Startups in materials science: interview with Ben Wang

by | May 27, 2013

For our series on materials scientists turned entrepreneurs and startup founders, we are talking today with Ben Wang, founder and president of Svaya Nanotechnologies based in sunny California’s Silicon Valley.  One of his many activities is nurturing young companies. We are talking about how to create start-ups based on materials science research, as well as how to systematically discover and fund new ideas and turn them into companies.

Hi, Ben.

Hi, everybody. Thank you for having me on.

Sure.  Can you give me a brief pitch about what the name product of your current company Svaya is, and what is its purpose?

Yeah, it’s a long answer, but let me see if I can give it a shot. So, Svaya is commercializing enabling technology for the industrial scale production of layer-by-layer self-assembled thin films. Layer by layer thin films we refer to as LBL, so you’ll hear me refer to it as such throughout our discussion. What we ultimately produce, though, are printers and the ink that feeds those printers that allows us to create those LBL films on a massive scale. Basically, we provide these to our manufacturing customers so they can use this technology to create revolutionary new products. And, because LBL has been around in the last – for those of you guys who aren’t familiar with it – it’s been in the labs for about 20 to 50 years, depending on who you ask. There are literally thousands of papers that have been published on it.  And, ultimately, we’re providing the avenue for commercial production of all these different innovations that have been developed. LBL basically enables the production of multi-layer, multi-function coatings to any surface through a self-assembly process that operates at room temperature and ambient pressure. And, the result is that you get very uniform thin films with precision on the nanometer scale. So, you can think of it as getting functional films through vacuum processes, like sputtering or chemical vapor deposition, but you can literally get started in this research if you have three beakers containing water based solutions, and let’s say a grad student with a steady hand. You could start assembling your thin films.  And, over the course of its history, people have come up with interesting, powerful, and literally hundreds of these types of applications that include, for example, carbon nanotube electrodes for advanced energy storage, drug delivering transdermal patches, switchable nanofiltration systems, highly selective band pass filters for manipulating light and creating anti-reflection films. And, also, thin filmed gas barriers for organic electronics. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the commercially viable products that you can create with this technology. So, I think people have seen that to be pretty powerful. And, we’re hoping to provide technology that allows all of these to get out of the lab and into the marketplace, and into our world.

So, it’s a great technology that is very versatile.  And, what is your role in the company, and how much are you involved now with the business side of the company?

That’s a good question.  So, when we got started, I was solely working on technology.  I would do some work on the business side. Well, my role today is essentially strategic. It’s also product focused and communication oriented. What that really means is I help determine the strategic direction in terms of how we push our products forward à la business model. I’m responsible for determining which products we invest development dollars in, so what to make as opposed to how to make it.  And, reaching out to our different stakeholders, communicating with our research partners, our end customers, and other people who have a foothold in the layer by layer community. Kevin Krogman is my cofounder, my good buddy, and Svaya’s CTO.  He’s essentially responsible for all the technology development that’s going on in our company. But, early on in our history, everybody was focused on the technology, and we were all nose deep in it. And, overtime as we’ve added new expertise to the team, and as our company has matured, we’ve all kind of taken different roles.

Yup.  And, typically, your customers are at this stage other start-ups, small companies, large companies, or a mix of the three?

Well, so a lot of people reach out to us, and there’s a great mix of them. And, one of the challenges, with a technology as broad and as flexible as ours, is figuring out what to actually focus on. There’s a saying here in the Valley that one startup has enough risk. And, if you have a startup servicing another start up, the risks are squared. And, because of what we’re trying to accomplish with the LBL technology, which is to brand to industrial scale, which to us means millions of square meter per year of some particular functionality. There aren’t that many people who can ramp up to that. So, the folks who have existing cap ex (note: capital expenditure) that enables that type of production tend to be much larger, Fortune 500 type companies. But, that being said, there are tons of small start-ups that are interested in the technology.  Figuring out the right way to work with them is the key.

So, what was the start of the story? When did you figure out that there was a good opportunity for commercial exploitation of this discovery?

