Successful teamwork brought supermaterial to the market

2019-10-09

Entrepreneur Mattias Karls and professor Maria Strømme joined forces and started company Disruptive Materials. Photo: Kimberly Hero

Finding the right partner to ally with. This is by far the key element in taking an invention from the lab out to the market according to Maria Strømme, professor of nanotechnology at Ångström Laboratory. She and some other researchers founded the company Disruptive Materials together with entrepreneur Mattias Karls in order to develop a unique material. Upsalite has now made its way into both sports and beauty products.

It was 2011 when Maria Strømme’s research team succeeded in something that others had been failing at for over 100 years – developing magnesium carbonate in porous form.

The original idea was to develop a material to stabilise drug molecules and make it easier for the body to absorb them. After several unsuccessful attempts, researcher Johan Gómez de la Torre (né Forsgren) forgot an experiment in a reactor vessel that was left untouched over the weekend. When he returned to the lab on Monday, the material mixture had changed in nature. The new material was named Upsalite and became a world sensation.

“We quickly realised that the discovery had great potential, and that it was important to choose the right partner for commercialisation,” explains Maria Strømme.

She had previously gotten a tip about Mattias Karls and contacted him for a lunch meeting.

“My driving force was finding someone who knows all aspects of entrepreneurship and business building. I quickly realised that Mattias was the perfect person to drive commercialisation of the material.”

Mattias Karls became a co-founder of Disruptive Materials and stepped into the company as an unpaid CEO.

“I’ve always found technology to be a lot of fun, but it’s the business deals that are important. There has to be a customer. At the same time, as an entrepreneur and businessman, you are extremely dependent on technical expertise. There is quite simply a strength in dualism between technical expertise and business know-how,” says Mattias Karls.

Disruptive Materials has allowed business opportunities to steer what Upsalite is tested for. Investigating whether something will work commercially is a quick process, but it takes a long time to investigate the material’s potential in a specific application.

“Before starting extensive technical testing, we asked whether we could get paid for making it possible to create a new, better product or to make an existing product better,” explains Mattias Karls.

How roles should be distributed in a company is not always clear-cut, but things fell into place naturally for Disruptive Materials.

“We trusted Mattias’ previous experience and expertise in business building. He was also a very pedagogical leader. We all clearly knew which of us was good at what, and let the best person in a specific area take charge of it,” says Maria Strømme.

“The researchers remained in the academic world and did not work operationally in the company. They instead provided support if I had any questions. That part went very smoothly,” continues Mattias Karls.

They both agree that it is smarter for business knowledge to not just be in the form of a coach who works a few hours, but rather an entrepreneur who takes a role within the company.

“You need a well-meshed team with different knowledge sets who have the stamina to keep going until things are running well,” says Mattias Karls. Maria Strømme agrees:

“Initially, it takes a much more energy and many more hours than you could imagine. The person with business know-how should sit in the same boat as the rest of us – be a partner and initially work for free – and have just as much to win or lose.

Disruptive Materials

The company currently has 30 employees. Several of them have been students at the Ångström Laboratory. Upsalite is manufactured on an industrial scale at two factories in Germany. The material is currently available as a highly effective moisture-absorbing hand powder for climbers as well as in cosmetic products. Disruptive Materials is backed by a number of strong private and institutional investors. Read more on the company's webpage.

Are you in the starting blocks, ready to test your innovation in the market?

Four tips from Maria and Mattias:

  • The researcher needs to find the right expertise to join forces with. A researcher often needs a partner with a business drive.
  • The personal chemistry has to be right.
  • The entrepreneur needs to become part of the company and have just as much to win or lose as the researchers.
  • Investigate whether it is possible to get paid for applications of the innovation before beginning in-depth technical investigations.

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