Keith Hearon & Matthew Stellmaker, "Good Chemistry," Ep. 18

Two brilliant scholarship kids became friends at Georgia Tech and went on to found a company that could change the world. This is the story of Matthew Stellmaker and Keith Hearon and of their “good chemistry” expressed in their friendship and in the creation of a new chemistry that is friendly to people and the environment.

The idea came from Matthew when he was at a large company that produces 50,000 tons of citrus waste per year. His friend Keith thought that he could do something interesting with the citrus rinds so Matthew got the company to fund the research into creating a use for this natural material.

These two young founders display remarkable self-knowledge and reveal discoveries that could help other founders, technical or not.

Click here to read the full episode transcript.

Here is a list of the topics covered:

  • Keith Hearon Bio
  • Matthew Stellmaker Bio
  • Keith Hearon Views Himself as an Entrepreneur Who Uses Science to Commercialize Valuable Products – Inspired by Ken Gall, Founder & Inventor
  • How Keith & Mathew Became Friends
  • How to Find a Job in Architecture in a Down Market
  • Challenge of Langer Lab Further Energized Keith Hearon
  • How Poly6 Got Started
  • How Poly6 Zeroed in on its First Use Case
  • How Poly6 Zeroed in on its First Use Case
  • How Being Co-founders Changed Their Friendship
  • Should You Found a Company with Your Friend?
  • The Risks of Moonlighting
  • The Care & Feeding of Advisors – Busy People Generous with Their Time
  • Other Startups Matthew & Keith Admire

Transcript of Keith Hearon & Matthew Stellmaker, "Good Chemistry," Ep. 18

Guests: Cleantech Founders Keith Hearon & Matthew Stellmaker

 

SAL DAHER: Welcome to Angel Invest Boston, conversations with Boston's most interesting angel investors and founders. I am Sal Daher, and my goal for this podcast is to learn more about building successful new companies. The best way I can think of doing this is by talking to people who are doing it. People such as cleantech founders Keith Hearon and Matthew Stellmaker. Matthew, Keith, it's an honor to have the two of you join us in our eighteenth episode. Welcome.

KEITH HEARON: Thank you.

SAL DAHER: It is fortunate to have two co-founders on at the same time, since it'll allow us to explore a bit of the dynamics of your collaboration. So, Matthew and Keith are co-founders of a remarkable startup, whose technology allows making of highly versatile plastics with the most benign of ingredients, citrus rinds. Keith is the inventor, Matthew is the business guy. They were friends before becoming co-founders. Now they have a strongly complimentary collaboration. I think an exemplary one.

Keith Hearon Bio

Keith Hearon is a prodigy in the world of polymer chemistry, having invented his first plastic at age 21. He is now the holder of 10 patents. A graduate of Georgia Tech in material science, Keith did his PhD at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Texas A&M University. He was a post-doc at MIT's storied Langer Lab for two years, ending in 2016. Keith is the recipient of numerous awards, including grants of nearly $800,000. He is the inventor of Citrene, the citrus-derived bioplastic that is the basis of Poly6's business.

Matthew Stellmaker Bio

Matthew Stellmaker followed a different path. Straight out of college in 2010, he started a design firm in Patagonia, Chile, to put into practice a housing initiative of the Chilean government aimed and reducing deforestation. Subsequently, he managed the real estate strategy of a major US corporation in the west coast, closing transactions that produced $630 million in revenue over four years. Matthew is really, really passionate about engendering a more sustainable society through entrepreneurship. He studied architecture at Georgia tech, where he and Keith became friends.

Keith, when did it dawn on you that you wanted to be a scientist?

Keith Hearon Views Himself as an Entrepreneur Who Uses Science to Commercialize Valuable Products – Inspired by Ken Gall, Founder & Inventor

KEITH HEARON: So I really view myself more as an entrepreneur that uses science and invention to create and commercialize valuable products that make the world a better place. And I had an advisor, a mentor at Georgia Tech, a guy named Ken Gall, who has founded a medical device company at age 18, seeing a PhD-level inventor that was also the CTO driving the development of a biotech company that was improving human life. His invention was really inspiring to me. So seeing a model by an inventor in the entrepreneurial space made me want to pursue a deeper education in certain areas of fundamental science, so that I could then use that knowledge to build a company.