Yeah, so I think when I was back in graduate school, I’d heard about this technology working in the lab of Bob Cohen (note: at MIT), who has done extensive research in the layer-by-layer field. And, pretty much everybody in his group thought, “Wow, this is a really powerful technology. There’s so many things.” I’ve spent some time working in MBE – MBE stands for Molecular Beam Epitaxy high vacuum systems. It’s a real pain in the butt.  And, people also refer to LBL as MBE, but they call it Molecular Beaker Epistaxis. And, it’s so much easier. So, you can imagine the cap ex is low, as well, too.  So, we thought that was a powerful technology, but there were fundamentally some limitations to bring this technology to market. And, some of them were technically oriented, and some of them were more market oriented. So, let me give you an example of each. From a technical perspective, even though you have this great flexible process that operated at room temperature and ambient environment, the process was actually pretty slow, as it was demonstrated in the literature and in the lab.  Which fundamentally would prevent it from being scaled to very large areas at sufficiently manufacturable throughput rates.  So, that was one avenue that needed to be solved in terms of trying to bring this to market.  The other aspect was – well, if you weren’t hampered by that, or if you were looking at market segments that didn’t care about massive speed or a large area – for example, eye wear.  Putting anti reflection onto ophthalmic lenses. Well, then you potentially could scale. But, then there were some market challenges. For example, one of the leading producers of ophthalmic lenses already had an installed a base of high capacity CVD systems that produced very wonderful anti reflection films for lenses. They could charge an arm and a leg for them. We all know how much we pay for those. And, so breaking into that market would have been really a huge challenge. So, as with any new technologies that are challenging both on the technical side, as well as the existing market environment. So, that really prevented things from proliferating across multiple markets. It really wasn’t until my cofounder, Kevin Krogman, as part of his research while he was doing his PhD thesis, came up with a way to greatly accelerate the deposition rates and still obtain the same quality of films that were observed in the dip process. And, once he was able to reduce that to practice and filed for IP through the Technology Licensing Office at MIT, all of a sudden we though, “Well, maybe this technology has a shot.”  The speeds were fast enough so that you could at least imagine that it could be manufactured on a reasonable scale.

So, the process from idea to creation of the company was how long?

Yup.  It’s pretty long.  So, when I finished my PhD, which was back in 2007, I was hell bent – I was completely intent on doing a startup around this field. And, that’s when we kicked around some of the ideas for AR for eye wear, and learned that that potentially would not be particularly feasible. So, Kevin started really reducing – getting his technology – what was eventually our technology to realization probably in 2008.  And, that’s when we started the company. So, about a year later from when we first started thinking about doing a company, all the way up to 2009 when we actually got funding to do this. So, all told from initial inception, not even of the technology, but of the idea of doing a company based on this, at least two years. So, a considerable amount of time.

Did you guys move directly to Silicon Valley? Or, that was a later decision?

So, I had relocated back to California, knowing that there’s just a lot of technology out here. And, as we envisioned that scaling this technology up would have taken a lot of other expertise along the process side, equipment side, chemistry side. And, California is just loaded with that type of talent.  So, I moved back here, but we set up a small off site facility outside of Boston.  A little 381 square foot laboratory where we began the initial scale up work for the technology. So, we’re kind of bi-coastal.

It’s like a New York apartment – that kind of size. 

Absolutely.  Absolutely.

What kind of – I presume at that point you were still doing the work of a researcher going out for conferences and things like that.


What kind of restrictions did the IP protection process place on what you could and could not talk with colleagues, and at conferences, and as well on some publications?

Yeah, so IP is definitely very critical.  I think we were a little fortunate in that MIT had filed a lot of the IP in a manner that was compelling. So, what I mean by compelling is that they had the right invention disclosures, they had the right filing dates, the provisional applications were filed, and the utility filings were all done according to standard procedure.  You know, it’s pretty easy to find lapses in especially academic IP.  But, when we took a look at the IP around the core technology, we felt like it was pretty solid.  So, we felt pretty free to discuss what we were doing. Now, we weren’t’ necessarily gonna tell people how we were doing this beyond what was publicly disclosed. But, we could have some pretty open conversations, especially with potential end users of the technology.

And, at that point, did you participate in finding round ups?  Or, did you participate later?  Or, you just went and did the pitches to investors?

Yeah, so I think by funding round ups you mean just are we pitching all the time?


I can pretty much say that we never didn’t pitch. I think that from initial pitch or from initial executive summary sent out to an investor to the time we actually closed our series A financing, we must have talked to at least 80 or 100 different investors. So, a lot of conversations. That was a particularly interesting time in 2009 where the U.S. was hit with the global recession. So, it was hit with the big recession, but you learn a lot by asking people to hear your pitch. You learn things, you modify the way you tell your story. You even modify what your approach is. And, maybe talking a little bit about what it’s like to run a startup is that you just have to be very flexible. You don’t always know what the right thing to do is. So, you get feedback from the market, and you learn a little bit about what to do each time you talk to someone.

A learning curve.  Before you started this company – this venture – did you want to become an entrepreneur?  Was that ever in the cards for you?

