Adapting is a key part of the innovation process

Today, Interphase Materials’ products are directed at biofouling — preventing algae, mussels and barnacles from decreasing the efficiency of power plant cooling systems. This interested the Navy, and Snyder and Catt won a NIH Small Business Innovation Research contract to test and develop their materials for Ohio-class submarines.

“When we received the submarine contract, all of the sudden when you’re talking to these coatings companies and power plants, we’re not just a couple of guys walking in from the university,” Snyder says. “We had a big stamp of approval from the Navy. That’s led to additional contracts within the power industry, with manufacturers and with coating companies.”

Interphase Materials was cash flow positive by the end of 2016 — unusual for a company less than a year old, especially in the chemical space.

Meet your audience

Beyond adapting to new industries, Snyder and Catt picked up a few other lessons.

For instance, they learned not to walk into a billion-dollar chemical company or a power plant that’s owned by a billion-dollar energy company, and say they’re a startup while wearing a T-shirt, Snyder says, who doesn’t even like to use the term “startup” to describe their company.

“They say dress like the job you want; act like the job you want, not the job you have. We try to very much, from the ground up, to be and operate like a business,” he says.

Knowing your audience and their expectations is critical, in order to be able to talk to them appropriately. For example, Snyder says the first time they went to a marina they looked out of place in nice shirts and ties.

The two also rely on a strong advisory board. Snyder says they meet with many of them once a week and sometimes have multiple phone calls and discussions a day.

“That was really important for us to establish a culture of an actual real, living, breathing company,” he says.

As Interphase Materials moves into its next phase, getting the right people in the right places to build out its core business, Snyder says they’ll continue to seek advice from those with experience.

How to reach: University of Pittsburgh, Office of the Chancellor, (412) 624-4141; Interphase Materials, (412) 447-1085.