Ben: Hey everybody! We are really happy to be joined by one of our prestigious FedTech Startup Studio alums here today. Dr. Christel, thank you for joining us. Where are you calling in from today?
Dr. Christel: Sure thing. I'm calling in from Houston, Texas today.
Ben: Tell us your story; walk us through your career up to participating in the startup studio. Then, tell us about your company that you're working on now.
Dr. Christel: Oh my gosh, okay, so that's a lot! Let's go!
Basically, my career started off in psychology. I got my bachelor's in psychology and I thought I'd become a counselor. Then, I realized I just kept tying everything back to the brain, so I studied neuroscience. I earned my doctorate in neuroscience. So, I have a very rich career in neuroscience.
Then, once I earned my doctorate, I moved into cancer medicine and a variety of medical fields and scientific fields. I published a lot of papers — published the papers, got the t-shirt, worked at a lot of just top-tier institutions, which was really, really great.
I also have a son and for me, it was just a really important thing to prioritize my family and that kind of thing. So, I started consulting and really liked the freedom that it provided to me. During the pandemic, I was just thinking like, “Hmm, what do I want to do with this? How can I continue to grow?” Really, that's the constant in all of my career is that I've always just kept growing.
I heard about FedTech and I just thought it was the coolest opportunity to build a startup around technology that already exists — that's already been tested and developed in the labs here either in the DOE or NASA. I just thought it was really great.
I was going to be going into Rice's MBA program so that way, I would have the background knowledge to be able to run and manage anything that I started.
So, that's how I got into the FedTech program and was just really excited by all of the technologies that were available because we basically got a list. We were asked to rank and the number one technology for me — it was just hands-down obvious — self-healing materials; I was just all about it. It didn't necessarily tie to the neurosciences or anything like that, but I'd been in a lot of scientific fields, so that didn't bother me any. I just saw so much opportunity with that. So, that's how I got started.
Ben: Well, I have to ask. It's not everybody that's gonna find self-healing materials necessarily to be the thing that gets them.
Dr. Christel: Really? Okay, all right.
Ben: Tell us about that and what made you interested. Maybe walk through a little bit.
For those that are a little bit new to our startup studio model, what we typically do is work with a research partner and identify technologies in the research labs that we partner with. That's what Dr. Kristel was kind of referring to as our list that we have our entrepreneurs rank and then we do a pairing exercise after what can be up to six to nine months of programming. What often comes out the other side is a startup that is licensing the technology like the one that we have here today.
So, Dr. Christel, if you could just share what made you interested in that technology and then what was your journey in the cohort?
Dr. Christel: Well, to me, it seemed like a technology that could apply to a variety of industries and all of them were growing. Like if we're talking about electronics or if we're talking about — oh my goodness — even equipment in the DoD or let's talk about Artemis, there's so many applications for more durable equipment and materials that I just saw endless possibilities. I am kind of a dreamer, right? I saw that technology and I was like, “Okay. We can make space suits. We can make Iron Man suits. We can make prosthetics with self-healing skin on top of them. How cool would that be?”
I will go ahead and attribute that enthusiasm and love for science to my graduate advisor, Yvonne Delville. Shout out to Dr. Delville. He has told me to always stay curious, to always be a scholar. So, I did jump into the literature and did do a lot of reading on this technology as well. He taught me to always stay enthusiastic and happy about what you're working with.
I needed very little instruction on any of those with the self-healing materials because I just think it's such an interesting technology. The way that it was developed and the reason that it was developed to me, it was also very compelling because NASA developed this technology in particular. Any time you have electronics and wiring, there's gonna be some kind of issues with shorts if they're in a hostile environment, which inside rockets is kind of a hostile environment. Out in space, definitely a hostile environment. To me, I kind of felt like, “Well, okay, they really need this. We at least have one customer, right? It's a big one.”
During the process of the startup studio, we were able to do a lot of customer interviews outside of NASA applications, outside of DoD applications, and in a lot of different industries and that was really helpful too.
Ben: One of the things I think that we're most proud of in the way we run the studio is the inventor interactions. I always think about it like we're a little bit of a matchmaker, right?
Dr. Christel: Yes.
Ben: Between the amazing entrepreneurial talent out in the world like yourself, and then the researchers and our lab partners that we work so closely with, we're kind of the connected between the two groups.
Share any experience that you had. You had mentioned that you worked with a NASA Kennedy — which is down in the Cape Canaveral area in Florida — a researcher there. Describe how that process was and what those discussions looked like at the very start with your research partner.
Dr. Christel: Basically, with our research partner, we were able to — even when we were doing the customer discovery interviews and those kinds of things — just really suss out what the technology could do, what it couldn't do, limitations, and areas for growth in the future that could be tested and developed as well. To me, that interaction was invaluable. I got very interested in the licensing of technology after this because I started to see what was available, but you can't get that interaction from a patent.