SAL DAHER: So the interest was sparked by the idea of inventing something that can really make a real impact on the real world. That's excellent. And then you went on to get the education necessary. This question's for the two of you. What led you to become friends at Georgia Tech? You're totally different people with very different interests. What's the common bond?

How Keith & Mathew Became Friends

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Yeah, it was interesting. Keith was actually the first person that I met at Georgia Tech. We were recruited to Georgia Tech for academic scholarship, and we met through that program. I think what initially connected us was music. I was playing guitar and Keith walked into my room and said "Hi, I'm Keith, I also play guitar." And we were in a band together our first year. And thereafter, what I think kept us together as friends were two high level topics and thoughts around leadership and development of people, and also entrepreneurship and the creation of value in the world. And throughout the five years of university, we were roommates at certain times, we were in a fraternity together, and our conversations varied but they always came back to these two themes of leadership and value creation.

SAL DAHER: So Matthew, how did you go from studying architecture to working in that project in Patagonia? I mean, how did you make the connection that led to the unusual startup of your career?

How to Find a Job in Architecture in a Down Market

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: My decision to go into architecture was actually one of relationships, which is the way that I view the world. I saw architecture as a means to take the built environment, the infrastructure around people, and connect us to relationships. Interestingly, when I graduated, I wanted to go into private development of real estate. But we were in the economic housing downturn, 2009, 2010. And what I decided to do was, instead of taking a less than positive job in a down market, I decided that I would just kind of try and create my own path. So I started calling everybody that I knew, and eventually, through the daisy chain of connections that I was able to create, I found a developer who needed a designer and a contractor in South America. And I said I can do that. So I packed my things, left Atlanta, moved to South America, and a month later, I was designing houses on a five star eco-resort in the most beautiful area in the world.

SAL DAHER: Tremendous. A lot of work on the phone.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Lots.

SAL DAHER: And the connections, was this person someone that you knew or someone that knew somebody that you knew? What was the ...

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: I think there were three ...

SAL DAHER: Steps out.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Yeah, three steps out.

SAL DAHER: That's typical. The third ring outside.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Yup, and each case ... The first person I knew very well. The second person I had to sit down and meet with two different times in order that they understood what I was looking for, and that they trusted me enough to make the introduction to the third.

SAL DAHER: Excellent. This is a service that we do, have these tremendously successful young people providing example to other young people who might really benefit from this. So Matthew, what did you take from your experience in Chile into the west coast, that's helping you now at Poly6?

Expect the Unexpected & Time Kills All deals

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: I'd probably say two things. The first is to expect the unexpected, and number two, time is of the essence. So to put those two in context, I'll give two quick anecdotes. When I arrived to Chile, I finished the designs, got them approved by the board of this resort, and the week before we started construction, they said, "We need this on time, we need the same design, but you only have 60% of the budget that had previously been approved." So we found ourselves severely handicapped from a resource standpoint. Also, we were in the middle of nowhere, and the funny part of this is one way that we solved this problem, instead of renting machinery and tractors, I found a local ox driver and to haul the heavy pieces of equipment, we actually utilized live animals, and we touted everything with oxen. And we saved 80% on the cost of equipment that way. So just a funny way of going about that, right? So there were a lot of unexpected things, that's just one very small detail.

 On the real estate side, time is of the essence, right? We used to say that time kills all deals. And so moving very quick when things are looking positively is so important. Because if we don't, people forget about us. Or they move on, and somebody beats us to the punch.

SAL DAHER: That's right. And with your technology, that's even truer.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Certainly.

SAL DAHER: It's a very fast-moving environment. Keith, the Langer Lab is famous for taking basic science through applied science, and then to commercialization. It's said to work in the Pasteur's quadrant of science. How has that influenced your work, how is ... I imagine it's very congenial to your approach?

Challenge of Langer Lab Further Energized Keith Hearon

KEITH HEARON: Very much so. The Langer Lab has ultimately inspired me to pursue excellence in every aspect of scientific work that I attempt to carry out. It doesn't mean that everything works perfectly, but it means that I'm motivated to continue to push, continue to seek answers, and to work as hard as possible to work with the world's best people to solve significantly challenging scientific problems.

SAL DAHER: Awesome, awesome. Keith and Matt, now give us a little bit of the story of how Poly6 got started.

