In last week’s editorial, I wrote about some of the events that took place during the American Chemical Society Spring 2019 National Meeting in Orlando, Florida.
Besides the activities I described, C&EN staff had our hands full organizing our first Power Hour in collaboration with the Gordon Research Conferences, hosting Q&As with Jen Heemstra—now a columnist for C&EN—and Priestley Medalist Barry Sharpless, emceeing a pub quiz to celebrate the International Year of the Periodic Table, and more.
We also partnered with the ACS Division of Small Chemical Businesses to discuss entrepreneurship and the start-up landscape in the chemical sciences. For this, we invited a selection of founders of some of the fledgling companies that had made it into C&EN’s 10 Start-Ups to Watch to be part of a panel. This group of experts included Omar K. Farha of NuMat Technologies, a company that specializes in the production of metal-organic framework compounds for gas storage and other industrial applications; Robert Hamers of Silatronix, which is working on the development of safer and more reliable lithium-ion batteries; Angela Koehler of Kronos Bio, a company developing small-molecule microarrays to treat traditionally undruggable cancer targets; C. Tony Liu of Boragen, which is making boron compounds for the treatment of a range of fungal diseases in plants; and Nello Mainolfi of Kymera Therapeutics, a drug-discovery start-up working in the relatively new field of targeted protein degradation.
Alumni companies from the four classes of C&EN’s 10 Start-Ups to Watch program make up a diverse and authoritative pool of people and tech—including chemicals, pharma and biotech, materials science, agriculture, and more. For the Orlando event, we were lucky enough to secure individuals who had become entrepreneurs through a variety of paths and at different stages in their careers, including a panelist (Liu) who went directly from a postdoc position to founding his firm, another (Mainolfi) who had been working in big pharma for a number of years before going out on his own, and those who took the more trodden path of the academic turned entrepreneur (Farha, Koehler, and Hamers).
One of our goals was to stimulate conversation around what drives individuals to become entrepreneurs and how one can make it happen. In terms of what drove them to start their companies, the panelists offered a diverse set of motivations, including the desire to make a difference, to work outside their comfort zone, and to experience the thrill of taking an idea they had developed into the market. They had very different starts. Koehler received cold calls from investors who had attended a talk where she had presented preliminary data about her technology. Farha decided to enter business plan competitions after peers persistently asked: “Has this tech been commercialized?” Mainolfi had the steepest learning curve, as he started his company in an emerging field after following the literature and noticing the increase in papers on targeted protein degradation—an area he had not worked in before.
The founders also discussed what skills and expertise one should have or develop to be an entrepreneur, what kind of support they had received from their universities, and whether one needs to be geographically located in Boston or the West Coast to succeed. Regarding the latter point, the consensus was that location is not that important. Boston was described as “high pressure, high drama” and also increasingly attracting international investors. North Carolina (where Boragen is based) was hailed as a hub for ag and biotech, attracting investors from the East Coast.
If you are interested in entrepreneurship as a career path, you can watch the whole panel discussion on C&EN’s Facebook page. You can also nominate for the class of 2019 of 10 Start-Ups to Watch at cenm.ag/startups-2019.
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