As almost any high-tech, start-up CEO will agree, having a well-designed product is only part of what it takes to succeed. Even more important is a mentor with the expertise to help entrepreneurs improve their chances when taking their products from the drawing board to market.
IEEE Member Robert Callaway is a first-rate example of a technical professional who parlayed his career ” much of it working with high-tech start-ups ” into a fulfilling second vocation as a mentor. Part of his inspiration came from his 14 years with NASA, which included serving as director of operations for the NASA/Ames Technology Commercialization Center in San Jose, Calif. Using a lab-to-market approach, the incubator helps entrepreneurs find NASA technology with commercial potential, and then provides access to experts in marketing, sales, management, and other critical aspects of developing a successful, high-tech business.
In the San Francisco office of DayOne Response, Founder and CEO Tricia
Compas-Markman reviews her company’s progress with mentor Robert Callaway.
After leaving NASA in 2005, Callaway became involved with an engineering design course at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo.
“As part of this class, it was important for students to learn not only how to design, but also, how to present their ideas effectively,” says Callaway. “To help them develop this skill, we created the “SWAT’ program ” Students with an Attitude. They were assigned the beginning of an idea, and asked to develop the concept sufficiently, so they would have enough to present a proposal.”
He says that more than half of the SWAT students were women, simply because they liked engineering, and were more interested in it than many male students. “The women did the best in the program, and it became a model for future teaching,” he notes.
Callaway also became a mentor for Cal Poly’s Innovation Quest (IQ) program, which matches innovators with mentors who coach them. In IQ, he drew on his NASA experience to advise on how high-tech start-ups can reach out effectively to federal agencies. Then, Callaway met Tricia Compas-Markman, an engineer and inventor whose product offered an innovative solution for a huge global need: providing clean drinking water after a disaster.
While a graduate student at Cal Poly, Compas-Markman developed the DayOne Waterbag, a 10-liter (2.5 gallon) personal water purification unit that is transported as a backpack. Designed with a “closed system” to prevent recontamination, it is specifically intended for emergency distribution and use. Along with a packet of purification chemicals made by Procter & Gamble, it cleans and disinfects 10 liters of water in 30 minutes. The DayOne Waterbag is reusable, so a family of four can have clean drinking water for up to two months.
“I became aware of issues affecting the disadvantaged when I was very young,” says Compas-Markman, now 32. “My father was a nuclear engineer who had two assignments in South Korea, and my family traveled with him. I saw first-hand how poverty and related issues can block access to such basic human needs as clean water and sanitation.”
At Cal Poly where she studied civil and environmental engineering, the budding engineer started a chapter of Engineers without Borders. Its partnership with a community in Thailand to provide safe drinking water sealed her commitment to helping solve the global need for safe drinking water.
“I simply fell in love with water treatment,” says Compas-Markman.
While pursuing her Master’s, Dr. Tryg Lundquist of Cal Poly suggested the concept for the DayOne Waterbag to her. He encouraged her to work on prototypes in the lab, as well as take classes in manufacturing engineering and business. But upon graduating in 2008, she felt starting a business wasn’t an option — so she moved to San Francisco to accept a job offer.
That, however, is when fate stepped in. After the employment offer was rescinded (because of economic conditions at the time), Compas-Markman decided to start her company. Thanks to a United States Navy contact, she had already been introduced to a Seattle firm that specializes in designs for outdoor needs. “Cascade Design mentored me on the design ” from prototype to limited production,” she says.
But the young CEO adds she quickly learned that design was just part of what’s needed. “Many factors affect overall success in making an impact,” she states. “These include cultural circumstances, user experience, financing, ease-of-use, distribution, supply chain, maintenance, costs, and overall business models.”
Because of his NASA experience, Callaway was able to advise her on reaching out effectively to government agencies.
Compas-Markman firmly believes that partnerships ” both within the company and outside it ” are especially vital. “Having partners who understand your vision is key,” she says. “Private and public sector partners can open doors, and they can provide resources and exposure that will help your business grow. Our partners at DayOne Response are one of the most valuable assets we have.”
A lot of what she has learned has been up close and personal. In 2011, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 160,000 people, Compas-Markman and her team traveled there with relief groups to train local communities in using the innovative waterbag. In 2015, she went to Nepal after another massive earthquake. She says that while helping at disaster sites is fulfilling, it also provides opportunities for feedback from actual users. Examples of user-inspired improvements are a newly designed filter that helps to store more water for longer periods and pictographs included with the product. They enable almost anyone to produce their own clean water without training.
Pictured left: Tricia Compas-Markman smiles for the camera with just three of the thousands of the people affected by the devastating earthquake in 2015 in Nepal. The DayOne Response team provided its water-purifying waterbags and trained communities how to use them following the disaster. Pictured right: Nepalese children watch as the DayOne Waterbag, which is hanging on the side of a truck, cleans and disinfects its contents into safe drinking water in 30 minutes.
Several major humanitarian organizations, in about 20 countries, have used the DayOne Waterbag. “In West Africa, it has provided immediate disaster relief, cholera preparedness and seasonal rain events, plus typhoon response in Southeast Asia and for health clinics helping HIV-affected individuals in Uganda,” she proudly notes. In earthquake-prone California, Robert Callaway is helping to pave the way for Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) to become aware of the waterbag; the city of San Mateo has sent about two dozen of its firefighters for training.
Despite her success, and the many awards and recognitions she’s received, Tricia Compas-Markman says that running one’s own company also means continual fundraising ” whether it’s grant money or investor money. “The key here is to maintain relationships, even if the benefit may not come for a couple of years,” she says. “It’s important to both follow up and follow through. Doing so can go a long way ” whether with fundraising, partners or customers.”
Recommendations for High-Tech Startups
By Helen Horwitz
Robert Callaway points to these four important strategies for high-tech start-up success:
Develop a revenue-generating business plan.
Too often, startups have a good idea, but they don’t know where it fits into the current market. Sometimes, the idea is either not ready for the market (for example, the technology is not ready); or it is an idea that would be perfect, if it had hit the market two years ago. A good business plan will reflect this important consideration.
Understand the meaning of cash flow.
A good way to understand cash flow is the story of two people who start a restaurant. After a few slow days, they start attracting customers. They start looking at the money in the cash register as profits, and they start spending. Then, the rent comes due; they must pay their employees; and pay their vendors, so the pantry can be replenished”¦ And then — the tax guy shows up. Most startups forget these things ” and it can put their companies in holes they cannot dig out of. It all goes back to having a good business plan.
Build an exit strategy.
All things must end, and it’s important to plan for that ending at the beginning. Is the idea more important than money? Is money more important than success? Will you turn this company into a family business, or try an IPO? Many first-time entrepreneurs don’t think about where they will be in 20-30 years. Again, this points back to the business plan.
Love your idea, but “¦
Too often, an entrepreneur’s idea becomes their child. They will not change it, sell it, or discard it. Successful entrepreneurs are very passionate about their ideas (very important), but they will also pivot on a dime, if they see that by changing their ideas, it will be profitable to them. (Note that “profitable” is not necessarily about money.)