Compact Membrane Systems CEO Erica Nemser on Supercharging Science


There may be no better place on Earth to start a chemtech company than Delaware. Delaware has great raw materials – from talent to legacy and new infrastructure – but this doesn’t mean that these raw materials can be easily synthesized into the next generation of great businesses. It takes more.

Meanwhile, Delaware seems to be hotbed of science-based companies starting up right now, and I get asked a lot of questions about building companies in chemtech. In the hope of accelerating the development of more successful upstarts, I want to take an opportunity to share some perspectives that might not be obvious to the great scientists that populate the state.

So, what does it take to build a great science-based company? Some ideas to factor into your thinking:

  1. Great science.
    No surprise here. Most scientists and engineers would agree. Everyone in Delaware believes this (at least most of them do).

Now I am going to go a little rogue on the science-driven idea and science-driven company. And maybe even say something heretical for the scientists in Delaware

Message 1:  If you just have great science, you don’t have anything yet. You will need to turn your science into:

  • A great technology and a great product (e.g., easy to use, 5x better than any alternative, serves an unmet need)

The skills to manage this process are very different from those of being a great, brilliant scientist or engineer.  These are process managers, designers, people leaders and agile translators of customer needs and desires into development programs. They are visionary, practical and ruthless prioritizers focused on the end game

For commercial success, you will need:

  • Market penetration: A big market, strong value proposition, early adopters, defensible position.

Once again, a different group entirely. These are folks that are close to the customer, skilled at business development, capable of market sizing and adept at the finance of taking risks and placing bets to build market adoption. Like scientists, they have the skills of experimentation, but deployed in an entirely different way. 

Message 2:  Having a specialized, diversified team (not similar people with different titles) is a team mix that can drive to a successful outcome. Finding these people early and building the team from the ground up strengthens the learning and institutional knowledge as the company grows. Yes, everyone will need to be a Swiss Army knife to some degree – pulling on different skills for a variety of different tasks – and each person will wear many hats when the team is small. But a breadth of expertise and experience will help the company to see around corners and accomplish more faster with fewer missteps

What I have seen is that a team of all scientist and engineers is not effective (even if some have titles like CEO) because it is focused on narrow set of technical challenges – and not a complete set. Such a team is unlikely to be successful because it lacks a breadth and depth of experience in critical areas. It will be slow as everyone has to learn, it will be painful as the team and company make mistakes and moves in fits and starts, and, in five years, a science-driven team is likely to still be in the lab pivoting on ideas, because it lacks key commercial inputs.

Message 3:  It’s not a linear process. You can’t do the science, then the technology, product, market, partners, customers in that order. It’s a parallel kickoff, then circular process of learning and iteration. Customer insight from the start guides the priorities in the lab. Remember that you are building a product for a customer in the market – not for people like you. Similarly, the company needs market insight, long-term partners (at least to be on their radar) and manufacturing insights from the get-go in order to build your product and value proposition. Then you iterate on all of them.

So, my parting thoughts – my message to the founder scientist:

Message 4:  Go get the rest of your specialized team RIGHT NOW. Don’t let the tyranny of whatever urgent task you have get in the way of the important task of building your team. And remember: the people you are looking for won’t be like you (and, no, a scientist who took a finance class doesn’t count). That is the idea: they will know different things, come from different industries and think differently. They will fill in your gaps. They will make you a better scientist – believe it or not. Their insights will shape your thinking and your work for the better. And you will have a better product and a better company.

Message 5:  (OK, it’s a bonus message) Scientists: Think hard before you decide to be the CEO of your company. It is a rare person with the skill and passion to make the transition from expert, best-in-class scientist to expert, best-in-class CEO. (If you are now listing names, it’s validating how short the list is.) Your company, your shareholders, your products and your customers are probably better served by you using your existing scientific expertise 100 percent of your time. Guide the ship as the scientist and leverage someone else’s expert powers in the CEO seat.

And remember, no matter what happens: It’s never as good or as bad as you first think. Good luck!

Article ©2020 by Erica Nemser, CEO, Compact Membrane Systems Inc., Wilmington, Delaware.

Hear more from Erica Nemser and learn about the innovations her company is making in Delaware. Take a look at this DPP video.

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