How Poly6 Got Started

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: I'll take the first part and then Keith can probably speak to this as well. When I was working in real estate for a retailer, I saw changing landscapes in the demands from consumers. As an example, one of the retailers with which I was in contact had developed a budget of $40 million over five years, solely for the marketing of sustainability. In essence, it was green washing. And as I dug into the supply chain, I saw that really, the end consumer-facing companies were dependent on the entire supply chain upstream of them to accomplish the solutions that their consumers were asking for at an equal price, cost, and also performance. And they really didn't know what to do about it. So they were forced to tell these stories that were really empty of any substance. And they were spending a lot of money on it. It was that which drove me to call Keith and kind of explain, "Hey, there's this burgeoning market with these changing dynamics." Some of it is driven by consumers, and a lot of it is also driven from science of issues that are impacting us as a society. And maybe Keith, you can take it from there.

KEITH HEARON: Sure. When I was 19, 20 years old, I began to see creativity in myself and I wanted to work as much as possible to gain knowledge and use that in a creative manner. And the way that was manifested at the time that Matthew called me is that I was inventing new materials for medical device applications. And trying to use knowledge that I was obtaining in graduate school to somehow improve human life. When I received a phone call from my old friend from Georgia Tech, and Matthew mentioned to me, "Hey, what do you know about environmental sustainability? What do you know about global warming? What do you know about climate change?" I said, "I know some stuff that I read, I don't know a whole lot about any of those issues in my own field." And so Matthew challenged me really to think about trying to use my ability to invent for not only invention in the biotech space, but invention in the broader material science space, so that we may be able to lay groundwork for environmentally beneficial developments.

And so Matthew suggested that I work around the fundamental chemistries and scientific principles around citrus waste, because of the fact that his company that he was working for happened to produce a lot of it. It was a company that sells 50,000 tons of lemonade or so per year and throws away the peels. And so as soon as I started googling chemical structures of ingredients in citrus, immediately a vision for a company that could create high value materials from a wide range of chemicals of the class that occurred in citrus peels, but also a number of other natural ingredients. And the vision of this material class was high performance materials that significantly outperformed incumbent materials used in industrial applications, that could be presented to businesses at competitive economics, but that also would offer environmental benefit. And so immediately after Matthew called me and I began to realize what chemistries were around citrus-based materials, that's where Citrene, our first polymer product, has its invention roots. And from there, we spent three years characterizing Citrene's various material value propositions. And the post-doctoral fellowship I did at MIT was heavily focused on assessing Citrene's biomedical, pharma types of advantages.

SAL DAHER: Excellent, excellent. Coming up next, I will ask Matthew Stellmaker and Keith Hearon, what advice they as founders of a startup that has received a lot of validation from the industry, how they developed the focus needed to zero in on their first use case.

 But first, I wish to thank listener TMZ1345 for this review. "I'm so glad there is now a podcast giving startups access to angel investors' experiences. Given the vast exposure of the guests to startups in their own substantial experience, this is a goldmine for any startup." Thanks, TMZ1345. The Angel Invest Boston podcast has outstanding guests such as Matthew and Keith. It's professionally produced, has no commercials, and comes to you free. So please tell a potential angel or founder about us. Take a minute to review our podcast on iTunes. This is really important. I noticed this week we had a little bit of a bump in downloads. A very significant bump. And I ascribe that to sort of having passed a certain benchmark, and caught the eye of the iTunes algorithm. So it really helps to get reviews in. And sign up at angelinvestboston.com to be notified of new episodes and of upcoming in-person free events.

So Matthew and Keith, please share with us the process that led you to focusing on your first use case. 'Cause this is a typical situation with a new technology, hundreds of possibilities, dozens of possibilities, people telling you oh, this could be great in this application, and so forth. So how were you able to prioritize that? What process did you go through?

How Poly6 Zeroed in on its First Use Case

KEITH HEARON: So a very notable development in the identification of our first use case for our product Citrene occurred actually about the time that Poly6 won part of the MIT Clean Energy Prize in May of 2016. At that point, I was still at MIT as a post-doc and briefly enrolled in an MBA program there, and Matthew had just moved to Boston and jumped into our company full time. And we were working as hard as possible to quantify a technology fit for different industries, and speaking with experts with experience to help refine our go-to-market strategy. And something clicked internally with Matthew and me, and we decided instead of thinking deeply about our technology, let's just first look at these industries objectively. So when we looked at the polymers material industry, looked at how supply contracts are secured by companies that produce materials technologies, sales cycles across industries can vary significantly. And in many cases, sales cycles can be multiple years, even better part of a decade in some cases. And so, given that a company's mission and objective is to make money, we as an early stage startup need to make money as quickly as possible to-

SAL DAHER: As an investor, I second that!

