How do we science? / Scientists in Action!

6 Tips for Launching an Environmental Start-Up

Most science grad students can probably make more sense of genetic code or symbol-laden equations than phrases like “intellectual property” and “capital investments.”  In a world awash with environmental problems though, there is sizable demand for individuals who are willing to make the leap from bench to business.  UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences recently hosted two guest lecturers whose growing careers demonstrate that there is space for scientists in the corporate world.  Dr. Shimrit Perkol-Finkel and Dr. Ido Sella are the founders of ECOncrete, an Israel-based start-up that develops ecologically-sound concrete for marine installation.

Dr. Shimrit Perkol-Finkel and Dr. Ido Sella met at Tel-Aviv University, where they studied in the same lab.  Perkol-Finkel conducted her research on the ecology of artificial reefs, whereas Sella applied his engineering interests to examine sponge collagen fibers.  After completing a couple of post docs, Perkol-Finkel teamed up with Sella, who was just finishing his PhD, to begin SeArc Ecological Marine Consulting.  They still manage SeArc, but devoted most of their lecture at IMS to discussing their start-up company ECOncrete.  Traditional concrete is used widely in marine engineering, but it is commonly colonized by invasive species and rarely provides habitat for native organisms.  Perkol-Finkel and Sella modified the composition and texture of concrete to develop a material that could be inhabited by native species.  ECOncrete is strong enough to meet marine construction requirements, and the presence of organisms that deposit calcium carbonate augments the inherent strength of the concrete.

A small chunk of ECOncrete colonized by native species.  Image from http://www.econcretetech.com/sustainability/structure.

A small chunk of ECOncrete colonized by native species. Image from http://www.econcretetech.com/sustainability/structure.

The story of Perkol-Finkel and Sella’s successful transition from scientists to business-owners included valuable and surprising insight for potential entrepreneurs.  With some sheepishness at writing a listicle, I’ve boiled their comments down to six lessons for scientists hoping to leverage their academic backgrounds in the business world.

1. Don’t expect academia (for better or worse).  Drs. Perkol-Finkel and Sella created SeArc partially to translate their scientific knowledge into practice.  After years of studying ecology and engineering, they wanted to help research jump from journals to the physical world.  This didn’t mean completely abandoning the trappings of academia: Perkol-Finkel still attends scientific conferences, works with students, and publishes in scientific journals.  When publishing, though, she focuses on reaching the most appropriate audience rather than aiming for high impact factor, and she attends trade conferences as well as scientific ones.  ECOncrete’s presentations at non-academic conferences are almost devoid of graphs and data, a presentation style that made the founders uncomfortable at first.  They’ve found that non-scientists prefer to hear about product development and results rather than figures though, so their Powerpoints are tailored accordingly.  There are also echoes of the academic laboratory in ECOncrete’s approach to product development.  To assess the impact of changing ECOncrete’s properties, Sella uses sequential experiments similar to those employed in an ecology lab.  The company’s practices point to its founders’ academic roots, but ECOncrete operates beyond the limitations associated with a university setting.

Drs. Shimrit Perkol-Finkel (left) and Ido Sella (right) examining a test batch of ECOncrete.  To evaluate the impact of design changes, the team runs experiments on small chunks of concrete.  Image from http://www.econcretetech.com/technology/research-and-development.

Drs. Shimrit Perkol-Finkel (left) and Ido Sella (right) examining a test batch of ECOncrete. To evaluate the impact of design changes, the team runs experiments on small chunks of concrete. Image from http://www.econcretetech.com/technology/research-and-development.

2.  Develop business literacy.  Neither Perkol-Finkel nor Sella had formal business education when they started SeArc, but they quickly realized that they needed to develop business literacy to survive in a world of MBAs.  They attended a few accelerator programs, which are week-long intensive courses that teach new business owners about finances, legal issues, and marketing.  Perkol-Finkel explained that accelerators were like mini MBA programs that provided enough background for participants to launch their businesses.  Running that business requires constant learning, giving a tremendous advantage to former grad students who are accustomed to processing and applying large amounts of information.  At the beginning, Perkol-Finkel and Sella committed many hours to understanding the business of ecological products, and they still read and network extensively to stay current on developments in their field.

3.  Be comfortable thinking about money.  And talking about money, asking for money, and negotiating about money.  Like professors, owners of start-ups need to find their own funding before anything else can get done.  Unlike professors, entrepreneurs are more likely to get funding by chatting up prospective investors than by compiling a literature review.  Perkol-Finkel and Sella prefer to seek out investors who understand ECOncrete and support its applications, but finding those people requires an outgoing nature and willingness to network.  It’s also necessary for ECOncrete to be upfront about the fact that it is seeking investors, and to be able to articulate the benefits of contributing to their company.

Checking out an ECOncrete block located in a harbor. Image from http://www.econcretetech.com/products/products.

Checking out an ECOncrete block located in a harbor. Image from http://www.econcretetech.com/products/products.

4. Maintain practical goals for your product.  For a start-up to succeed, it needs to provide a product that meets some unique need.  Owners must therefore be aware of changing market demands and tailor either their product or approach in response, which has led ECOncrete to create specialty products.  To address deteriorating wooden pilings in NYC, for example, Perkol-Finkel and Sella developed an ECOncrete piling encapsulation.  Drawing on their ecological knowledge, they also created imitation tidepools made of ECOncrete for a Brooklyn shoreline restoration.  Perkol-Finkel and Sella emphasized that it’s important to maximize shortcuts that facilitate inclusion in an industry.  In the case of ECOncrete, that could include being incorporated into permitting processes or connecting with landscape architects who select materials for restoration projects.

Dr. Ido Sella near a tidepool made of ECOncrete in a restored Brooklyn shoreline. The team designed the tidepool to include layers and crevices like a natural tidepool. Image from http://www.econcretetech.com/products/tide-pools.

Dr. Ido Sella near a tidepool made of ECOncrete in a restored Brooklyn shoreline. The team designed the tidepool to include layers and crevices like a natural tidepool. Image from http://www.econcretetech.com/products/tide-pools.

5. Be prepared to make sacrifices.  If there was one takeaway message from Perkol-Finkel and Sella’s lectures, it was that a start-up is anything but easy.  The pair devotes a tremendous amount of time to the company that goes well beyond the 9-to-5.  Both owners have families, who they noted are extremely patient with the fact that they are often MIA while traveling, budgeting, or processing thousands of emails a day.  (Yes, a day.)  There’s constant stress, whether related to ongoing projects or seeking new ones, and Perkol-Finkel and Sella estimate that they spend about 85% of their working hours not doing science.  In the future, they hope to distribute more business management tasks to new employees, but their current reality is more CEO than PhD.  And they can’t console themselves with piles of money: start-ups are not immediately profitable, and there are months in which the founders might long for the comfort of a steady paycheck.

6. Have chutzpah!  With a nod to their Israeli background, Perkol-Finkel and Sella said that they never would have succeeded without a healthy dose of chutzpah.  It takes an intrepid spirit, an unshakable belief in one’s product, and a good amount of spunk to open a start-up.  I suspect that most scientists (and definitely our great UNdertheC readers!) already have chutzpah in spades, so there may be many more examples of thriving environmental start-ups in the years to come.

For more info, check out ECOncrete (http://www.econcretetech.com/) and SeArc Ecological Marine Consulting (http://www.econcretetech.com/products/tide-pools).

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