Can I Become an Entrepreneur and If So, How?

Can I Become an Entrepreneur and If So, How?

Author: Vera KoesterORCID iD, Javier García-MartínezORCID iD

Javier García-Martínez is the president of IUPAC, a professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of Alicante, Spain, and founder of the company Rive Technology based in Monmouth Junction, NJ, USA. He is also a published author. His latest book is called Chemistry Entrepreneurship. It provides a road map to chemists considering creating their own business.

Here he talks to Vera Koester for ChemistryViews about his various roles and experiences, the many opportunities for those chemists who want to become entrepreneurs, and the most important steps to taking a discovery from the lab to the market.

 

Briefly, what are the pros and cons of entrepreneurship?

There are two main rewards: One is that you can create enormous value, well-paid jobs, and new opportunities, and the other is that you can improve the lives of many people who can benefit from your discoveries.

However, chemistry can be a very challenging field for entrepreneurship because of the need to scale-up your technology, the time and resources needed, and because so much depends on ever-changing regulations. Becoming an entrepreneur in the chemical world is very different from the digital world; however, if we want to create a more sustainable future through chemistry we not only need new discoveries but also people who dare to turn those solutions into successful commercial realities.

There are a lot of books, resources, and courses on entrepreneurship, but most of them focus on digital businesses. They are useful if you want to create a startup based on a new app or a website, but if you want to start a chemistry business there is almost no material.

 

As you just said, entrepreneurship in chemistry is more difficult, and if you compare Europe with the US, you get the impression that it is even more difficult in Europe. Why is that, and how do you think your book can help?

This book is not just for Europeans, it is for everybody. It will be especially for those countries or those continents—whatever constitutes Europe these days—where chemistry entrepreneurship is not very popular, as one of the goals of my book is to raise awareness and explain the opportunities that chemistry entrepreneurship brings. I also want to add that creating a successful business in the chemical space is quite challenging regardless of where you live. Some of the reasons are the time and resources needed, as I mentioned, but one of the main problems is that we don’t get enough information or training about how to protect, transfer, commercialize new discoveries during our formal education. Most graduate students and postdocs working in chemistry departments are so busy writing papers, reports, and proposals that the last thing they would consider is to start a chemical business.

Chemistry Entrepreneurship Javier Garcia martinez InterviewWith the pandemic, we have realized how important it is that people can enjoy the benefits of our research. With this book, I aim to provide a clear guide with practical examples and useful tips to help chemists bridge the gap between academia and industry—a gap that is depicted on the cover of the book.

 

Who came up with the idea for the book cover?

I wanted to illustrate how chemistry entrepreneurs bridge the gap between the lab and the marketplace. The skull and crossbones represent the valley of death and the many risks that chemistry entrepreneurs have to overcome. That is not only a call for caution but also a reminder about the fact that most of the time you’re going to fail, and failure is okay.

 

You say failure is okay. But failure could involve losing a lot of money, which might mean that your career is over before it has started, right?

Some people say we don’t accept failure, but that’s not necessarily true. Maybe what we don’t accept is risk. If you decide to build a company to commercialize your technology, you are putting your time, credibility, and reputation at stake. Also, the people who decided to support you may lose a lot of money. But if you embrace risk and do everything to minimize failure, your chances of being successful increase significantly. Because of this, it is very important that even before starting your company you need to do everything in your power to identify potential risks, validate your technology, and continuously redefine your business plan.

Investors are aware that high-tech entrepreneurship is highly risky. When they decide to invest in your idea, they know that it is most likely going to fail. Having a strong sense of responsibility is good but should not stop you from starting your company. Failure is never the desired outcome, but if you fail it’s not the end of the world. It is expected to some extent. And if you are successful, you are going to multiply the investment five, ten times. It is those few successful cases that feed the whole entrepreneurial system. The risk is high, but the opportunity is huge.

 

So it’s important to be well prepared and avoid stupid mistakes. And that is where your book comes in?

I launched my company at MIT when I was a postdoc. In 2019, I sold the business. So, in a way, that was a very nice way for me of closing that entrepreneurship chapter. I decided that this was maybe the right time to edit a book that I would like to have had when I was a postdoc at MIT.

It was very clear from the beginning that I didn’t want this book to be about my own experience. I don’t think my company is even mentioned in the book. Nor is the book an inspirational collection of stories of successful chemistry entrepreneurs. Instead, I invited lawyers, investors, leading industrialists, heads of departments at pharmaceutical companies… you know, all the actors in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the primary players who you should talk to, who you should learn from.