KEITH HEARON: Yeah. So we targeted and decided to target a 3D printing industry, because it's a new industry with players and industry leaders still being established, there's volatility still in that market, and also, the sales cycles in 3D printing are inherently shorter than other materials industries, because of the way 3D printing works. The customers are often not using 3D printed parts beyond a certain timeline. And so we refined our beachhead market and found our first use case strictly based on sales cycles.

SAL DAHER: So basically, you were trading off quick sales for having sort of annuity-like products. So once you make a sale, it takes a long time. You make a sale, you're gonna be making that sale for years. You understand in 3D, you're gonna make a sale, but it's gonna be very project-driven and contingent and so forth. But it'll get you rolling, and it'll get your name out and so forth.

KEITH HEARON: And what we also did was instead of thinking deeply about our technology, we thought about the 3D printing technology, and then decided to improve our technology as needed to bring it to market.

SAL DAHER: So focus on the potential buyers.

Matthew Demonstrates Networking Gold!

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Yeah, the only thing that I would add to that, I totally agree with everything Keith said, is that it was a continual process of exploration and analysis, a very iterative process. And I'll go back to what I mentioned before. We spent a lot of time on the phone. We asked questions, some of the time they were broad. And I finished every single call we had with, "What have I not asked you that I should have? And is there anyone else based on this conversation that I should be talking to?" And those two questions, in that exploratory phase as we identified use case, were probably the two single-handed most important questions that we asked. We took notes on every single call, which allowed us to quantify what we found. And then do this analysis which may or may not have directed our calls in the future in a different way.

SAL DAHER: This is gold. This is gold for networking. It doesn't have to be just a tech company, but just any kind of founder, to have that kind of process which allows you to approach things rationally, and allows you to seek out all the resources by asking that question. Because very frequently people are thinking geez, maybe this guy should talk to so and so and so and so. But I don't want to bother him, he's in a hurry. Opening that up is brilliant. So I'm gonna really highlight this. Already I have one of the highlights for the show. Excellent, really excellent. Now, please tell us what it's like to be friends and then co-founders. Tell me the dos and don'ts.

How Being Co-founders Changed Their Friendship

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: First off, it's very different to be somebody's friend as compared to be their co-founder. So I would say that our relationship has changed more than either of us would have ever expected it would have changed. Founding a startup, for the founders that would listen to this, they'll be able to empathize, it's very difficult. We don't have enough resource to do what we need, and that's a comprehensive concept of resource. Personal capacity monetary resource, in kind infrastructure. So as a result of that, the biggest lesson that I have learned is to be very quick to extend grace to my co-founder. Keith misses an email, well guess what, I missed three the day before. Keith forgets to do something? Well I forgot to do five last week. And that's not because he's not trying. It's because we don't have enough time in a day to do all that's asked of us.

SAL DAHER: The term of art is “catch as catch can”.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Sure.

KEITH HEARON: And it's interesting. Part of the reason why early-stage startup founder dynamics are unique, it's very much in line with the resource point that Matthew mentioned. But people make great employees often when they love the exact job they're doing and they're passionate about it. People at the same time might have less success or personal wellbeing when they're carrying out a job that they dislike. When you're a startup co-founder, you're at some point the administrative assistant, you are the bookkeeper, you are the laboratory glass cleaner, you are doing things that you believe are not the best use of your natural abilities, but if they're not done then the company doesn't move forward. And so there's just a natural tendency to have a tense relationship, just because of the fact that we're small.

So what I always try to keep bringing back to my discussions with Matthew are keeping our mindset on the vision of where we're heading, keeping a good assessment of where we stand as a company, where we were a month ago, and how we should be either excited and motivated to continue to succeed in areas we're succeeding, or motivated to improve in areas that need improvement. So my mindset is, as always, pushing forward. It's to move on if there's ever a disagreement.

Should You Found a Company with Your Friend?

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: I think the last thing that I would say. I actually am a proponent of being friends first, and then starting a company, especially in this age of very fast moving things. And the reason that I say I'm a proponent of it is based in the concept of trust. If the going gets tough, Keith and I have already lived through very difficult situations together, for the last 11 years. And I know that he's not just going to jump ship. So there is an element of trust that I think is very important in this co-founder dynamic, that we've known each other so ... I know he has my best interest, and he knows that I have his best interest in our co-founder relationship.

