You literally eat your lunch and throw it in the machine, you make a block, and you stick it in a wall. You can see that right in front of your face. There are no tricks, there’s no processing, there are no other materials. And I think once we get this into the hands of more people, we will be able to incite change because they can see the benefit.
Host Raj Daniels 22:39
Well, speaking of change, the crux of our conversation is the why behind what you do. We started out the conversation with your time in cybersecurity, working for the large Sony and Paramount’s of the world. What is your why? What made you change direction, become an entrepreneur, and become so passionate about plastics and then ByFusion?
Heidi Kujawa 23:00
Well, it was interesting. I’ll never forget; honestly, it was a little bit of a midlife crisis, Raj. After I left Paramount, I saw a need for some software as a service platform for mid-tier companies. So I bit the bullet, gave it a whirl, did some testing within my network, and ultimately sold my company to EY, that’s how I got to the firm. They acquired my software when it was in beta, which was great. I loved it. It was about it was a couple of years, maybe not even a couple of years.
But it was not that long into my tenure at the firm that they changed their tagline, to building a better working world. And I remember I was in New York, I was walking through Bryant Park from the office to a client meeting. And I just couldn’t stop thinking about that, building a better working world, building a better working world, and I found myself not being able to get behind it. And that really started a very intense conversation with my inner self about life. Why can’t I get behind that? And it really boiled down to the fact that I didn’t want to build a better working world. I just wanted to build a better world.
And so I had a little bit of a midlife crisis to try to figure out what that meant and what I was going to do with that new information, and long story longer, when we break it down, why do I do what I do? It’s because I love complex problems. And I love construction. I love building things. I love getting my hands dirty, and I love tech. I love technology. And so ByFusion really enables me to do everything that I love under one roof and take part in being a solution for the plastic crisis in this ever-evolving heartbeat of society, both of which become one of the most complex challenges of our planet today. So that’s why I do what I do.
Host Raj Daniels 25:07
You know, you’ve mentioned mindfulness a couple of times, you mentioned having the conversation with your inner self. And then you mentioned building a better world. Why is building a better world important to you?
Heidi Kujawa 25:20
We only have one planet. And we’re clearly not taking care of her at all. She’s angry. She’s very angry. I think that we’ve also lost sight of humanity. I feel like there’s a lot of divisiveness going on in the world right now. The thing about the plastic crisis is, I think, regardless of what side of the fence or where you are in the world, it’s one thing that people relate to.
And it’s one thing that I think that we need everybody to care for it, because no one company and no one country is going to solve this, we all have to do it collectively. And I think that if we take control of the plastic waste, and convert it to something that can be used, for real, immediately, then then I know that collectively, as a society, we’ll be able to solve this problem.
Host Raj Daniels 26:18
So it sounds almost like plastic is our common denominator.
Heidi Kujawa 26:21
I mean, it could be everywhere. Who would have thought about it that way? I think that’s pretty awesome, Raj.
Host Raj Daniels 26:28
So six years on this particular journey, what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about yourself?
Heidi Kujawa 26:34
I’m not afraid to fail because I don’t really look at as as failure, I really look at it as “aha” moments. I’ve learned that I’m a lot more patient than I thought I was.
Host Raj Daniels 26:50
Where does the non-fear of failure come from?
Heidi Kujawa 26:54
I’m actually not afraid to fail. I think that if you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you have to accept failure as part of the journey. The thing about failure is it’s actually not. It’s a lesson that suppose that you’re supposed to learn from. I think Thomas Edison said it, “I didn’t fail 10,000 times, I just found 10,000 ways not to do it.” That’s something that I totally believe. I mean, that’s what we believe. I believe that we do that every day.
Host Raj Daniels 27:24
It’s interesting, you say that. I usually save this question till the end. But I’m going to ask it now in a different framework. So I have three young kids, they’re in school, and they’re continuously taught that failure is bad, failure is wrong.
There’s the shame, embarrassment comes with failure. And you see individuals go all the way through the school system, go through college with this system, sort of a Damocles if you will, hanging over them about failure. And then when they come out of college, it’s “Don’t be afraid to fail.” How would you recommend suggest advice for individuals that are perhaps listening and have that concern about failure? How could they work through it to where they can perhaps not escape it, but not succumb to it as much?
Heidi Kujawa 28:05
Well, I don’t know. I think that’s a really personal answer. I’m sure that there were moments growing up that I could recall, in sports, that I couldn’t get past something that I messed up, or I failed at, or I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be at something. I do that today, too. I’m not a mechanical engineer, but I’m not afraid to pretend like I’m one, right.
Like you have to be, you have to really push the boundaries of what your comfort zones are. I think if people can just recognize that if failure — you need to fail in order to succeed because there’s always a yin and a yang, there’s always a left and a right. There are always multiple ways of doing things. And, you know, that’s why there are playbooks, and that’s why there are frameworks. And that’s why there are some guide rails along the way. You have to be open to fail because that’s the only way you know success. Really.
Host Raj Daniels 29:12
I love the idea of being open to fail. And so let’s move into the future. It’s 2030. If Businessweek, Newsweek, Fortune were to write a headline, an article, about ByFusion, what would you like to read?
Heidi Kujawa 29:25
Give me a minute on that one. That’s a good one. ByFusion helps the world solve the plastic crisis.
Host Raj Daniels 29:33
Now that’s a big, hairy, audacious goal, isn’t it?
Heidi Kujawa 29:35
Host Raj Daniels 29:36
It’s beautiful. So Heidi, thank you very much for your time today. I look forward to seeing your BHAG come to life and catching up with you again soon.
Heidi Kujawa 29:44
Thank you so much, Raj. Really appreciate it.
Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi
If you like our show, please give us a rating and review on iTunes. And you can show your support by sharing our show with a friend or reach out to us on social media where you can find us at our Nexus PMG handle.
If there’s a subject or topic you’d like to hear about, send Raj Daniels an email at BTU@NexusPMG.com or contact me via our website, NexusPMG.com. While you’re there, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter where we share what we’re reading and thinking about in the cleantech green tech sectors