I became entrepreneur by accident. I started my career as a researcher, and still, my primary drive to do almost anything is curiosity. However, after having tried academic research and industrial research in a large company, I ended up starting a company in 2010.
The reason for that was simple. At university I accidentally invented a very interesting polymer technology. The potential of the technology was pretty clear to us, even before doing any market research. This is why we decided to patent the technology, allowing for future commercialization. Unfortunately, at university I did not have the means nor the training to pursue such commercialization. I therefore took a job at a large company in its research department. Here I tried introducing my technology again. This proved impossible, blocked by legal issues and by the way research is driven in large corporations. Not wanting to let go of the technology, I therefore took the first opportunity to leave them. At the start of the financial crisis they organized a 'cost reduction' lay-off for which I happily volunteered. I now had a technology and some means to pursue its development.
Since this day I have been happily working on bringing my polymer technology to the market. This involves all the usual steps of industrializing a technology: finding the niche markets on which it can be sold, transforming a research product into a commercial product and building the company able to execute. And with building the company I mean in particular building the team of capable and motivated people that can make things happen.
Obstacles encountered on the way include finding investors to finance the venture, negotiating a license on the technology with the university, but also many mundane things such as finding and furnishing lab-space, getting the telephones to work, choosing a coffee machine... Taken all together at the same time you will be overwhelmed, but one-by-one step-by-step all these problems break down into manageable tasks. And in a way this is what much of the entrepreneurship is about. You choose the general direction that you want to go into, and then you get down and do all the small steps, glamorous or not, that take you there.
For me one of the key issues in building a company is the team. It is important to find people that are available and that believe in the venture the way that you believe in it. It is important to find people with the right skill-sets to complement you and do things that you cannot do on your own. It is also important to make sure people do what they do best and enjoy their work. This is not always easy and takes time and energy.
For the entrepreneur it is also very important to have the company take the right amount of space in your life. At some points the right amount will be rather a lot, and you should be prepared to make sacrifices for this. However you must not loose the bigger picture, because what is the point of a successful venture if you loose the people you love on the way? Although you think about your venture almost every waking hour, life is about so much more than work and money.
Today Magpie is at a very important point of its development. We passed the stage of laboratory project, we managed to fund the technical and commercial development and we have an excellent team able to produce and sell the technology. Now the company needs to grow. This means finding more and different customers and producing repeat sales, a sign of happy customers. If we manage to get through this stage, the road to a sustainable company opens up. In producing high-value added chemical products, Magpie generates real value for its customers. Processes to recover and recycle precious metals become more efficient, less polluting and less expensive through the use of Magpie. That is quite something, considering it all started with a 'Friday afternoon experiment' nine years ago.
Steven van Zutphen is the CEO of Magpie Polymers, a start-up company producing metal capturing polymers capable of selectively removing heavy metals such as lead, uranium or gold from (waste)water.