Now, we were very objective to talk through all of the difficult things and get our agreements in line before we jumped in this. There was no like, oh hey we're buddy buddies, let's just do this. We were very objective, we had the appropriate legal counsel and all of that to make sure that we had this defined. But there are some softer side things that go beyond what a legal document is going to prescribe, that have been very important.

SAL DAHER: Yes. A legal document sets the framework.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: That's right.

SAL DAHER: But the reality of the relationship is defined by people's relationships with each other. Very good, very good. So, another very difficult aspect of being a founder is fundraising. Really, a terrible struggle. And I think that you guys have had some experiences with that which could be useful for other technology founders. So how did you strike the balance with raising more money, and therefore having more resources, and getting to work right away on revenue-producing projects and not wasting a lot of time raising money?

KEITH HEARON: We significantly focused on customer traction. And we closed a seed investment around December of 2016, which was our target raise amount. But even through that time, our effort was clear, it was on building relationships with customers and getting closer to successful sales or supply contract opportunities with customers. And all our conversations with investors were always about customer interaction. And for that reason, the investor conversations were much smoother, the deals seemed to close a lot quicker than sometimes they would historically be closing. So my take would be, focusing on customers was the premise that led to fundraising the way that we carried out.

SAL DAHER: So it's a customer-centric take on the old dictum, if you want to raise money, ask for advice. If you want advice, raise money. So this is the ... You were looking for advice on how to approach the market from various people who are connected with the industry tangentially in different ways, and from that source came money. Matthew?

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Well, given that this is a podcast about angel investment, I would say that I think what we've learned is that angel rounds are very different than going to a VC for money, in that largely the angels are extending a vote of confidence and trust in us as people. They all realize, no matter how much we engage the market and how much we have or have not developed a technology, that largely, they're placing a vote of confidence in us to figure it out as entrepreneurs. So I would say that one lesson probably that we have learned, and granted, our sampling size is one angel round, so we've not been through this 20 times, is that we don't need to close three weeks after we meet an angel. We met a number of our angel investors in May. We had our first presentation, and we fostered a relationship with them for the next six months. So I think that was very important. And now, on the backside of their investment, they know much better what our collective strengths are, what we need as a company, and they've been very helpful to input at appropriate times to help guide us.

SAL DAHER: You're pointing at something which is very true, because I think if you ran this experiment many times over, you'd probably come up with the same result. And that is that angel investing is really about developing a personal relationship with the founding team, because the reality is that there are no spreadsheets ... I mean, there are not cash flows to evaluate. What numbers can you show?

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: I mean, we gave our angel investors a angel investors a financial model of our company. It had 27 different tabs on the bottom, and we spent hours and hours building this out.

KEITH HEARON: Depreciation for the chairs we were gonna buy in 2019.

SAL DAHER: But it changed every two weeks!

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Garbage in, garbage out, right? We made up all of the numbers.

SAL DAHER: And it was changing every two weeks.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Absolutely.

SAL DAHER: The situation was changing! And angel investors know this. My mentor, Michael Mark, one of his big criteria, I gotta like the people.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Sure.

The Risks of Moonlighting

SAL DAHER: I'm gonna be spending a lot of time with them. I gotta like them. If I don't like them, I don't invest. They could be brilliant, I don't like them I don't invest. So it's really establishing a personal relationship. That is tremendous. Now, this is a sort of pointed question. A common way for founders to get rolling is to moonlight. Work at the day job while launching the startup. That option is fraught with problems for technology startups, due to the risk that the employer may claim an ownership interest in the intellectual property, the IP, of the startup. How did you handle this issue?

KEITH HEARON: We have employed a disciplined and very strategic IP strategy. In many cases, I was never an employee as an inventor, I was never an employee of my graduate university, I was only a 50% non-employee at my post-doctoral institution. So on paper, I tried to keep some level of ambiguity, if for a worst case scenario. But ultimately, we worked as hard as possible to jump in full time as quickly as possible os that we wouldn't have to worry about conflicts of interest.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: With that said, I came from an opposite side. I was 100% time employed. And unique in our case, my employer actually funded a part of the fundamental research that was done around citrus-based polymers, because they had 50,000 tons of citrus waste on an annual basis.