Say you license something, that's really cool and you've got the paper in front of you. It's nowhere comparable to actually being able to talk with the program manager, the inventor of the technology, and say, “Hey, I have this idea. What do you think of that?” I'll give you an example. For example, we thought, “Maybe this could apply to pipelines. Maybe this is something where we can prevent leaks and those kinds of accidents with pipelines.” We talked to the program manager and he said, “Then, the question that we have is pressure. Can it withstand the pressure?” This particular technology uses capillary flow to heal any areas of damage.
Ben: Maybe let's just take a second and break it down a little bit. Capillary flow, what does that mean?
Dr. Christel: It's the same concept as what happens when you have a cut on your arm, right? Unless it's a really deep cut, you don't necessarily need to go in and stitch it. You just kind of, you know, like the healing agents inside of your body will go to that area and just flow there. There's no interaction that's needed. It's just a capillary flow.
Changing the pressure, I think, would have a big effect on that. That was something that we talked about, but then we also talked about like ways that we could grow the technology as far as maintenance and those kinds of things. We could put in a pigment as an additive so that way it would be really obvious which areas had already been healed; that can help in maintenance systems, too.
Those conversations were just really, really important for us.
Ben: So, the idea could be — just to make sure I'm understanding — you have pipelines going through theoretically very remote areas of the world, right?
Dr. Christel: Yeah.
Ben: Instead of having to send a maintenance crew out to fix leaks, the material would actually heal itself?
Dr. Christel: Yes.
Dr. Christel: The concern with that application was the pressure, but — and I'm going to say it here first — in establishing this relationship, I'm going to get my little hands on self-healing metals as well. They're not as dependent on that capillary flow-type pressure. So, we may be able to address that issue anyhow.
Ben: Oh, okay. Great.
Wrapping up the transcript and will add it to the transcript draft in Wix.
However, I still don't have an edited podcast from Cole
Yeah, so cool.
Ben: Walk me through it. Again, the studio program was really my brainchild a bunch of years ago of pairing up people—
Dr. Christel: Which thank you!
Ben: Literally all the credit goes to you guys that do all the hard work, but it's been interesting to see. We've definitely expanded the amount of time that we have entrepreneurs in the program. We've expanded and created a better set of deliverables and expectations and engineering the interactions back to with the lab.
Walk us through kind of your journey. What were the hard points? We definitely ask a lot of our entrepreneurs what was difficult.
Then, when did you start to really feel excited that there was a business here?
Dr. Christel: Just getting into the program, I felt really excited, especially knowing which technology I would have access to. That was solidified when I had conversations with the program manager and, later on, the chemist that was the inventor as well. He's retired and enjoying his life, golfing, and hanging out with the grandkids. Just having those conversations really, really made me very excited about the actual business that we're building.
As far as difficulties in the journey, I would say — and I think Ish, the guy that was in charge of like our group, already would know the answer to this — I think it's difficult to form the team. We're all adults; we all have like so many different things that we're doing. For me, I was consulting in Rice's MBA program and doing this thing. I think I was also overlapping it with a fellowship in sustainability. There was a lot going on — family and everything. I think that was probably the most difficult part. I really liked that the startup studio kind of built us a team. It didn't necessarily stay that way and I think that's just part of the startup experience.
Dr. Christel: It just kind of has to be okay because there was a moment in time where it was just like me and the tech. It was hard for me to like come into the meeting and be like, “Yeah, I don't have a team anymore. What are we going to do?”
Personally, it's hard to be vulnerable. I was like, “No, this is where it needs to happen.” I was just like, “I feel kind of lonely.” This is really awesome tech and a lot needs to happen and these interviews still need to happen and we still need to do the pitches to NASA and everything. I'm like, “I can do it by myself,” but I definitely appreciate a team. I think that is the hardest part.
Ben: It's interesting. Just for everyone that's less familiar with the startup studio model, what we do is usually it's teams of three. Sometimes we'll go bigger, sometimes we'll go smaller.
We often are introducing founders for the very first time that have just never met or coming from wildly different backgrounds. It largely goes well, I would say. When it goes well, it's magical, right? We kind of change the direction of folks’ lives together.
Occasionally, it doesn't go as well. I think it sounds like that was the case here. I think there's a lot of learning that comes along with it, even when the founding situations are less productive. In this case, it sounds like you stayed with it, which is great.
What did you learn? I'm just curious if you look back on that early process of getting to work with brand new people. If you did this again, what would you bring would you bring to those interactions that you learned about going through it?
