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The co-founder of spotLESS Materials shares valuable insights on bringing an idea from the lab bench to real life use cases. Read the interview below.

About Dr. Birgitt Boschitsch

Dr. Birgitt Boschitsch is an academic researcher turned commercial superstar.

She’s the co-founder and CEO of spotLESS Materials, an advanced materials company specialized in solving “sticky problems”, with an anti-fouling coating that keeps surfaces clean.

It all began as a quest to solve human waste residue in low-water toilet systems, inspired by the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.

Along with her co-founder, Dr. Tak-Sing Wong, they’ve developed and commercialized a solution that repels liquids and sludge. They then expand its usage to industries beyond sanitation like automotive application, medical, and more to come.

Birgitt and her co-founder, Tak-Sing, on Y-Combinator’s Demo Day, Summer 2019 Batch

Unlike many entrepreneurs who knew entrepreneurship was for them from the start, this Princeton and Penn State grad has only had a simple yet big goal: To help people.

Birgitt doesn’t just dream of it. She invents it.

She’s published in top journals and book chapter, holding 26 issued and pending patents US and international patents.

Also recognised as a NSF graduate fellow, Forbes 30 Under 30 in Science, Y Combinator alumna,

This superstar recently crowns a new title: A mother.

We had a chat with Birgitt about her journey from academia to startup CEO, and how spotLESS Materials is making a splash (without the mess).

We’ve seen how Birgitt grows the company and inspires us at Kaya.

With this interview, we hope you’ll experience the same.

From Grad School to Entrepreneurship

1. Growing the seed

When most people are contemplating their next move after undergrad, Birgitt had her sights set on graduate school.

Her motivation?

To deepen her technical expertise and create technologies that would benefit society.

In the early days, I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur before.

Entrepreneurs? I thought they're all like business people with MBAs.

How wrong I was!

I just want to solve a problem to help people and the environment.

During her grad school, Birgitt’s academic advisor, Dr. Tak-Sing Wong, also her co-founder, provided her with invaluable exposure to various aspects of academia and technology innovation.

This included insights into the publication and patenting processes, as well as funding acquisition from both grants and industrial partners.

Little did she know that these sparked Sarah's interest in the commercialization of technology and planted the seed for her entrepreneurial journey.

We know our technology best. So how do we get it to the market?

It all stemmed from the question “How do we get it to the market?”; Birgitt and Tak-Sing

2. Breaking through the soil

In 2017, breakthroughs came along.

A technology she was deeply familiar with and had been working on in an academic setting showed promise for commercialization.

Her advisor connected her to the U.S. National Science Foundation's Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, which exposed academics like her to the challenges and rewards of customer discovery and market viability assessments.

This is hard, but I really want to do this.

This is what you have to do to get things done.

Also during the period, Birgitt saw her husband, a mathematician starting his own company.

She was deeply inspired that entrepreneurship was within her reach.

3. Flourishing from one opportunity to another

They started doing a few small pitches, and saw initial successes.

This was then followed by the one at Carnegie Mellon, focusing on sustainability and university startups.

My core team was there, I did the pitch, and we won!

That came with a $50k prize but it could only go to a company.

I guess we're starting a company now!

This funding was the catalyst that started the company because it demonstrated experienced individuals believed in our work enough to fund it — that was exciting.

spotLESS Materials’ first big check!

From that moment on, Birgitt’s entrepreneurial journey gained momentum: Grants, contracts, and even earned a spot in the prestigious Y Combinator program.

What started as a desire to deepen her technical expertise has transformed into a mission to bring impactful technologies to market and make a difference in the world.

Getting into Y-Combinator with Tak-Sing, Summer 2019 Batch

Lessons learnt from spotLESS Materials

spotLESS Materials, which beats industry standards at repelling liquid, sludge and ice; while being super durable and allows fast application - has seen sizable market interest.

With that, comes different challenges for Birgitt and spotLESS Materials.

1. Running a business is a marathon. When challenges come, just clean it up.

Each day can be an emotional roller coaster.

It's a marathon, not a sprint

— I think of these words from my co-founder often.

Even though some things are absolutely sprints in like the startup world, the biggest challenges are the ones that seem persistent.

You’ll get used to a problem. Let's deal with it.

Then there's another problem. Let's clean this up.

spotLESS Materials’ business model involves partnering with major industrial partners.

Each deal has the opportunity to be huge.

The challenge is those sales cycles can be long, involving proof-of-concept evaluations, regulatory hurdles, and beyond.

We keep our eyes on the goal: getting to the deal!

Because getting that deal means we’re helping people and securing revenue to do even more.

