Q&A  | 

Ernest Mendoza “How scientists can become successful tech entrepreneurs”

SHARE

Ernest Mendoza is the Founder and Scientific Advisor of Astrea Materials, which develops products for industrial applications. After spending many years as a researcher in applied materials, he now focuses on commercialising his scientific findings and creating a profitable business. Ernest spoke with us about transitioning from scientist to entrepreneur, the role of tech transfer in higher education, and how nanotechnology can solve some of humankind’s greatest challenges.

You are the Founder and Scientific Advisor of Astrea Materials. Can you give us a brief overview of what Astrea Materials does? Can you describe your role and explain your day-to-day responsibilities?

Astrea Materials develops products for industrial applications. Currently, we’re the only company in the world that can remove carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and other pollutants from the air. This means that we can make purification systems smaller and lighter or even generate applications that do not exist. For example, we’ve developed the first mask that protects wildland firefighters for an entire shift. NASCAR teams use our product to protect drivers from carbon monoxide. We even have an aerospace company that produces life support systems for NASA potentially looking at our material for long-term missions. Our high-end air purification products also have applications for welding, mining and the military.

Until recently, I was doing almost everything aside from production – I was the CEO, IT manager, even the guy that hangs things in the ceiling. But after a long period of developing the product, we are now in the process of scaling and selling – making people believe in our company. We’ve now hired someone to take care of the commercial side of things so I can focus on the things that I’m more confident in. I’m in charge of the technical and scientific part, but as a board member I also take care of funding and building relationships with business partners.

You moved to the business side of research, or what you phrase as the ‘dark side’ in your LinkedIn profile. What interests you most about your field of work and why did you make the switch from your previous role as a senior lecturer and associate professor at Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya?

I’ve always known I wanted to be a researcher. I feel very lucky to have been published in various prestigious journals and publications. But at some point, applied tech research has to have more meaning; and for me, the ultimate goal is when someone pays for your work. In general, technical people don’t have the best commercial skills; they don’t sell their products. But I wanted to sell my invention rather than publish it, so that’s why I call it ‘the dark side’.

Could you talk about how a scientist becomes an entrepreneur and what kind of skills are needed to start a company?

Most people don’t know what running a company actually entails until they do it – it’s a complicated thing. If you come from the technical side, you don’t necessarily know how to manage people, how to handle accountancy or how to sell. You need to be a shark, always looking for opportunities. 

I did formal training at IESE Business School, which was really useful because it taught me how to run a business after I’d already had a little bit of experience. Experience is a big thing – it teaches you what the specific laws are and what having partners is like. Partners don’t automatically love or understand your technology; they invest in your company because they trust you and they want to make money. So you need to treat relationships with business partners very carefully.

Ultimately, companies need to sell, otherwise they fail. A huge part of success is luck – having the right product at the right time and meeting the right people. So there are some things you can’t control, but you have to do as much as possible not to fail.

Could you speak about the importance of tech transfer in higher education?

There are two types of countries: countries that buy technology and countries that produce technology. In general, rich countries – like the US and Israel – produce technology and can provide quality services to their citizens. So from a social point of view, technology transfer is a way to create wealth.

I think the only way that Spain can survive economically – and be on par with a tech powerhouse like the US – is by having tech companies. In general, I think we do very good research, but it has to be transformed into products. And this starts at the university level. 

Take MIT, for example. Tech companies that started there give back to the university; and because it has more funding, it can invest in better resources and education, which lead to more tech creations. It’s all cyclical.  The government needs to invest more in tech transfer, because it’s an extremely difficult process. Not all companies will be viable, but you have to plant those seeds. You have to support researchers and help them overcome their fear of building companies.

You’re dedicated to nanotechnology and new/frontier materials. Could you talk about this in regards to emerging and future technologies?

Discovering frontier materials has led humanity to progress throughout history – starting with stone, iron, etc. Materials and products are strictly linked; everything we use is made of materials. With high-end materials, we can solve some of our biggest problems. We can produce energy or purify water more efficiently, and develop new medicines or health sensors. 

This is the first time in history that we’ve been able to control materials at the atomic scale. This is very important because nanotechnology brings new properties that don’t exist in the macroscopic world. And now, after a lot of research, it’s important to understand how to bring all these new properties and materials to an industrial scale, so that we can produce new devices that actually make life easier in terms of water, energy, healthcare, construction, etc. – so many aspects of our lives are controlled by materials.

How did you first become interested in The Collider? Could you speak about how they help with tech transfer, and why is it important?

The Collider is an interesting initiative because it can encourage researchers to create their own companies by watching others succeed. It can also provide the necessary mentoring, which can increase the success of tech companies. Having an honest, neutral party that can impart crucial information and advice when it comes to equity, governance, etc. is very important. In this way, The Collider can help generate wealth on a national scale.