Dr. Christel: Let's see, what would I bring to that? I think that it's just a matter of priorities, right? Folks making this like their priority. That's something that you have to roll with within yourself. I think maybe I would suss that out at the beginning if I could, in a way.
At the same time, I feel like everybody felt like they were all in, but it didn't necessarily work out that way. Some of it was external things, too, like somebody's in the reserves and they get called. Well, that's real life. That's startups, too; doing a pivot as far as what you're going to focus on for Beachhead. That is part of being in startups. That is part of starting a company, because you may have one idea that you're going to start this way, but end up — like me — going into a completely different use case and that has to be okay.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I know you were successful; you negotiated a license with NASA, which is obviously the goal. Tell us about that process. What did you have to go through? People always picture that process being harder than it actually is. What was your experience?
Dr. Christel: My experience is that it was a dream; it was a dream experience. Can I say that? I would have to put parentheses around that; I didn't just wander in off of the street. I definitely had many conversations through the FedTech program, in speaking with the program manager, and then also with the tech folks as well.
The process itself — for the license — you basically fill out an application. They ask you questions about what you think you're going to go into for use cases. There are different kinds of licenses that you can get, too; we got advise on that as well. For me, it was just easy breezy; very easy to understand. I think that if we had gone for an immediate exclusive or commercial license, we would have had a very difficult time because of the expectations with that. If you think about it, if NASA has a technology and they say, “Okay, sure, you can have an exclusive license,” then you better be ready to really turn that technology out immediately and all over the world. I think that FedTech set us up really well in understanding that the expectations are different with different types of licenses and understanding if we get an R&D-type license, we have a certain amount of time to kind of experiment and look at different use cases. The bar is — I guess, in a lot of ways — much lower, as far as capital that they expect and that kind of thing. It was a really great experience.
Ben: That's great. Well, our NASA partners are wonderful. I'm sure they'll be happy to hear that that it was easy for you and that's definitely their goal
So, what now? You started a tech company; it's a wonderful part of the life's journey. What are you working on now? What are the things that are still challenging as you launch to this next stage?
Dr. Christel: Right now, we're developing our partnerships. That's kind of a really interesting process to learn as well. There was a company that was interested in us, but then — for us — it's important also to match strategy with any company that we're working with because this is a brand new and awesome technology and it can be very useful in a lot of different industries. However, it's not necessarily something that you’re going to compete on price. Obviously, there's value there in more durable equipment of any kind. If we're making a self-healing textile, are we going to try to sell it for the cheapest possible at Walmart? Probably not. Okay.
We’re making sure that we're in alignment with the companies that we're working with as far as our strategy, because that is tempting to just be like, “What’s the lowest we can go?” That's important — and especially with the economy — that's definitely something that we consider. We want this to be accessible, but at the same time, we have to think of the best use cases and the best and highest use of the tech as well.
Ben: What do you envision? You mentioned there's obviously the space use case, which is often underappreciated. Government, by nature, when they develop a technology — in this case, this self-healing material — they don't necessarily have a plan to produce it at scale. If you wanted this to show up on every NASA-funded rocket launch, NASA doesn't necessarily have the ability to do that. It's really a function of industry to produce that at scale. So pretty cool business opportunity. You can license and sell right back to the government. But
Dr. Christel: Right.
Ben: I know you're looking at that market. You're looking at oil and gas. What are some other kind of use cases that you're interested in, even if you haven't fully explored them yet?
Dr. Christel: The ones that we're probably going to go into first are more like textiles. We mentioned a company that was interested in that. In our partnerships that we're currently forming, one is an automaker. There are a few different use cases that they have for their equipment. I mean, just generally different kinds of equipment.
There are plastics makers, too, that are very interested in the technology and they get into all kinds of different industries. They're talking of wiring insulation, smart home applications, and all kinds of different applications. For us that makes a lot of sense because that's exactly how I think of this technology, too. Just think of any plastic. You would be remiss to say, “Well, okay, I've got a plastic. Let me just go ahead and make rubber ducks for the rest of my life.” There's so many different use cases. Definitely, we're in talks with companies that produce plastics and other chemicals so that we can really get this technology out there.
Ben: We've seen for materials companies, it's so important to have channel partnerships that would bring that production capacity and bring that ability to have a distribution network. That's great that you're already thinking in those terms.
Dr. Christel: What's really cool is a lot of the companies are contacting us. One did so through Capital Factory, which I'm not sure if you've heard of them, but shout out to Capital Factory. We got into their portfolio, and so we're one of their portfolio companies. That's how we got in touch with the automaker. With the chemical company, they contacted us. It's been the same with the textiles company, they contacted us. I must be doing a decent job of marketing, I think. The technology is so compelling, it's so needed, and I'm more than happy to provide that to folks.
Ben: Yeah, wonderful. That's great.