KEITH HEARON: Yeah, I was a fast food post-doc at MIT, which is a pretty interesting.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: So we actually, I mean, we negotiated with my employer to sponsor Keith's post-doc for fundamental research at MIT. The way that I handled it is I went straight to the top. Now, I could do that because of the relationship that I had built before, but I went straight to the CEO of the company and I sat down and I said, "Hey, here's what I want to do. Are you okay with this, that I moonlight?" And he said, "Absolutely." That wouldn't happen everywhere.

SAL DAHER: Right.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: We then got documents signed by my company that said, "We make no claims to this intellectual property." And I got a document from the director of human resources saying that I was okay to be moonlighting. And so, with that said, if there are other founders that might listen to this, what I did not do, I didn't tell anybody else at the company that I was moonlighting. That would have created immense conflict in my relationships there, right? With my coordinators and with my direct boss, they had no idea. But the people that needed to know, I went directly to them before I started anything else.

SAL DAHER: So disclosure was key.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Absolutely.

SAL DAHER: It was a key to you [crosstalk 00:28:15]

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: With the correct people.

SAL DAHER: Right, right.

KEITH HEARON: And I employed a strategy of disclosure with key individuals at every academic institution I was at as well.

The Care & Feeding of Advisors – Busy People Generous with Their Time

SAL DAHER: Excellent. Excellent. Please talk about the help you've gotten from advisors in getting to where you are.

KEITH HEARON: So the three months that Matthew and I spent ... So Matthew moved to Boston from California in March of 2016. And from March to June, we worked extremely hard to even understand basic principles of the materials industry strategy around startup companies. Why did they fail in this particular industry that we're trying to enter. And without the time that probably more than 120 individuals with notable career accomplishments and experience were willing to take with us, we would not have been able to quickly move into developing a business that was even at the point where we could pursue customer traction. And so then, from advisors or mentors or friendly people that we met during that process, we worked to build stronger relationships with a select group of individuals who in many cases, on a daily basis, continued to help us navigate a world where we're learning, but it would be impossible to navigate if ignorant.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: So the way that we were able to qualify the type of advice we got was by expanding this to statistical sampling, like Keith mentioned. We got a lot of bad advice. And it's impossible to determine good from bad without a broad swath of statistical sampling. So again, we talked to a lot of people. I think the other thing that might be important, both for... For both sides of this coin, for people who are interested, feeling like they have something to offer to a startup, and also for startups saying we don't know that which we don't know, and we need help, is that we spent a lot of time, and I would use the word probably courting advisors, always being very frank. We want to make this formal at some point.

But the advisors had to prove their value to us, and we needed to get to know them before we brought them into the company. It was a six month courtship, and it was a wide funnel that we've now brought in. We have, at this point, three formal advisors and we're talking with maybe another one. But that process was very important on both sides. So we made the advisors work and continue engaging with us, so that they could basically prove they're not a vulture, just wanting blah blah blah, whatever else.

KEITH HEARON: And we also had to prove during that time that we weren't just some terrible random two guys, that we were worth spending some degree of time together.

SAL DAHER: It's the process of getting to know each other. But Matthew, you really impressed me because you're sort of a very precise person, that you have this methodical approach of taking notes, of asking what haven't I asked, kind of leaving things open. And I imagine you using the data that you got from that, that allowed you to create this plot and say yeah, this is where the advice is centering, and this other advice is outliers and so forth, and probably is not helpful.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: If I may, one quick way to give a little bit of teeth to this comment for our particular business case. We had a lot of people say focus, focus, focus. Find your niche right away and you guys are too broad in your market considerations. And they told us this early on. I would say this was bad advice.

KEITH HEARON: Yeah.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: As we talked to more people, we found people who are educated in the materials world, the advice came to us, leave no stone unturned before you dive into a market. And yes, dive into a market as soon as you can, but before you dive into a market, know that it's the best, right?

SAL DAHER: So you have to do a survey and then, when you decide on that, you have to go at it full tilt.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: We would talk to people about the 10 markets we were looking at, and they would say no, you guys are doing it wrong, you have to focus on one.

SAL DAHER: Yeah.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: And that came back ...

SAL DAHER: But you were in an exploratory phase, you were not really in the phase of really zeroing in yet.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Yes, and we have now.