 

Chemistry Entrepreneurship Javier Garcia martinez Interview

 

This book provides a comprehensive view of the whole entrepreneurial journey. This journey is depicted in one of the figures in the book (pictured above). It is a roadmap that goes from discovery all the way to success. That’s how the book has been designed, with all the actors of that ecosystem helping the reader step by step from the eureka moment to the selling of the company.

I would like to mention that the authors of the book are some of the most successful and knowledgeable people in their fields. They are all leaders in their particular sectors, from investors to patent lawyers. They are very busy people, but they were generous enough to share their knowledge, and I want to thank them all for contributing.

The other thing that is quite unique is that there are many schemes, tips, and take-home messages that are presented in boxes to make the key points very distinctive when you go through the book.

In every chapter, there are also case studies. Case studies are short stories to illustrate good ideas, bad ideas, mistakes, and things to avoid. For example, this guy did this or that, and look what happened. In my opinion, the combination of tips, take-home messages, and case studies makes this book quite unique.

 

Does this mean that every chemist should be introduced to or think about the topic of entrepreneurship because it opens up new opportunities?

In most cases, chemists do not receive much information about entrepreneurship or even about how to protect their technology during their formal education. I’m not just talking about undergrad and graduate education. Even when you’re a graduate student or postdoc or early-career scientist, you might think that an entrepreneur is someone like Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. In most cases, we relate entrepreneurship with the internet and we do not think of chemists starting their own business. My hope is that the book could be an eye-opener along the lines of, “Oh I’m a chemist and I also can become an entrepreneur.” It’s also a career opportunity.

The chemical industry was especially important in Germany during the Second Industrial Revolution. The German economy still benefits from some of the legacies of chemistry entrepreneurs: Friedrich Bayer, who founded Bayer‎; Emanuel Merck, who founded Merck; Friedrich Engelhorn, who founded BASF. These provide some very nice stories of—at that time—usually, a man working as a chemist and who made some kind of discovery, such as aspirin or pigments. And look at how important all that was for the Second Industrial Revolution, for Germany and Europe.

So I hope that we can help to ignite a renaissance of the chemistry entrepreneurship that happened in Europe at the end of the 19th century. Since that period, very few chemical companies have been created in Europe. And, likewise, I also hope that chemists from all around the world will consider becoming entrepreneurs.

 

What are your two most important tips for funding a company?

First, create a diverse team. If you are the inventor, don’t start your business with three other colleagues from your lab—which is usually the case. All of you will have the same expertise and will be lacking the same skills and knowledge. In addition to colleagues from your lab, you need to have people with managerial, financial, and legal expertise.

The second piece of advice is to try to identify your customer as soon as possible. That means talking to people that may be interested in your product. We tend to think that because we spent years working on our technology, we know everything about it. But what we have may not be what customers want. You need to know if somebody is willing to pay for your product and how much. That person is quite important because they can give you important information and market validation. You will have a better idea of how much the market is willing to pay for your product.

Early on, call as many potential customers as possible and tell them, “Look, I have this technology. Would you be willing to pay for it, and if so, how much?” They might tell you that they are not interested because there is already another company somewhere else doing the same. You would not have been aware of that without that one phone call. Also, they may comment on something you didn’t think of. That’s why having diverse teams and identifying your customer base minimizes your risk at the very beginning before you have spent too much time or resources

 

An entrepreneur always has to endure setbacks and be very persistent and believe in his or her project. But is there a time when it’s better to just give up?

Great question but in many cases that’s not your decision, for example, when you are run out of money, when investors decide to stop supporting your business, or when you don’t have more clients, that’s when the company fails. In our book, there is a whole chapter about how to raise funds, when to raise money, from whom to raise money, and how much to raise. These are all important questions. You will always—and I say this as an entrepreneur myself—believe in your business and will always want more money, more resources, and more time. But the market will tell you if you are still a relevant player, if people would like to support your business, or if your market will be willing to buy your products.

 

If I want to be an entrepreneur but I don’t have that scientific idea to start a company, what can I do?

Let me answer that question in a different way. Many times, especially in Europe, I’ve been asked how we can promote entrepreneurship. My answer is always to empower the students. Support them so they can organize their own entrepreneur fairs, entrepreneur clubs, and opportunities for other students who don’t know anything about starting a company, but want to become an entrepreneur.

