Startup Stories

Case Study: Lightning Round with Molekule

How have Highway1 startups solved some of the big problems that affect hardware companies?

Our latest case study deals with a couple of questions anyone who’s considered becoming a hardware entrepreneur has contemplated at least once:

  • What do you need to watch out for if you’re trying to commercialize academic research?
  • Is it possible to build a startup with your family as co-founders without negatively impacting your relationships in the process?

 

Highway1 alumnus Molekule has handled these issues with aplomb; we talked to COO Jaya Rao to learn more.

From academia to the marketplace

Bringing a product to market whose core technology is based on over 20 years of academic research can be tricky. Molekule’s lessons learned included:

  • It’s important to deeply embed the scientific knowledge of your innovation within your team, so that both the business/commercialization side and technology side of your team can move quickly during product development and in communicating your technology to the world.
  • The inventors of the technology play a key and integral role in the foundation of your company. Molekule’s Chief Scientist, Dr. D. Yogi Goswami, happens to be the inventor of their core technology — photo electrochemical oxidation — which was developed over 20 years of university research.
  • Collaborating with universities and other academic institutes opens the doors to many opportunities for advancing your product and technology research. Molekule works closely with the University of South Florida through research grants to continue to advance the science behind their technology.
  • If you have a trade secret, keep it as close to the vest as you want, but release as much third-party validation as you can. “There are certain things we don’t disclose,” Rao explains, “but all the testing around our technology, all the reports and validation, are things we make completely public.”

 

Building a company with your family

No two families are alike, but odds are good most people don’t want to go to work with theirs. How do you build a successful business with your family? Here’s how Molekule did it:

  • Put the team first. Make sure that everyone’s foremost priority is the success of the team, and not the satisfaction of any one individual’s ego. “Whatever decisions we make,” Rao says, “are for the progress of the company.”
  • Along with eliminating your ego, be open to experimentation. From the start, Molekule’s founding team rotated people through different roles and looked at the outcomes of those rotations to determine who was actually the best fit for certain positions, based on performance and progress. Rao notes that, as an academic, her father’s “main passion was with the technology and the research, so he naturally fit into the role of Chief Scientist.”
  • Communicate with honesty. As a family, Team Molekule was already used to expressing their feelings openly and transparently, so they had no reservations about doing so when potential problems came up. “The nice thing about being brother and sister is that I’m very comfortable telling [CEO] Dilip my concerns,” Rao points out. “We can give each other feedback very easily, so issues are discovered earlier rather than later.”
  • Bring in external people. As Rao puts it, “The fact that you’re family doesn’t excuse you from behaving professionally; you have to create those boundaries. What helps is having external people there — they help create structure that isn’t purely built from a family perspective.”

 

Major takeaways

If you’re thinking about bringing something novel to the market or starting a business with people you’re close to, learn from Molekule’s example:

  • Be 100% certain you can explain your technology to someone on the street.
    Back up your claims with independent verification.
  • Always be listening!
  • Put your company first and your ego second (or third); it’ll help you be flexible when you need it.

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Highway1, a division of PCH, is the premier hardware startup accelerator, located in San Francisco. We look for great hardware startups, with an exciting business idea and a compelling prototype. We help you design products that deliver real value to customers, that are delightful to use and that can be manufactured at scale.
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