We sat down for a coffee and a chat with Emil Hansen, Chief Technology Officer at Continuum Industries, to discuss how we went from trusting our guts to trusting data when it came to developing Optioneer.
Q: Emil, take us back to the beginning. How did the idea of building Optioneer come about?
A: Before founding Continuum Industries, our team ran the University of
Edinburgh's Hyperloop Team where we built Hyperloop prototypes and competed in the SpaceX Pod Competition. We wanted to continue working in that field and use the network of contacts we had built. The original idea was to develop a simulation and optimisation software for Hyperloop, linking all the different companies that were working on Hyperloop’s components separately. We fairly quickly realised that creating that kind of collaboration was utopian.
However, Hyperloop made us realise the socioeconomic value of infrastructure and compelled us to consider better ways to bring infrastructure projects from concept to reality.
Instead of doing a detailed system simulation, we decided to focus on what it would look like in the real world from point A to point B. And that’s where the idea of the route planner came from. We felt that with our skills and knowledge, this was where we could add more value. We started the company in 2018 during my last year of university and began developing Optioneer thereafter. Since 2020, we’ve seen Optioneer rapidly evolve as it has become not only about suggesting robust routing scenarios but also about communicating the value of these options to stakeholders, streamlining collaboration within the project team and keeping track of all decisions made.
Q: Looking back on the process, what would you say were the key factors that contributed to the success of Optioneer, and what lessons did you learn along the way?
A: Generally, I think one of the most important factors that contributed to the success of Optioneer is that as founders, we always try to be honest with ourselves and with each other. We were never shy to admit when we had hit a wall. Equally, we were not afraid to try new things with the possibility of hitting that wall.
For instance, our roadmapping process has evolved a lot over the last few years and it continues to evolve. It’s been instrumental to the success of Optioneer as it helps us focus on building the most important features and understanding the tradeoffs we’re making as a team.
Q: How do we ensure that Optioneer is meeting customer needs and evolving to meet changing customer demands?
A: We want Optioneer to be a tool of continuity, from concept to consent/permit, a one-stop-shop for developing pipelines, cables and overhead lines. In that sense, we are building Optioneer so it can support a wide workflow.
At Continuum Industries, we are in a privileged position where our Customer Success team works closely with our users to make sure that they get the most value out of Optioneer. This close relationship also helps us to understand the problem that we are trying to solve from our users’ perspective. In this way, we have easy access to our users and can quickly bounce back and forth when developing new features. We get our users in a room, get around the whiteboard and figure out what problem we need to solve and how to solve it. And as a result, we can put together a quick feedback loop.
We try to capture the expertise and industry knowledge that our customers have whilst being very respectful of their time. We want to learn as much as possible and make it as good an experience for them as possible.
Q: What are your plans for the future of the product, and how do you envision it evolving to continue making an impact in the industry?
A: I think of Optioneer’s plans as two axes: one of depth and one of breadth.
Looking at depth, Optioneer is already making a huge difference in addressing challenges in the planning process of linear infrastructure projects. We often hear from our customers that this time gain helps them focus on tackling the hardest problems. I’m very proud that we’re able to speed up the design of infrastructure vital for net zero; we will continue to push until we’ve reached it!
In terms of breadth, I want every metre of linear infrastructure designed to be assessed in Optioneer at some point during its life cycle. It’s an ambitious goal, but reach for the stars and all that. I don’t see it as impossible - we are already expanding across multiple countries and spreading across different departments within our current customers.
Q: What advice would you give to other start-ups that are looking to make a similar shift from working on faith to working on evidence?
A: Well, the first piece of advice I would give is to make sure you do have faith. It took a while before we started seeing proper evidence of the impact our product had and we all had enough faith to keep us running through that. We had identified early on that there was a problem that needed to be solved but the question was, are we the people that will be able to solve it? We decided to bet on ourselves and we ended up here.
The second thing that I believe holds for any business, but particularly for sustainability and environment-related businesses like ours: if you start a company with a clear environmental goal (for us it’s accelerating the energy transition), be aware that it needs to trickle down into ways to make money at the same time as you try to change the world for the better. You will need to take on investments and grow to a large enough scale that you can actually make an impact. It can be scary at times, but it’s all worth it.