KEITH HEARON: Well, additionally, I would like to remind any aspiring entrepreneur, that you know yourself, you know your company idea, and if you have a technology, you know that better than anyone else. And advice from someone that doesn't have that intimate knowledge, is only so useful or so informed. And so we just disregarded in many cases, advice from various individuals just because it didn't quite apply to us the same way that maybe it was given. So staying true to understand who we are, and how we individually as co-founders will be best suited to build the company that we want, the way that we want to do it, that's a significant driving factor in our iterative process for market focus.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: And I think that we just learned, what Keith is talking about is a very delicate balance. Being true to yourself, or listening to guidance, right? And I think it's a wisdom call where there's not necessarily a black or white answer. And so that's why we broadened our sampling pool to kind of understand conventional wisdom that applies in this particular context, what's the best decision to make.

SAL DAHER: Excellent, excellent. What are your current plans for Poly6 and how are they progressing?

KEITH HEARON: We currently have two product lines, Citrene, a citrus-derived polymer we've been talking about on this podcast. This material has received some press, so it's fairly easy to look up, at least online, from a higher level standpoint. Citrene is a product line for high performance 3D printing resins in the UV curable polymer space, so SLA, DLB type resins. We actually have an entirely separate 3D printing product line, a unique stimuli-responsive polymer, that's actually completely developed, and we're pursuing business development opportunities for that product line, in addition to the pursuit of Citrene commercialization. And we're focused on B2B contracts currently for the supply of our materials to businesses whose manufacturing processes can be enhanced by our material someone proposition.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Yeah, I think that we're at the first level of increasing our sophistication internally as a company.

SAL DAHER: Okay.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: Understanding and being able to quantify markets and we now can talk about these two different products and very clearly articulate, why is it better than what you have? Or why can't you find this anywhere else? And initially, 3D printing is a great market. I think soon after, we will look to take these products to a whole host of other markets, in a variety of business models. Some of them I think are very likely to turn into IP licensing scenarios. Currently we're selling a liquid resin. Other times, we might sell a cured material. We might do outsource manufacturing, we might at small scales manufacture some stuff ourselves. And so I think there'll kind of be a whole host of markets and models that could emerge in the future.

Other Startups Matthew & Keith Admire

SAL DAHER: Awesome, awesome. Keith, Matthew, are there any other startups that you admire?

KEITH HEARON: You know, interestingly enough, I'm a big fan of the company Citrine Analytics, not spelled the same way as Poly6's Citrene. But the concept of taking data and then being able to use machine learning to predict the way that materials and chemicals can be advanced and benefit society is the right approach to take to really improve global problems we have associated with material production and chemical toxicity, lack of efficiency in chemical and materials production. So I'm very excited to see how Citrine Analytics or its competitive companies change the world in terms of the way that we go about improving our chemistry and materials as used in everything.

SAL DAHER: Excellent.

MATTHEW STELLMAKER: I think one of the companies that I'm most excited to watch is also here in Boston. It's called Right Hand Robotics. And what I really like about them is they have tackled an immense challenge. Really they exist at the intersection, if we think about a Venn diagram, of robotic grasping, hand technologies, artificial intelligence, and then also visual and camera technology, to do small part kitting. An amazing technology that they've developed. And they have simultaneously been very aggressive and also very patient. They're tackling a huge challenge that many people before them ... I mean, there are corpses along this route, right? Many, many people have tried and they've been seven years patient, they're finally hitting their stride. They've had multiple bids for people to buy them, and they have cautiously said no, we're not ready for that yet. At the same time, they've been very aggressive to spend money when they need to in development, and also cautious and patient to have a protective strategy, where they kind of have a side company where they sell some other robotic chips and parts just to keep the lights on, so they can do and fulfill the big vision. And I think the courage that they've shown to tackle this big problem and not let common waves of hype distract them, is really meaningful. Ultimately, that's a similar type of company that we are trying to build here.

SAL DAHER: Very interesting, excellent, excellent. Matthew Stellmaker, Keith Hearon, tremendously grateful to you for participating and helping make this a great podcast.

KEITH HEARON: Thank you.

SAL DAHER: I'd like to invite our listeners who enjoy this podcast to review it on iTunes. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them to sal@angelinvestboston.com. I'm Sal Daher, this is Angel Invest Boston, conversations with Boston's most interesting angels and founders.

 I'm glad you were able to join us. Our engineer is Raul Rosa. Our theme is composed by John McKusick. Our graphic design is by Katharine Woodman Maynard. Our host is coached by Grace Daher.