Deep tech entrepreneurs - Ignore the echo chamber!

01 Oct 2016

When we started NuMat back in 2012, I was surprised at how many people thought our ideas had no merit.

We were enterprising PhD students looking at metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs, and proposing that computers could be far better MOF designers than humans. We did our homework and had published plenty of peer-reviewed articles on the topic. We were deeply convinced we were on to something.

Angel investors, grant managers, and venture capitalists bought into our vision. These were the people that mattered in getting our company up and running, and we are grateful to this day for the amount of trust they put into our fledgling team.

However, we weren’t able to convince many of those who’s opinion we held most highly: our academic colleagues. They weren’t decision makers, but that somehow made it worse. These were peers, incredibly smart and trustworthy friends who have no incentive outside of helping us. Maybe they’re seeing something we’re not?

This contradicting opinion followed us to every conference we went to. I remember experiences at government conferences💬NASA, NSF, DoE ARPA-E, DoD, and plenty more acronyms! where, upon explaining what I was working on, I got a scoff and a “that will never work”. I’ve heard “All nanomaterials are always going to be outrageously expensive”, “MOFs fall apart in humid air and won’t survive in the real world”, “MOFs are an academic publishing mill and nothing more”, and plenty more.

I have to admit that these interactions shook my views. However, I was able to always fall back on the fact that I knew they were wrong. I’ve made MOFs in the lab💬…and I’m a terrible chemist!, handled them in open air, and seen our computational systems work. I knew the technology inside and out.

This is when I started politely digging into my colleagues’ opinions. What was their background? What experience did they have that supported their opinions?

What I found was startling. It was a complete echo chamber. Almost everyone I spoke to had an opinion that someone gave to them. That person, in turn, heard it from someone else. Once I dug deep enough, I found that these opinions all came from a very small number of sources. When these sources were looked at, they each fell apart quickly.

This was my Michael Burry moment. The entire industry thought that our technology would never work out… but none of them knew why. By taking the time to deeply learn the field, I was in a position to develop a unique and strong conviction.

Four years later, I can proudly announce that we now officially sell MOF-based technology to the electronics industry. We’re producing ton-scale quantities of multiple MOF materials on standard equipment at competitive price points, our computational systems work, and we even got to market ~2.5x faster than the average advanced materials startup. Companies are investing heavily in our technology and every academic talk I’ve seen now talks about commercialization as a foregone conclusion.

So, what’s the conclusion of this story? I’ve had plenty of time to think about it, and my view on the echo chamber is well summarized by Why Does Pessimism Sound So Smart?. This article targets a completely different field but hits very human points that resonate across professions. Professionals want to sound smart in their field💬Case in point: every conference has that one person who asks presenters “questions” that only intend to make themselves sound smart. and they don’t want to take risky stances. Especially when you consider that most attempts at scientific commercialization fail, it feels safer to be confidently negative on a topic than to stick your neck out and predict the next game-changing technology.

If you’re going down the route of commercializing academic technology, learn to ignore the echo chamber. It’ll only drag you down.