This fall, President Barack Obama came to Pittsburgh to celebrate discovery and innovation.
“It’s fascinating that he chose that topic as one of hope for the country. But what was remarkable is he picked Pittsburgh as the right place to do it,” says University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher during a speech at the Smart Business Smart 50 event.
A highlight of Obama’s trip was meeting Nathan Copeland. Electrodes in his brain, along with deep brain simulation and some impressive software, allow Copeland’s thoughts to translate into commands for a robotic arm. But Gallagher says that day at Pitt sensors had been added to the hand so Copeland could feel human touch by that same pathway — including a fist bump from the president.
“The process of innovation is not straightforward. And even though I’m standing up here taking credit for all the innovation coming out of the university, I have to confess I have nothing to do with it,” Gallagher says.
He believes part of his job is getting out of the way of those with creativity and a desire to make a difference. He says it’s important to give the people with that drive as many tools, as much support, as much encouragement and the resources they need to take that risky journey.
“Not all of them will succeed, but we are all made better by their efforts alone,” he says.
Gallagher also traced the twisted journey of former Pitt students, CEO Noah Snyder and CTO Kasey Catt, who co-founded Interphase Materials. The duo started working in brain implants and ended up on submarines.
Make a business, not a product
Although Interphase Materials is just over a year old, the journey began several years ago. While working on their Ph.D.s. in bioengineering, Snyder and Catt designed materials that interfaced with the brain. They got involved with Pitt’s entrepreneurial activities to see if they could commercialize the technology.
“You don’t see a lot of people today, at least, walking around with neural implants. (So) trying to create a business with technology where a market doesn’t even exist yet and all you can tell investors is that maybe someday in 20 years this will be important is not the best first step,” Snyder says.
They decided to apply their creation to dental implants.
In 2015, Snyder and Catt’s business case won all three of Pitt’s big entrepreneurship contests — what Snyder calls the triple crown of business plan competitions.
The two were introduced to the accelerator, Alphalab Gear, and were ultimately accepted into its program. Their first conversation with Alphalab Gear led to another switch: industrial, non-medical applications.
“One of the things that have made us, at least to this point, successful, is Kasey and I from the get-go, we wanted to make a business, not just a product,” Snyder says. “When you’re focused on building a business, you can make decisions that are smart for creating a business. Because if you’re married to a product, that’s not always a successful business model.”
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.