When most graduate students speak about their doctoral research at scientific gatherings, the response is usually polite applause and some probing questions from faculty. But when Christopher E. Wilmer spoke about his graduate work as part of a presentation at the Rice Business Plan Competition in Houston this April, he and his colleagues from NuMat Technologies walked away with more than $850,000.
Christopher Wilmer & Omar Farha
“As a graduate student, I’m tickled that I got to talk to an audience of over 500 people about my Ph.D. research and have them be excited enough about it to give us that much money,” says Wilmer, NuMat’s chief technology officer.
“That’s just the biggest validation that our business idea and business plan are very sound,” agrees Omar K. Farha, NuMat’s chief scientific officer.
Since its incorporation in February, NuMat has been wowing investors with plans to design and make high-performance metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs. The company isn’t selling any MOFs just yet, but that hasn’t kept the NuMat team from raising more than $1 million through business competitions.
“MOFs are sponges that soak up gases,” Wilmer says, giving C&EN the company’s standard elevator pitch. “By designing the right MOFs, you can create the best sponges for soaking up important gases like natural gas or hydrogen gas.”
The name NuMat is a play on words, he explains, combining the idea of new materials with Northwestern University, where the research behind the technology began more than a decade ago in the labs of Joseph T. Hupp and Randall Q. Snurr. Snurr’s lab designs MOFs computationally and Hupp’s lab makes the materials. “By taking the best of the technologies produced by both groups, we can very quickly design MOFs that have world-record-breaking abilities to store natural gas for vehicle applications, for example,” Wilmer notes.
Wilmer, who is a graduate student with Snurr, and Farha, who is a research associate professor with Hupp, found entrepreneurial inspiration in the focus of their day-to-day work. “The synthesis and modeling came together so beautifully that it was the right move to take what we’ve been doing here to the next stage—from academia to commercialization,” Farha says.
Farha and Wilmer teamed up with Northwestern business graduate students Tabrez Ebrahim and Ben Hernandez, and NuMat was born.
Pitching the idea of NuMat’s technology at a regional business competition was what really got the business out of the lab, Wilmer says. They came up with a basic business plan and, after an overwhelmingly positive response from potential investors and customers, decided to go for it.
Year founded: 2012
Products: High-performance metal-organic frameworks
Number of employees: Four
Sources of start-up funds: Business competitions
Profiled founders’ current roles in company: Farha, chief scientific officer; Wilmer, chief technology officer
Advice: Hone your scientific communication skills.
And they’ve been winning competitions ever since. In addition to the Rice prize, in March NuMat won the $100,000 student-company grand prize in the 2012 Clean Energy Challenge, an annual business competition that awards cash prizes to cleantech entrepreneurs in the Midwest. In May the company took home $135,000 in cash and prizes at the 20th annual Global Venture Labs Investment Competition at the University of Texas, Austin. And in June, the firm garnered the $100,000 grand prize in the Department of Energy’s National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition.
For would-be entrepreneurs out there, Wilmer and Farha recommend starting at local business-pitching competitions, where people with business experience judge start-up proposals and give small prizes. “If you want to dip your toes into entrepreneurship, you just have to think of an idea over a weekend or an afternoon, talk about it, and see what the feedback is,” Wilmer says.
Speaking at business competitions “helped me tremendously in communicating what I do in the lab to people who have no idea because they are not a part of the science community,” Farha says. “It made my life even easier when I went to write a grant.”
Both Farha and Wilmer see lots of grant writing in their futures. Despite their entrepreneurial streaks, both say that they are passionate about scientific discovery, and they plan to start to look for academic positions in the fall. “We will always be involved with NuMat and we’re dedicated to seeing NuMat grow into a large and successful company,” Wilmer says. “But ultimately we’re scientists who wear entrepreneur hats from time to time.”