Meet the Swede who wants to bring Nasa-level technology to your home

Mehrdad Mahdjoubi. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

“There was simply no reason for why something that worked in outer space and made sense there couldn’t be used here. I couldn’t find any objective reason. That was the starting point of this becoming a company.” Mehrdad Mahdjoubi makes the process of founding his company Orbital Systems sound easy. If the fact that the idea arrived while working with Nasa is taken into account, it perhaps sounds less simple.

Mahdjoubi’s idea to use space technology to change the way we consume water here on earth has earned him backing from the likes of H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson and Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström. The truth however is that this wasn’t the original plan. As a teenager, the Malmö native wasn’t thinking about the earth. He was thinking about the greatest game on earth.

“I played football to a good level as a kid, in the highest junior league, the Juniorallsvenskan for Malmö as part of the 89 generation,” he explains to The Local.
The goal was to make it in football, and considering he was playing with Sweden’s most successful ever football club at domestic level, there was a decent chance he would. As is so often the case with sport however, injury put the dream to bed, and he had to adapt.

“My original idea was to play football for a living, and if that didn’t work, what felt natural was to become an architect, which my parents are. I grew up around this creative process of shaping things, thinking about how something should be done before it actually is done – the essence of a good product really.”

“As I looked deeper into architecture I realized industrial design is the same approach, but with more than just buildings – with everything. Perfume bottles, cars, vacuum cleaners, whatever. There’s way more freedom, that attracted me,” he continues.
Choosing to study industrial design at Lund University proved to be a key moment in the entrepreneur’s story. It was there that he connected with Nasa, collaborating with the Johnson Space Center to come up with design ideas for the Mars missions. Getting insight into the American space agency was an eye opener – it turns out it’s not all moon landings and big dreams.

“What people perhaps don’t know about Nasa is that while the raw technology capacity is phenomenal, with super smart people working there, the drawback is it’s a government entity, operating on a state budget. It’s not an open-plan office with the kind of entrepreneurial spirit people may think. It’s like any other government building – which is a bit sad. I think it would be able to produce a crazy amount of great projects.”
Working with Nasa also changed the way he thinks about technology in general.

“You start to see the real barriers for going to space. I soon understood that sending people to Mars is not a problem anymore. We’ve sent robots there. Keeping them alive is the problem.”

“When Elon Musk talks about colonizing Mars, people think it sounds really cool. If he were to say: we’ll colonize it, everyone will walk around in diapers and you won’t be able to get a shower, suddenly the vision changes. Unless we completely revolutionize our way of using our resources, going to Mars would be about vacuum toilets and no showers, ever.”

Which is where his idea came in. For the Nasa project Mahdjoubi came up with a shower that was far more efficient than the standard, saving water usage by up to 90 percent. Though obviously useful for preserving water on Mars, it could be just as useful closer to home, he eventually realized. But he was going to have to go it alone.

“The point for me was always about making the technology accessible. When I studied existing players in the market I realized traditional companies were largely about casting brass in different shapes. They didn’t have much knowledge of water purification for example. Sanitation is a generally low tech industry. So there wasn’t a natural fit there,” he recalls.

“Normally with other industries you would sit down with a group of in-house engineers and try to solve the problem, but that’s not the case in sanitation. It made sense therefore to have my own company: it had to be built from scratch anyway. If there was a natural partner I may have licensed the tech for example, but as there wasn’t I had to do it from scratch.”

And so, Orbital Systems was born. Within a short time after its foundation, the company had received investment from Skype co-founder Zennström and H&M’s Persson. It became apparent that the idea had legs.

“Zennström got involved through his foundation. They were looking for sustainability companies in the Nordics to support and liked my idea, even though I actually didn’t have the company in place at the time. It was a project to begin with, and my focus in the early days was to simply produce one working prototype that proved the functionality. Once we proved the concept, we had to prove the market wanted it, so we made some sales. Then the next step was to prove we could make it an industrialized product, for which we raised the capital.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s