Startups Venture

ICON Raises $9M Seed Round To Reimagine Affordable Housing

Austin-based construction tech startup ICON has raised $9 million in a seed round of funding.

The company aims to reinvent building affordable homes with the use of “3D-printers, robotics, and advanced materials,” according to its website. CEO Jason Ballard noted the company is motivated by the global housing crisis and a lack of solutions.

“Making old approaches a little better is not solving the problem,” Ballard said. “It’s our mission at ICON to re-imagine the approach to homebuilding and construction and make affordable, dignified housing available to everyone throughout the world. The homebuilding industry needs a complete paradigm shift.”

Some high-profile investors are attempting to fuel that shift. San Francisco-based Oakhouse Partners led the seed financing, which also included participation from Vulcan Capital—the investment arm of the late Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen; homebuilder D.R. Horton; Emaar—one of the largest developers in the Middle East and creator of the tallest building in the world; and Austin-based accelerator Capital Factory.

Investor Jason Portnoy, managing partner at Oakhouse Partners and former early executive at PayPal and Palantir Technologies (who has also invested in startups such as SpaceX, Carta and Zipline), is extremely bullish on ICON.

“What the ICON team has accomplished in such a short period of time is not only a transformational breakthrough in homebuilding, it is an inspiration for the entire world to think outside the box about how humanity will confront the global housing crisis,” he said in a written statement. “Oakhouse Partners invests in companies that apply innovative technologies to radically improve millions of lives. ICON demonstrates this perfectly through their advanced construction technologies, and we’re proud to support them on this important mission.”

And that big mission has small designs.

One Brick At A Time

Earlier this year, ICON and non-profit partner New Story unveiled the first 3D-printed home in the U.S. to receive a building permit at SXSW. The 350-square foot house took about 48 hours (at 25 percent speed) to print at a cost of about $10,000 (although today it would cost about $4,000), according to Jason Ballard, co-founder and CEO of ICON. Construction of the home ended up having more than one purpose. Besides essentially serving as the company’s first prototype, it ended up being a proof of concept for investors.

“Completing that home validated what we’re doing for the investor community. One week before SXSW, there wasn’t a house,” Ballard said. “Then there was a house. We showed we can attract customers as we develop our technology. Our goal in coming years is to be able to print a 1,500 to 2,000 square foot home in about 16 hours.”

ICON deliberately chose to build the house inside the city limits of Austin to prove to people that the technology was ready and could pass the same safety and regulatory requirements that any other building could pass, noted Ballard.

Up until this point, ICON was bootstrapped by its three co-founders. The seed round was slightly oversubscribed but as Ballard told Crunchbase News, “The questions you need to ask and the experiments you need to run to get a giant robot ready for scale are a very different game than building a software startup, for example.”

The company plans to use the funds toward further scaling its technology. ICON expects to launch the second generation of its Vulcan printer sometime in the first half of 2019, according to Ballard. ICON also plans to double its staff from 10 to 20 by year’s end and move into a new lab and office.

ICON Gets Concrete

At some point, we’ve got to break the doom cycle

Next up on ICON’s agenda is to deliver strategic, signature projects in the U.S. and abroad, including continued work with nonprofit New Story. New Story’s goal is to print a community of homes for an underserved population in 2019 with each home being around 600-800 square feet. These homes are estimated to cost about $4,000.  More “Americanized” homes will cost closer to $30,000, according to Ballard.

CEO Jason Ballard

ICON’s mobile printer weighs about 2,000 pounds, fully prints on-site, and does not require printing in an off-site location. The entire home is printed seamlessly and produces nearly zero waste and is highly durable, low maintenance, and energy-efficient to operate, according to ICON.

The company currently has an “overflow” of demands and requests for houses, including building homes for “Middle America.” Investors D.R. Horton and Emaar, for example, are eager to deploy the technology and collaborate on “very innovative housing projects,” Ballard said.

ICON purposely chose concrete as a material because, as Ballard puts it, “It’s one of the most resilient materials on Earth.”

“Concrete is an exceptional performer against flood, fire, wind, mold or insects that could undermine the long-term performance of houses or their life span,” he told Crunchbase News. “It can build a cheap, fast, and better product, and we developed a proprietary formula that is unique for our current and future printing projects. My hometown on the Texas Gulf Coast was destroyed by hurricanes two times. We keep spending billions to put houses back together with the same non-resilient materials. At some point, we’ve got to break the doom cycle.”

iStockPhoto /BrianAJackson