I did, definitely.  Definitely. I think I really admired the genesis of enterprises, even at a young age. And, a personal story – my mom, who even though she is a chemist by training, did a lot of different entrepreneurial endeavors. So, I always tagged along, even though they were consumer oriented. So, I think I got my interest at a very young age.  For me, personally, I really knew startups were for me when I worked at a lab in microchip startup between undergrad and grad school. I loved the energy, the team, and it had all the great attributes that I mentioned previously. And, I figured that the best way to have the startup experience all over again is to do it yourself. So, I also went to school at Stanford, so living in the Bay area, especially around the time of the dotcom boom, you saw a lot of positive change that occurred through these enterprises. I mean, some aspects of the heated entrepreneurial environment weren’t necessarily great, but overall, I think what entrepreneurship delivers is a net positive to society. So, I did a couple things in graduate school that could be loosely called entrepreneurial, including building a proprietary baseball game prediction tool that we were able to commercialize. And, yeah.  So, I love entrepreneurship. I always wanted to be involved and do companies. And, this will probably not be the last one.

That’s nice. And, obviously the environment that you were in, as you said, I mean was quite influential, at Stanford as well as MIT later, I’m assuming?

Definitely.  Especially from the technology perspective. I mean, there are few better places than MIT in terms of setting up collaborations, working together. I did my research at a place called The Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, which is an interdisciplinary research center that brought together material scientists, chemical engineers, physicists, chemist, biologists. Collaboration was essential, as it is in entrepreneurship. And, both in terms of personal interactions and professional collaborations. So, at the ISN specifically, what I really liked was that there was shared equipment, so you always bumped into people as you were doing your thermo mechanical analysis, or doing x-ray scattering.  And, the open layout of the ISN was conducive towards working together with all sorts of people. What was also particularly nice about working at MIT within the context of the ISN was that the military tends to have really challenging problems. And, in contrast to academic research where you’re just trying to understand a phenomenon a lot of the times, you really gotta solve the problems that people are facing in a company. And, so there are some tough problems that the army faces today.

What’s the main change in mindset that you got by starting your own company?

Well, I think that the most important thing, I guess, to me is not really a change in the mindset, but a bit of a reinforcement and a better appreciation of how important people are to any entrepreneurial venture. And, the same could be said for any organization.  But, just as important is how important that the direction that you as a founder helped to set is, and ultimately, that should be the embodiment of a shared passion.  So, and some people refer to this as seeding the culture, making sure the values you establish or that the team establishes becomes the moral compass for the company.  So, early on, learning from experience and perhaps a couple mistakes along the way, of course, I think that this needs to be determined fairly immediately at the start of a company. It needs to be agreed upon, communicated, and be willing to be enforced by everyone who participates in the company. And, if you do that, you get open communication, you get open collaboration, and as a result, that should drive success towards a company, and should be a number one priority.

So, that would be basically the main advice that you would give to someone with a good idea who wants to commercialize it, shall we say?

Absolutely. Obviously, I’m a technophile. I love technology. I really believe in the power of technology.  But, at the end of the day, it’s about people, and it’s about teams, it’s about being flexible.  If I were to speak to somebody who had a really good idea and was thinking about commercializing it, I think my advice would be a couple things. Hopefully I won’t drone on too long, but it really is to go for it. Don’t do it as a side thing, but try to embrace it fully. If you don’t believe in it, nobody else will no matter how cool the technology sounds. So, I maybe just have a quick story about this. A friend of mine out of Stanford started a company – a biotech company, actually – and got it off the ground for about $30,000 and some initial seed funding. He lived and breathed it.  Nobody starts biotech companies for $30,000.  Most of them raise $20 million to really get going. Usually it’s an offshoot from a laboratory. He had no money, no personal money, lived on food stamps, lived in a friend’s basement, and traveled on the cheap to see customers. But, he was able to parlay that small little capital into some really promising results.  Those promising results lead to multimillion dollar financing round, built a team out, and could really establish his dream. So, really just go for it. And, if you do take that pathway, make sure that the people who are very important to you in your life understand and are supportive, too. It’s tough enough to do this. You want to make sure that you have a good support network in place. The other thing I would say is try to be flexible. If you have a great problem and you’re solving that, fantastic. If not, test out to see if truly what you have is a great problem. If you have the technology to solve that, great. And, one way that you can test the market pretty efficiently is today there’s all sorts of interesting crowd sourcing platforms. I’ve personally been involved with a company called Marblar where a website that crowd sources applications for a core technology that is presented in the context of a competition. And, there is some really interesting end applications and end product concepts that people have generated on that website. And, it’s a quick, low cost way of testing whether or not there are some really great ideas for you technology.

How do you feel that this venture or being an entrepreneur has changed your interaction with other scientists?

