September 28, 2020 –
NEW CASTLE, DE — Put a fedora on her head and a bullwhip in her hand and Erica Nemser would be Delaware’s version of Indiana Jones as she and her team at Compact Membrane Systems (CMS) search for the chemical equivalent of the Holy Grail.
The Holy Grail in this case is separating chemicals known as olefins and paraffins through membranes rather than distilling them. These membranes separate the gases used to create plastics (olefins) from kerosene and other products (paraffins).
Refineries primarily use a heating process that requires massive distillation columns. These and other industrial separations account for more than 10% of the nation’s energy consumption. Nearly every commercial industry uses these separations to make consumer products as varied as detergents, plastic bottles, packaging, pipes, siding, window frames, automotive components, lubricants, carpet, and clothing.
CMS’s efforts to create membranes with commercial applications has been described by industry journals as a process improvement that could be “one of the separations to change the world” and “reap great global benefits” through heightened energy efficiency.
But CMS CEO Nemser sees another potential use for its membranes – delaying the ripening of fruit, vegetables, and flowers – that could be a huge money-maker when you consider the impact on transporting perishables from farms, on storing them in grocery stores and consumer kitchens, and on providing the military with fresh food during deployment. During the pandemic, there have been many videos of food banks throwing out food, a situation that might not have been necessary, had the CMS membranes been protecting them.
“Nobody likes seeing food spoil,” Nemser says, explaining that those applications are in the early stage of commercial availability. “But [developing them] is pulling on our investments and funds and focus. The challenge is figuring out how to lean into that and continue to serve our customers well.”
Nemser believes Delaware is the “best place on Earth to start a Chemtech company because the chemical engineers coming out of the University of Delaware are excellent and have been taught to have an entrepreneurial mindset; there’s a community of Delawareans from places like Chemours, DuPont, and White Dog Labs who understand chemistry and their peer companies; and state government understands and profoundly supports innovation in chemicals. I’m not sure we’d get the same attention somewhere else.”
But beyond those factors, Nemser says what she loves about being in the First State is that “people in Delaware are genuinely helpful and genuinely nice. I have found that many people out of state look for transactional relationships. People here are looking for genuine long-term relationships; you don’t have to worry about being sharp-elbowed by people trying to win the cocktail party.”
Early in her time at CMS, Nemser predicted that company revenues would double every year for the next four to five years. But she says “growth has taken longer and has taken more investment to get where we want to go. We made active decisions to invest our time in the olefin technology instead of other areas. That has come at the expense of revenue because we looked at our portfolio and thought carefully” about how much money, time, effort, and focus would be needed to drive longer-term success.”
Nemser says CMS has lots of UD graduates who are fresh out of school and leading projects at the small company (~25 employees), which likely wouldn’t be happening at larger companies in Delaware or elsewhere.
“I’m not an engineer or a chemist,” says Nemser. “My background is economics” but she built her reputation as a management guru for pharma and medical products – and for leading McKinsey’s global efforts to recruit, retain, and promote women within the firm — before joining her father’s company in September 2015.
She laughs when asked about a 2013 Wharton School panel where she described her marriage as a joint venture – saying she and her husband have switched off as breadwinners and primary parent for their three children over the years – and then saying she was “very clearly not” an entrepreneur.
That’s changed since she joined CMS.
Nemser describes her role as delivering disruptive innovation and finding – or building – new lines of business with multi-billion-dollar potential using CMS’s membrane separation technology. Over the past five years, she’s moved the company her father founded in 1993 when he left Du Pont to focus on licensing Teflon AF for gas separations from shifting the mindset from a domestic science-driven research and development lab to a global commercial organization that is constantly generating new intellectual property (IP).
Nemser describes herself on LinkedIn as having an “uncanny ability to break down messy business problems, quickly see the possible future states, and chart the optimal solution paths.”
“I like the problems where people say addressing them is impossible,” she says. “I like to figure out how you make it possible. I have skills but not a process. You have to be able to say what you want and then break down the problem and determine what’s on your critical path and what isn’t. What differentiates people is a willingness to challenge assumptions because if you do it the way it’s always been done, you won’t get to your goal. And you have to be rigorous about what you’re willing to take on.”
At the same time, Nemser is applying what she learned at McKinsey to address the challenges that women have found with a narrower career pipeline in the chemtech world.
“We hire women here into senior roles and recruit them at the entry level,” she says. “In many industries, men are promoted on potential and women are promoted on performance. We’re being very conscious of applying [those two criteria] evenly.”