Start-ups find success in strategic partnerships and early market research

July/August 2018
ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Start-ups founded in chemistry technologies often face unique challenges on their route to commercialization. Though there are a growing number of resources where entrepreneurs can find funding and management support, most of these are not well-versed in the long development timelines, expensive equipment, and non-trivial translations in scale and applications that characterize chemical endeavours.

Despite the necessity to advance chemistry-based innovations to help address our world’s limited resources and growing demands, it can still be difficult for those trying to commercialize technologies to find the right support along the way. There are, however, existing resources and strategies that can be leveraged, and as in any career path, entrepreneurs can find solace that others have navigated this challenging landscape.

A session that I co-organized at the Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference this past June sought to facilitate these shared experiences by assembling a series of talks from various start-ups and small-to-medium size enterprises (SMEs). Together with my co-organizer Paul Thornton, Development Scientist at GreenCentre Canada, we asked entrepreneurs to share their stories of commercialization, with the ultimate goal of pinpointing the necessary resources, challenges encountered, and lessons learned at various points along their company’s growth.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all recipe that will dictate the success of a small chemistry-based company — and even the definition of “success” will vary widely from one company to the next — common themes emerged for key considerations that are likely to make the journey a whole lot easier.

It quickly became clear that a small company cannot seek to do everything themselves. Strategic partnerships are critical to maximize the capacity of a company without requiring additional internal resources. Almost every story mentioned at least one collaboration without which further progress would have either been significantly delayed or come to a standstill. From sourcing raw materials to manufacturing to application testing, partnerships were credited as enabling the growth of companies at various stages. Joel Tickner, director of the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council, added that one of the main goals of their Green & Bio-Based Chemistry Startup Network is to serve as a trusted connector between start-ups and industry to establish such partnerships.

Alongside strategic partnerships, unanimous emphasis was also placed on early-stage market research as being crucial to successful commercialization. As promising as an innovative technology may be, this promise is meaningless until potential customers are surveyed and their needs considered. Conversations with customers enabled start-ups to establish an informed value proposition, at times revealing unexpected priorities and new applications that had not previously been considered. Since the insights gained from these conversations could have a profound impact on the direction of a growing company, it is important to not just talk to customers, but to do so as early as possible.

Beyond these two central themes — strategic partnerships and early market research — that emerged from the various start-up stories, a few other common points were raised as key considerations for any company to succeed.

The role of internal team members, both in terms of their chemistry (pun not intended yet not retracted) as well as their individual contributions, was credited by many as a main reason why their company continues to exist. Although this is true for any organization, it was especially emphasized by spin-offs from academic labs, where the company’s founders typically need either additional training or a new hire to provide the financial background necessary for the success of the business.

Other stories pointed out the importance of being able to pivot, experiment with different business models, and adapt established partnerships as the company grows. Regarding the surprisingly-often-overlooked topic of intellectual property (IP), Charles Collins-Chase and Krista Bianco, partners at Finnegan LLP, had a direct takeaway message. “At least think about IP,” they insisted, reminding the audience that IP secures technology and allows a company to obtain a value proposition.

These and further insights, contributed by start-ups as well as stakeholder and resource organizations, were shared live throughout the session and are recorded on Twitter.

As evidenced by the enthusiastic discussions and collegial atmosphere that we saw throughout the day, our goal of gathering entrepreneurs to share their stories had the intended effect of helping start-ups help each other. Although the commercialization of chemistry technologies remains difficult, start-ups and SMEs can hopefully maximize their chances at success by learning from the common challenges faced by their peers.

Laura Reyes

Start-ups shared the challenges they have faced during a session organized by Laura Reyes and Paul Thornton (pictured) at the annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference. Photo credit: Janine Elliott.