Tell us about your scientific background.
Theanne: I am an Associate Professor of Science and Mathematics at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a Research Scientist at Columbia University in the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC). It is serendipitous to talk about barriers to entrepreneurship and women in tech, especially coming from a non-traditional science background and a culture where women were not expected to be scientists or entrepreneurs. I did an undergraduate degree in art history and American studies while working at a gallery in New York City just a few blocks away from where I am now science faculty. During an elective in undergraduate, an environmental physics professor said that there is enough energy from the sun to power the planet every single day in a given day for a year. I was like, “sign me up!” I tried to double-major in physics and art history, but I was also working a few different jobs to pay for my education. At some point, it all fell apart, and my health had suffered – I had to leave for the semester. But I told myself I would come back to physics if I felt strongly about it.
Ultimately, I knew I wanted to get a PhD in physics, because you need a PhD to make an impact in the field of renewable energy technology. So, I bartended at night and went to school during the day. I wound up doing the equivalent of a second undergraduate degree and then the master’s program in physics at the Graduate Center in NYC. I worked in a lab doing synchrotron-based investigation of materials for solar cells and fuel cells. I was working hard, and my confidence was low, but this was all I really wanted to do. After enough blood, sweat, and tears, I was accepted into a research group at Stanford University, where I investigated atomic structure-function relationships for catalysts and renewable energy technology. I was so grateful to be there, but I was largely surrounded by a culture which did not help my confidence in thinking that I could make this career switch. There was a “do you have what it takes?” attitude. It was a time when there were few women pursuing PhDs in these fields; it was male dominated. That culture always fed into that “you can’t just become a physicist” voice, but I did. I did have a wonderful research group and mentors; my advisors, Anders Nilsson and Lars Pettersson, were fantastic. I continued on to Columbia University for my post-doc where I helped developed advanced materials for next generation solar cells and post-silicon electronics. I also became a ECREEE Fellow at Columbia University through the United Nations building a sustainable energy engineering distance master’s program for the West African states and a course in the mechanical engineering department at Columbia University.
Tell us about your faculty position at FIT.
Theanne: After my post-doc, FIT had a call for chemistry/physics faculty for sustainability. It was a chance to teach students that resembled me at their age. The position offered the ability to dismantle perceived barriers between designers, artists, and scientists. Complicated global challenges for sustainable development require transdisciplinary solutions – I was really interested in expanding the dialogue for global challenges with students and colleagues from different perspectives. I was very happy to get the position at FIT.
But how do you reach non-traditional science students? I quickly realized that I had to spend the first few weeks connecting with them and breaking down anxieties about their “inability” to do science. We would do coursework, but the coursework was a conduit for building confidence. Once I figured that out, by the fourth week, they were doing great. We started building this culture of enthusiasm about science that grew with STEAM project-based learning. In terms of research, going from renewable energy systems, we started thinking about materials. FIT is a maker school – these students are fashion designers, makers, and textile developers.
Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey.
Theanne: I never thought I would be an entrepreneur. It did not seem like a natural outcome for my values and interests. Now, I understand how entrepreneurship can activate your goals and values while taking technology out of the lab where it can have real world impact. One of the pivotal moments in my entrepreneurial journey was the Biodesign Challenge. At first, I was an advisor. I advised the first company I co-founded, AlgiKnit, which was a group of knitwear students who wanted to replace the impacts of synthetic textiles with a bio-based yarn. The students won the overall award at the first International Biodesign Challenge at the MoMA in NYC. I was excited for them – I was excited that they could apply their design thinking to big systems. Other students signed up for the Biodesign Challenge, and I wound up running it for years. Entrepreneurship for me came about by wanting to dismantle barriers for young people while playing a role in solving global challenges. Entrepreneurship was not the draw, but rather helping young people become leaders in business and technology where they are traditionally underrepresented.
Entrepreneurship for me came about by wanting to dismantle barriers for young people while playing a role in solving global challenges. Entrepreneurship was not the draw, but rather helping young people become leaders in business and technology where they are traditionally underrepresented.
