Grants, hard work put polymer company on the international map
On one hand, Dr. Sumedh Surwade has worked long, lonely hours trying to prove that his environmentally friendly, anti-corrosive coating technology is both effective and marketable. But on the other hand, Surwade is quick to use the phrase “we” to describe the help he’s gotten to reach a point where he just won a prestigious competition in the Netherlands that has put his SAS Nanotechnologies company on the international map.
“During my Ph.D. research, I worked on a polymer that I believed could have various applications including corrosion inhibition and could pave way for a self-healing, heavy metal- free anticorrosive coatings,” Surwade says. “After looking at all the possibilities, I thought it was worth a shot (to see if I could make it work). I got my lab space (at the Delaware Technology Park) in October 2016 and worked nights and weekends to validate the idea, before I finally applied for a grant in June 2017. I got the grant in November 2017 and was finally ableto go full time on this.”
Over the past few years, he’s worked with the state’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to win that $225,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I Grant (and applied for a Phase II award this past February); won the Emerging Enterprise Center’s Swim with the Sharks Pitch Competition last October, which paid a grand prize of $16,000 in cash and services; in April was recommended by the Council on Development Finance for a $50,000 Delaware Technical Innovation Program research grant; and was one of five winners of the international Paint the Future Awards from Netherlands-based AkzoNobel in mid-May.
When asked what he’s learned, Dr. Surwade bubbles over with enthusiasm.
“At Swim with the Sharks, you get different perspectives from the judges,” he says. “My focus is chemistry, but they got me thinking about areas that I wasn’t prepared for, things outside of my research like finance, commercialization and marketing. I also learned that if you’re passionate, people will support you.”
At AkzoNobel, Surwade competed against companies of much bigger size, but he learned that “in the coatings business, innovation respects good ideas regardless of your size. The great thing about the AkzoNobel competition was how collaborative it was. I registered online and could see the other competitors’ ideas and the questions they were getting and how they were answering them. It gave me new views on problem-solving.”
AkzoNobel Chief Technology Officer Klaas Kruithof, who chaired the Paint the Future jury, said, “We’re very excited to continue our collaborative journey with the recipients of the Paint the Future awards. With these startups, we’re going to drive innovation in paints and coatings beyond expectation, imagination and generations.”
Back home, Dr. Surwade has become a poster child of sorts for what the state offers startups, whether it’s access to government and business leaders, the bioscience ecosystem, location, facilities, and plenty of advice and financial support. His legal counsel and advisory board member, Dr. Rakesh Mehta, traveled with him to Amsterdam to support him in the competition, indicating the level of support Sumedh’s been getting in Delaware, for which he is very thankful.
“He’s humble but brilliant, and very resilient,” said Delaware Technology Park President and SBDC State Director Mike Bowman, who had just told Sumedh’s story to a group of visitors to the STAR Campus at the University of Delaware. “He had a lot of faith in his ability to demonstrate his technology had value, but he needed help shaping his grant proposals and learning how to pitch the company to investors. Neither are within his comfort zone, but he’s gotten really good at it.”
Surwade has three pieces of advice for others who have an idea and are trying to develop an investible product or company:
1. Find a good mentor. “Not just someone who answers your questions, but actually cares about you, is available, and is willing to share.”
2. Build a good advisory board. “You want experience, people who understand your field, and can give you advice on areas where you’re not as strong.”
3. Find a group that can help you grow. Surwade likens it to the crane that helps a construction company put a wall in place. Besides the help he’s gotten from Bowman’s team, he connected with the Delaware Sustainable
Chemistry Alliance (DESCA), listing a number of people there like Chairman Brian Tracy who have helped him during the rough times.
“I’ve gotten a lot of help on my path to where I am today,” he said. “Now it’s my turn to help other people.”
— By Peter Osborne, DBT Editor