Meet The Disruptors: Doug Milburn Of Advanced Glazings On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

Disruption is change, change is inevitable, and ‘withstanding the test of time’ will not last forever. When disruption happens there are positive and negative aspects. I think this is true of every disruption.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Doug Milburn.

As a long-time entrepreneur and innovator, Dr. Doug Milburn thrives on solving problems. For more than 35 years, he has brought his vision and passion to manufacturing, engineering, software development and process engineering. Throughout his leadership, Dr. Milburn has aimed to create great workplaces by shaping a company’s success through corporate values and ethical guidelines. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, Canada, , Dr. Milburn earned his undergraduate and Master’s degree in physics at Mount Allison University, before finishing his studies with a PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo. In 1995, Dr. Milburn and his wife Michelle co-founded Advanced Glazings, which developed and manufactures SOLERA light diffusing glass, which enables architects to create beautifully daylighted buildings that are incredibly energy efficient. In 2001, Dr. Milburn co-founded Protocase with Steve Lilley. Protocase helps engineers, innovators and scientists accelerate their project timelines by manufacturing custom metal enclosures and parts in 2–3 days, with no minimum order requirements. Lilley and Dr. Milburn took the entrepreneurial leap once more in 2014, with the start of 45Drives. As a new enterprise company, 45Drives helps companies manage and scale their data-storage needs with ultra-large storage servers and clusters that are powerful, flexible and affordable.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’m a technology person, proudly ‘geek’, from a rough and tough steel town. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I was really good at all things academic, but especially math and physics. I drifted my way to university, and when I first experienced experimental physics, I really connected to it. I continued through a Masters degree in physics, then a PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario Canada, specializing in solar energy materials. I had a great job offer when I finished, but I always had entrepreneurial ideas. Waterloo is Canada’s capital of innovation business, so it was a natural thing to consider. I took the plunge and started Advanced Glazings Ltd. to commercialize technology that had been developed in the lab where I did my research, and, as they say, the rest is history!

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The companies I’ve started are all disruptive in their own areas. Advanced Glazings Ltd is about changing the way that people think about natural light in buildings. Truly great buildings need a connection to the outdoor environment, via view and daylight. But just using a lot of regular ‘vision glass’ creates uncomfortable buildings that have painful levels of glare, are too hot and cold, and are very energy inefficient. This isn’t good for the occupants, the owner, nor the environment. We created our unique Solera glass to address this problem. It is translucent and powerfully diffuses sunlight, turning it into white, clean, gentle daylight and spreading through the interior of the building preventing glare and overheating.

It is also the best insulating glass in the world (up to R25!) so it can save large amounts of energy vs. Regular glass. But this also allows architects and developers to create beautiful all glass buildings that meet the new energy codes that are being adopted in developed nations. So we are helping society avoid creating buildings that are unattractive dark caves, as an unintended side effect of these code changes.

On top of this, we’ve developed a new system for putting our glass, as well as vision glass on buildings. It is a glass panel system that goes onto buildings directly over the primary structure without the use of framing. This avoids the use of a whole lot of aluminum, resulting in faster build, lower installed cost, and better energy efficiency because we’ve removed these thermal short circuits that breach the building envelope. This product has only been out for a few years, but it looks like it has the potential to combine with other building technologies to create fast-build cost effective buildings that check all the boxes with respect to natural light, view, aesthetics, and indoor environmental quality.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career, I had a situation with a contractor who was involved in a building project that we were supplying glass for. These guys were really getting on my nerves. They sent an email with what I felt was a ridiculous demand. When I got the ridiculous email, I quickly expressed my feelings unambiguously in what I thought was an email to my VP Sales (I said something like ‘these guys are so f&%%ing stupid I can’t believe it’. I hit send on my ‘forward’, then quickly realized I had actually hit reply. Whoops! It was after hours, i got up, sprinted to the server room, yanked the network cable on the email server, but the electrons were faster than i was. So I learned how to grovel and apologize at the same time. That’s the sort of situation that humor was created for!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story?