I really became an entrepreneur with Werewool, a company I co-founded with my former textile development and marketing students. The textile industry is one of the most environmentally destructive industries in the world. It is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, up to 35% of marine micro-plastic pollution, and 20% of global wastewater. Besides the huge manufacturing impacts, more than a truckload of textiles are sent to landfills every second where they release toxic chemicals. The textile industry, if it stays this way, is on track to be responsible for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050 – at a time when we must cut our carbon emissions in half in the next 8 years. This is why material innovation matters. I have always been inspired by how nature regenerates. Nature has an infinite potential for recycling matter and energy, so we started to map that into new materials. There is a growing demand for high performance, colorful textiles, which are currently produced at huge environmental expense. All those aesthetic and performance properties can be found in nature without the toxicity. Biodiverse organisms have evolved their DNA to code for amino acids that make proteins. Through those protein structures, you have stretch, waterproofing, vibrant color, anything you can imagine, really! Werewool uses microbes to build up materials – colored proteins, stretchy proteins – and combines them with biopolymers from industrial waste streams and turn that into vibrantly colored, performance, biodegradable textile fibers. At the end of their useful life, they can degrade into the natural soil environment and provide nutrients for healthy ecosystems. As students in 2018, my co-founders had this idea, made a lot of traction, and wanted to start a company. We wrote an Innovation Hub Seed proposal through the NSF-funded Columbia University MRSEC and received funding. Werewool has become a passion project as well as a hugely rewarding intellectual and scientific challenge. Our research program displays such respectful deference to nature’s genius and is about studying and mapping that to human design and materials. More than any other project I have done, it captures the spirit of how entrepreneurship sometimes manifests not from a drive to be an entrepreneur but from other values.
What are the biggest differences between your role in academia and your role as an entrepreneur?
Theanne: I like to communicate and share ideas. In academia, you can pretty freely do that. You publish your paper, then you can talk about it while fostering collaborations. You always need to be careful and mindful – you want to make sure that you protect your students’ work. I think the biggest difference for me as an entrepreneur is, suddenly, ideas are proprietary. With VCs, it is not as friendly of an environment. It is more obviously transactional. A challenge has been how to communicate the technology at the right level. Whether that is challenging for other women, I don’t know. I had to shift gears. I found a way to openly explain the technology but not give away the secret sauce. I think something that is very uncomfortable for some women is being elusive. You don’t want to talk around a topic; you want to engage. That honest, transparent engagement is a bit different when you are navigating the world of VCs and investors. For Werewool, so much of our technology is routed in an ethos and value system; we will not compromise on our green chemistry framework. We are, of course, open to input, but it can be challenging to find an investor that is aligned with your ethos. We have had good luck, but I have found that challenging.
How did you find those investors?
Theanne: We have been incredibly fortunate. We have worked with two specific organizations which we found through applying for grants and non-dilutive funding: The Biomimicry Institute and H&M Foundation. We were finalists for the Biomimicry Global Design Award and the Ray of Hope Prize for radical climate solutions that are inspired by nature. We are also honored to be winners of the 2022 Conservation X Labs Microfiber Innovation Challenge and the H&M Foundation 2020 Global Change Award. Through the Biomimicry Institute, we meet one of our business development advisors, Jacques Chirazi. He has helped us navigate the challenges of fundraising and strategic growth. As winners of the 2020 Global Change Award, the H&M Foundation provided us a large grant that allowed us to take our R&D to the next level. The H&M Foundation also provided us with a year-long accelerator alongside KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and Accenture. They have connected us with stakeholders across the fashion industry and helped us make wonderful connections throughout the value chain for partnerships. They opened up a network that is rooted in environmental sustainability and justice. The H&M Foundation has created a wonderful family. Now, we are a part of that family, and we mentor new prize winners. We have built a community through these spaces and look forward to continuing to do so.
What differences have you noticed in your experience as an entrepreneur versus those of your male colleagues?
Theanne: I think the biggest difference is the culture of “selling” your idea. My co-founders are women. None of us are comfortable with overpromising or hyperboles. Also, that is not very scientific. We are mapping DNA programmed properties into a biodegradable performance fiber – it would be embarrassing to pretend that is easy. Somehow that can be perceived to some as a lack of confidence, but it is just explaining where the technology stands. I do not want to take $3M dollars from you if you do not understand what you are investing in. We have been fortunate to find a community that is like-minded, where that kind of transparency is not seen as a weakness.