Excited for Product Launch on Nov 2019; with Nan Sun and Birgitt.

Nan is Birgitt’s lab mate in grad school, first spotLESS employee, and Senior Research Scientist at spotLESS, who has been there from the early days for many of spotLESS’ earliest successes.

2. Focus on your impact and your team

Despite the stress from wearing different thinking hats in business, Birgitt maintains her positivity by focusing on the impact their work has and leading her team.

I'm proud of our team. It's a great group.

I recognize there's always more to learn and ways to grow as a leader and a manager,

but I hope I'm an understanding one who genuinely appreciates my employees.

In all of that, Birgitt believes that if spotLESS Materials helps people, then that makes everything worth it.

Keep yourself going.

Y-Combinator Demo Day with Tak-Sing, Birgitt, and Nan Sun

How Birgitt navigates Motherhood and Entrepreneurship

Birgitt’s journey as a new mom and CEO is nothing short of a whirlwind.

1. Keep going

I had to start fundraising in my third trimester.

I didn't tell anyone I was pregnant.
Kicking off fundraising 2023: Birgitt took this photo after their first pitch. All pitches were virtual, and she was hiding her pregnancy. Amazing team: Sara Korsunsky, Frank Constantine, Tak-Sing, Birgitt

No one outside my family and my team knew until I had to postpone a pitch because baby came 3 weeks early.
My goal was for investors to only notice our successes without seeing anything through a lens of "that founder is going to have a baby”.

After labor, all she took was three weeks of maternity leave because she had to keep fundraising.

I signed my first SAFE five days after my son was born.

2. Get support

Her supportive husband and intentional move closer to family provided invaluable assistance in balancing responsibilities.

The biggest, biggest thing for me, is having a supportive husband.

He's also running his own thing now.

And so we're both home, we share the load, we help each other out.

Juggling multiple roles, Birgitt finds excitement in understanding every aspect of her company, from technical intricacies to legal matters.

I like some things more than others.

Getting a support network and having people, where I can ask questions is huge - That takes the stress off of me.

Being able to ask the big questions and the small questions too is so important.

I can learn from experts when I'm doing some of those things.

Birgitt receiving the Early Career Award from the Penn State College of Engineering; very thankful for the support and encouragement she’s gotten along the way

3. Scale yourself

To scale the company, I have to scale myself.

To Birgitt, that means learning how to manage a lot of stress, getting support and training and like stress management.

With her newborn, she loves that she can be there for him with more flexibility as an entrepreneur.

It is a great privilege to be able to have all these responsibilities.

Sometimes those responsibilities are really stressful, but I’d take that them on any day, given how rewarding it is.
This was the day after spotLESS closed their first check! Having a catch-up call with her co-founder about a pending deal that day.

Challenging the entrepreneur stereotypes

Birgitt challenges the stereotype of what an entrepreneur should be, emphasizing that anyone can start something if they have the passion and drive.

Some people, including myself, have had an image in mind of what an entrepreneur looks like.

Some say you need to be a “risk taker” or have a certain degree or personality type.

The reality is all you need is a problem you care about, some skills to get it started, and the drive and grit to keep at it.

A scientist. A woman. A mom.

A label that I’d like to break personally, was this during fundraising -

I was worried that investors would being concerned about investing in a company with a soon-to-be mother at the helm.

The thing is, I know I’m driven by a few things:

  1. to be a good steward of the skills and opportunities I have, which includes my postion at the company
  2. having a child gave me even more drive to succeed: company success means personal flourishing which benefits my child too

Many investors actually ended up being amazingly supportive, and many eased my worries.

I’m so grateful for this.

More drive to succeed at work and at home.

There will be expectations people have, don't listen to those.

Don't let someone’s expectations stop you from building something. Just do it.

For Birgitt, the key to entrepreneurship lies in caring deeply about the idea and having the conviction to see it through.

A note to her younger self

Looking back on her journey, Birgitt reflects what she’d share with her younger self.

Don't hold yourself back.

Starting a project or effort, a mission you’re going on. It's not something for other people.

And it needs to be beyond making money because you're not gonna make money for a while.

While skills are important, Birgitt believes that we can bring in skills to make it happen.

"Don't be intimidated," she concludes. Birgitt’s advice to her younger self serves as a reminder that with passion and determination, any challenge can be overcome.

If you have that passion, then you're the one to solve it.

You don't need to wait for someone else to solve it.

Your turn: Ask Birgitt / spotLESS Materials

Fascinated by Birgitt's transition from academia to CEO and would love to learn more?

Need a solution to repel liquids and sludge fast and simple?

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