Yeah. So, I guess by nature I’m fairly collaborative. Personally, I haven’t worked on anything as ground breaking that would ever get published in Nature or Science, or whatever.  So, I never feel like I was really competing against other researchers. Sure, there’s a little bit of try to get there first, but more of my work has actually been enabled by collaboration. So, I’ve always felt like communicating openly has been a good path forward for me. So, here at Svaya, we want growth of the LBL technology, all told, and we know that we cannot do it all.  So, what we do is we provide actual deposition equipment and tools to academic researchers. So, hopefully they can improve the throughput through which they’re getting results. And, if we do that and we enable all the stakeholders who are interested in the LBL technology, we think that we can all participate in the upside. So, raised the entire playing field for everybody.

Do you feel that it’s important for scientists of a startup company to publish in the open scientific literature?

Yeah, I think it depends. Right? I just mentioned all this open discussion and communication, and that’s true. I really do believe that. I think most enterprises do believe that there are a few things that you will need to protect, though.  And, but I think publishing can really help with awareness. And, because you’re a company, you’re solving specific problems that relate to commercialization, which may not have to do with the fundamentals of the technology. I think if you get a different spin on it, people will want to read that. They will want to know the big challenges and technical challenges that you have to overcome in order to bring something to market.  And, so in some sense, I think publication is a really good avenue to getting information about your company out. It’s a great buzz, and it’s a good way to stay in touch with the fundamental research community.

And, as I mentioned before, you have as a side activity, you mentor other younger start-ups.  What kind of technologies do you focus on? How do you go about sourcing them?

So, again, I’m a technophile. I love technologies. So, the stuff that I kind of reach out to and look for tend to fall into the spaces of nanotechnology, micro fabrication and energy, as well. I’ve developed more recent interest in 3D printing. I think that’s kind of all the rage these days.  But, it’s a great polymer problem, right?  And, also software, especially in how software can be used to make companies like ours, more physically oriented companies, be more efficient.  So, we know that early stage businesses are all about the team, so hopefully in addition to adding some technical advice, I guess, really helping them understand what it is to – what some of the important ingredients to starting a company, and growing a company, and making sure that the company continues to run smoothly. I think that’s what I look for. So, in terms of where you get about knowing about these different things, or how you get connected with some of these younger start-ups, it comes from networking. And, I wouldn’t say networking in the classic sense of networking, but really the concept is if you contribute to the community, i.e. you make introductions that you think would be value adds for people, you just help out in some way, lend an ear, pass along a reference to an investor or potential investor – all the startup community has a way of helping each other and paying it forward, so to speak.

So, by now you have done this process – you’ve gone through the process a few times – just different degrees.  And, you’ve done it with other external, shall we say, start-ups.  What’s the key ingredient you find yourself adding to new companies time and time again, aside from money, obviously.

You know, quite honestly, I don’t think I have that much value add. I think there are people who are just really tremendous value adds. And, actually, I think that that’s what I try to bring is if you’re familiar, everybody out there, with Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point – there’s several people.  I think that I play the role of a connector fairly well. So, even though I don’t have any particular expertise, I come across different people, and wherever I think that someone might be of use to somebody else, I just try to make a connection.  And, I think that that’s useful.  I also try to help people stay balanced, personally, in terms of their lives as they engage in this process.  There’s no real right way to do a company, and personally, I’ve made tons of mistakes and will continue to do so. That’s a guarantee. So, I just try to encourage, listen to the stories, and try to adapt those into how it has impacted me, and hopefully pass that on to other companies.

What do you feel is the main difference between academia and the Silicon Valley environment? And, what do you think academia should learn from start-ups?

Yeah, so I think there are two main points in terms of differences between academia and Silicon Valley.  In academia, I think that the making sure that you have fundamental understanding on your technology is really important. And, that’s how you push the field going forward.  In Silicon Valley, you can only do as much as the resources that are allotted to you. So, if it means that you have to skip over some understandings to get to the next step, to the next milestone, you gotta do it.  And, sometimes that’s quite unfulfilling, especially to people who are trained in the academic mold going through PhDs, et cetera. But, that’s just something that you have to do.  In terms of perhaps how Silicon Valley and academia could learn from one another, I really like the way that start-ups have learned to really move quickly, and found that the optimal way to engage is to be more open. And, I think that classically in academia, people tend to hold off and make sure that your results are sound before you publish them.  I think that there’s something to be learned about creating a more open collaborative environment in academia. And, in some sense you actually see that. You hear of companies like Science Exchange that allow people to have access to more capabilities. And, people pursue their scientific interests and then publish them fairly openly, and put it out there for the community to actually debate and investigate.  So, I think that academia could benefit from a little bit more openness.

With this, we are done with our questions.  Thank you, Ben. And, thanks to our viewers, and see you at the next installment of interviews about scientist entrepreneurs in material science.

Thank you very much. And… all of you with aspirations to be entrepreneurs, thumbs up!

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