The best way to promote entrepreneurship is to empower potential entrepreneurs to organize their own events, clubs, fairs, conferences, or whatever. For example, every Friday they might invite an entrepreneur to give a seminar. We always invite prominent academics to these kinds of events. If a scientist were to publish a paper in Nature, he or she will get five, ten invitations to speak at top labs around the world. But how many times do we invite an entrepreneur? Empowering students who are interested in launching their own companies is the most effective way to promote entrepreneurship.

 

If I don’t have a huge amount of money, could I still invest in a startup? Or is that only possible with the financial resources of a Dietmar Hopp or a Bill Gates?

For the chemical business, you need investors with deep pockets because of changing regulations, scale-up costs, and so on. But even more importantly you should partner with a major player in your business as soon as possible. They will not only have facilities to test, scale up, and fabricate your product, but they will also have distribution channels and access to customers. And they could also be a potential buyer of your company.

We got funding from Shell, from Grace, from Saudi Aramco, from Mitsui Chemicals. They provided us with “smart money” Smart money is much more than just financial support but also critically important how-known, industry knowledge, and validation, and, you access to customers and to people who can open doors for you with a phone call. As soon as players from your industry put money into your company, they will have a vested interest in making you successful. This is something you cannot buy with money alone.

Coming back to your question, there are also angel investors. People who do not have too much money and only want to invest—I don’t know, say, 100,000 EUR or something like that—usually organize larger groups of investors, and they all chip in money to have a deeper pool. So there’s still room for people that want to invest less money. That is usually done in the seed round, the first round.

 

Earlier you mentioned entrepreneur groups, for example, at universities or Max Planck institutes. Wouldn’t that also be something for chemical societies and IUPAC to consider?

During the next IUPAC General Assembly that will be held in The Hague, The Netherlands, in 2023, there will be a meeting of all the presidents of the chemical societies, the Presidents’ Forum, and one of the topics I want to discuss is how we might promote entrepreneurship in all our societies. There are some efforts here and there. The American Chemical Society (ACS) has organized some sessions on entrepreneurship during their annual meetings, and they have an award to recognize chemistry entrepreneurs, the Kathryn C. Hach Award.

I have also talked to the International Young Chemists’ Network (IYCN). They are already doing things around sustainability, and I suggested also doing something about entrepreneurship, maybe creating a working group on this topic. As soon as there is a group, people who are interested will cluster around that group. That could be very powerful, in my opinion.

 

Do you have any advice or encouragement for young scientists in connection with entrepreneurship?

I hope the book is going to be an eye-opener for people who didn’t know that you can become an entrepreneur in the chemistry space. I want people to understand that you can be a great scientist and a successful entrepreneur. Some people consider that if you don’t publish papers in top journals then you don’t qualify as a good scientist but I think that is wrong. You can be a great scientist also in industry or in your own company while creating new jobs, wealth, and solving people’s problems in a very tangible way.

Bob Langer is probably the best example that you can be an extremely prolific author and at the same time become a very active entrepreneur. But to achieve both you need to understand what you want to prioritize.

In my opinion, you cannot win the publishing race. It doesn’t matter how many papers you publish. Somebody else will be publishing more. The one race that you should win is your own race. That means working on the things that are important to you.

I know that self-actualization is a very American way of thinking, but I’m afraid that many early-career scientists want to win the publication race. This is a race that you end up running and running and are never going to win.
 

 

Thank you very much for sharing these insights.

 


Javier García-Martínez studied chemistry at the University of Alicante, Spain, where he received his Ph.D. in 2000. From 2001 to 2003, he was a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, USA. In 2006, he founded Rive Technology, an MIT spinoff that commercializes nanomaterials for energy applications, in Monmouth Junction, NJ, USA. Since 2012, the catalysts marketed by the company have been used in several refineries around the world to increase fuel production and the energy efficiency of the process. In 2019, W.R. Grace and Co. acquired Rive Technology. Today it markets the technology worldwide.

Since 2009, Javier García-Martínez has been a professor of inorganic chemistry and director of the Molecular Nanotechnology Lab at the University of Alicante. He is President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) since January 1st, 2022.

His research focuses on porous solids, nanomaterials, catalysis, photocatalysis, and energy production and storage.

Among many other honors, Javier García-Martínez has received the Kathryn C. Hach Award from the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 2017, the Emerging Researcher Award from the ACS in 2015, the Rey Jaime I Award in 2014, and the European Young Chemist Award from the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences (EuCheMS) in 2006. He is a member of the World Economic Forum, the Global Young Academy, and a Fellow of both the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

 

Selected Publications by Javier García-Martínez


Also of Interest

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.