Asking for advice is another interesting area where I, in general, see different approaches between males and females. If my co-founders or I do not understand something, we will just ask. Even when we talk with VCs, we will be very transparent. We have great colleagues at Columbia – there is a huge culture of entrepreneurship amongst the faculty. Even Columbia Technology Ventures – the tech transfer office – is a safe place where you can learn to be an entrepreneur. I guess there is a willingness to feel stupid; maybe that is from my past. You become undeterred by your ignorance!
What life hacks had you put into place pre-COVID to allow you to pursue entrepreneurship? Have these continued to work during the pandemic?
Theanne: The biggest life hack, to be honest, is changing your perspective. You cannot do everything at once. Even before COVID, there was always more work to do. You are always working but not efficiently. You are with your kids a lot, but you are not “with” them. Some of it, for me, has been being mindful about being present. I have always been someone who wakes up in the middle of the night to add things to my to-do list; I am someone who can never stop working. It has been a big thing for me to find balance. Science is very analytical, and you follow a process. There is no process when you go to the life side with your family. I learned to listen and pivot. Having that training was helpful in the pandemic. We could not go into the lab as often, because you could have just a few people at a time in the lab, so we rearranged the schedule. On Sundays, I would go in for 4-5 hours and be really, really focused. I would set my older son up with some friends for that time, and then come back and be present. For me, it is being mindful that you can’t do everything at once, it does not work.
What was the best advice that you received? On the flip side, did you receive any advice that you would not pass along to another aspiring female academic entrepreneur?
Theanne: If I dare give advice, you must be you. I don’t know how it would wear on someone else’s spirit, but if I had to have a different personality every time I pitched, that would wear on mine. Pitching was really hard. You are supposed to be some jazzy pitcher, and that does not come naturally to me. I haven’t really gotten any terrible advice, although I have experienced terrible pressure. One thing that Werewool has done well as a team is we will regroup after a pitch. Sometimes, it just does not feel right. I know we need to raise money and get to the next milestone, but what are we trading for it? We have a good team dynamic where we can pause. When we have gotten in trouble, it was when we don’t pause and tap the brakes. When we have tapped the brakes, we have dodged a couple of bullets that would have been tough on the team and not great for our technology and goals.
What do you think deters women from pursuing entrepreneurship?
Theanne: I think a lot of women are interested in entrepreneurship. The obstacle is navigating that potentially unfriendly world and staying in it. Especially in academia, women are already breaking down barriers and stereotypes, crashing glass ceilings, and encouraging other traditionally marginalized and underrepresented communities to do the same. Sometimes as an academic co-founder, you are not sure how much energy you have to fight the system all the time. After achieving a level of respect in your field, do you want to fight this hard to be heard? I think that your skin needs to be a little bit thick, because sometimes pursuing entrepreneurship feels like you are going a little bit backwards, in a sense. You may find yourself battling those feelings and culture that you battled as a post-doc all over again. I think sometimes further in your career when you start a company, you will find yourself back in that place again, but with new perspective.
I also asked my two co-founders the same question, and one of them said that confidence is something that she struggles with every day – some women may have a little less bravado and are a little more cautious. It is not a fault; it can be a strength. You can clearly communicate your goals, vision, and plans – but how much room is there for that perspective, especially in a place where the fastest and loudest wins? I think creating a space for diverse perspectives and groups will bring more underrepresented communities to entrepreneurship. We have been really lucky; I think there is a growing community with the awareness that you cannot separate social and environmental justice. You can’t have those old Succession or Mad Men values – they don’t work anymore, because they are perpetuating systemic injustices at the expense of the environment.
Is there anything that we did not discuss today that you think is important for women academics to know before they get involved in a startup?
Theanne: If you feel strongly about your idea and believe in yourself, just do it. You have to let some of the noise be noise. You must find good mentors and partners while staying true to who you are. It will work. And if at the end of the day, it did not work, you know you did your best. It is not necessarily what you are doing; it is how you are doing it. In the end, we don’t need more products; we do not need more of anything. As an example, we are making biodegradable performance textiles; there are enough textiles in the world, so to have value, our product needs to displace something harmful, like polyester. I think you want to be clear about what you want to achieve. I am not saying to be an entrepreneur, you need to be a crusader for all the injustices of the world. It is enough to say I have something interesting, and I think it will be really successful – I want to see that through. I think honing your goals and staying true to them is probably the best advice.