I’ve been really lucky to have had a number of mentors in my professional life. My PhD supervisor, Dr. Terry Hollands of University of Waterloo was a huge influence and taught me so much about research and communications. I had a very good friend and Mentor, William Bugg, who ran a university CAD CAM machining centre. He was one of the sharpest manufacturing minds I’ve ever met, and taught me a huge amount. Dr. Paul Cant, Physics professor and my undergraduate thesis supervisor inspired and taught me — he was one of those people who could visualize and create without effort and helped me see that it was reasonable to chase my own visions. Herman Koza was my first VP Sales and Marketing. Herman had retired from a successful career where he had led a company from basically startup to nearly $1B in sales but came to work for me after becoming bored in retirement. He taught me much of what I know about sales and marketing. I have many more, and I deeply enjoy being around people who’ve achieved in their lives and are willing to share.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption is change, change is inevitable, and ‘withstanding the test of time’ will not last forever. When disruption happens there are positive and negative aspects. I think this is true of every disruption. The personal computer disrupted minicomputers — — the result over time was improvement for every person and organization that use computers. It also created huge new wealth for the new companies, and their employees and shareholders. But there were losers too, amongst the stakeholders of the minicomputer companies that were destroyed. So there are two sides to everything. This revolution was fairly net-positive, but we can pick other disruptions that have darker sides. So like so many things in life, its complicated.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

We’ve been successful with a number of different approaches in lead gen. Advanced Glazings Ltd goes to market largely through architects. We have very successfully used the profession’s continuing education requirements to get attention for our dramatically new ideas which generate project leads. But we’ve been very successful at using technical content creation for promotion and lead gen in my other businesses in metal fab for science, and for open-source enterprise data storage. But underlying it all is a very intentional strategy to deliver a truly remarkable experience to our customers which results in new leads from word of mouth and referrals.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I have a whole lot on the go right now. There are big tailwinds behind Advanced Glazings Ltd right now. Highly energy efficient buildings with great natural light and lower operating costs are totally in. So I’m going to grow it into what it can be and change our view of what a great building is.

My other companies are also on a roll. Protocase is a leader in mass custom manufacturing, and we can manufacture things like electronic enclosures, sheet metal parts, and machined parts faster than anyone else in the world. We are just launching an aerospace division, Protospace MFG, ‘The fastest aerospace manufacturer in the word’, that helps an industry where late penalties can be crippling but the supply chain is old school. And its storage computer manufacturing division makes some of the largest enterprise data storage servers in the world under a ‘new enterprise’ business model that makes it an order of magnitude lower in cost than the legacy enterprise vendors or cloud.

So I have lots to do!

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I think the classic books Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore, and The Innovators Dilemma by Clayton Christenssen, really helped me understand the basic patterns of technology adoption.

I’m also a huge podcast listener and listen to way too many to list. But I might mention a podcast called Storybrand. I think they have a crystal-clear view on emotions in marketing, and the need for simplicity and clarity. Their ideas go miles farther than the standard dogma of business school. It’s small business oriented but the principles are universal and can be adapted to technology and growth business.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“What goes around, comes around.” Treat people well and they’ll look after you. This especially applies when you are in a position of power. Look after everyone around you, and you’ll get looked after.

You are a person of influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I grew up in a old steel town that was once hugely prosperous (we’d be called ‘rust belt’ in the US). People took it for granted that the mill would always be around creating wealth. Steelworkers were well paid relative to the rest of the economy, but there was always an anticapitalist undercurrent working away to create conflict and an adversarial relationship to the goose that laid the golden eggs. Then, in my lifetime, the steel market went bad, and that, along with the internal turmoil from the marxist factions, destroyed it. I watched the government and unions try to save it, then create alternative wealth. But they completely failed, and decades later the community is only now starting to recover. I watch that anticapitalist sentament grow all across the developed world. But my experience tells me exactly what happens if it takes over.

With this experience in mind, I’ve shaped our companies in a way that protects it from these attitudes. We’ve created a culture around a ethics statement that says the company only succeeds when its stakeholders succeed, and vice versa. We teach it and live it. Its created a positive and energetic workplace that is productivity focused. This makes the company strong and employees and shareholders and suppliers successful. We believe we have a template for new capitalism.

If I had the time I’d like to try to spread our ideas around and create a movement to embrace and reshape capitalism in a more human way. Killing the goose that laid the golden eggs would be a tragedy, as it was in my hometown. Conversely, creating companies where people can join and find a social group and opportunity for achievement and mastery, while generating prosperity, is a beautiful thing.

Where can we go to keep up with your work at Advanced Glazings?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Meet The Disruptors: Doug Milburn Of Advanced Glazings On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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