Season 3

Episode 3 – How to Start a Company After Your PhD ft. Dr. Lukas Nattmann

Episode 2 Episodes list Episode 4

In this episode, Bea talks to Dr. Lukas Nattmann, who did his PhD at the Max-Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung. They talk about the topic that occupies the thoughts of every Doctoral Researcher: what do you do after your PhD?
Lukas talks about the process of getting a patent while still doing your PhD, players involved, the role of Max Planck Innovations, and about what to expect once you have the patent on your hands.
The two talk in detail about founding a company fresh out of PhD. Lukas tells the story of how Loc Check came to be, the idea behind it, what co-founding a company means, how to address the question of funding, and what working for your own company is like, with all the positives of being your own boss and difficulties of starting and growing the company in the times of COVID-19. Lukas provides some advice for people who might consider a similar career path after their PhD and talks in detail about what you can expect from such a job on a daily basis.
Lukas also tells the story of his illustrious swimming career, what it was like training for nationals and the Olympic Games, why he left, and how the mindset he acquired from rigorous training and competitions helped him with his work now.

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Bea: Hello and welcome back to the Offspring Magazine the Podcast! It’s Bea and I will be hosting today’s podcast. Today, we will be talking to Dr. Lukas Nattmann, a former chemistry PhD student in the Cornella group at the Max Planck Institute for Kohlenforschung. He graduated in 2020, with a patent of his work during his PhD. And after his PhD, he co-started a company in a field completely unrelated to his PhD. So he did a PhD in Chemistry but the company he started was in the field of the Internet of Things. And so today, he is here to talk to us about how it is to get a patent from your PhD work and what it was like to start his own company. Also, as a side note, Lukas Nattmann was an extremely successful youth swimmer in Germany and almost made it to the OlyMPIcs. So, of course, I was really interested in this and, at the end, we also briefly discussed what it was like to be a swimmer, his journey as a swimmer, and what skills he learned during his swimming times that have helped him later in life. So with all this being said, let’s get started.

B: Hi, Lukas! Thank you so much for coming! How is it to be back at the institute?

Dr. Lukas Nattmann: Yeah, thanks for having me! It’s really nice. I mean I’m still living in Mühlheim but, during Corona time, you don’t have much opportunities to come here anymore. So it’s been a good ride here and I’m happy to be back.

B: Yeah. So maybe tell the audience, like, who you are and why I asked this question?

LN: Yeah, we actually only met a couple of weeks ago, right? Yeah, at the Nobel Prize party, which was very nice, obviously, right. So yeah, I’ve been studying Chemistry and I did my my PhD at this Institute. I finished about one year ago so we actually haven’t met in that time, I guess.

B: Yeah, well because of COVID.

LN: Yeah. But, happily, we met afterwards and you asked me, I think, because I have a kind of unique career pathway that I…

B: Oh, definitely.

LN: And, therefore, I maybe to share my experiences…

B: Yeah, yeah. So let’s start with your PhD, since you were a PhD student here. And you also did a very impressive PhD. You have a patent, right?

LN: Right, I do have a patent, yes.

B: I think a lot of people at around MPI and at MPI Institutes, they’ll be really interested in knowing what it’s like to actually get a patent, what the process looks like. So maybe we can start by talking about your patent? So, first of all, what is your patent on?

LN: Right, so we patented… So we is my boss, or my former boss, Josep Cornella, and me. We patented a series of nickel complexes, which are air-stable but still nickel zero. So relatively low valent oxidation state but still air-stable, which was at the time yeah very unique. Now, people find more and more complexes, which are kind of similar, but we found that very interesting back then, and so we patented it. And there was actually a very nice process, and very smooth because the Institute, because of the history here. With like the polypropylene, polyethylene and many things afterwards.

B: Yeah, so Karl Ziegler.

LN: Correct. Everything that the big guys did back in the days. For example, we have a patent attorney here, at the Institute, which is probably relatively unique among research institutes. So these people are very experienced. And then we had Max Planck Innovation involved and so these people, yeah…

B: So sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt but, like, the Max Planck Innovation, I do want to get back to you with that. So we’ll talk about that later. I’ll just try to remember. It’s good that you mentioned it. Yeah, sorry, keep going.

LN: Yes. So these people really do that every day with all the different Max Planck Institutes that there are in Germany. And so they just made a very smooth project of it. And I didn’t have to do much, I just told them: this is what we found, this is what we think is cool about it – and they just managed all of the process, we just had to postpone the corresponding publication for, like, two weeks, because we have to finish the paperwork first and then publish. But yeah, it was a very enjoyable experience and probably also relatively unique, as a PhD student, to get away with the patent.

B: Yeah, definitely. I don’t know that many that have a patent as PhD students. And so when was actually the moment where you guys decided to patent the work? Because sometimes you can find really cool discoveries but I don’t know if it’s worth it to do a patent. Because it obviously costs you as well…

LN: Yes, so with this, I mean my former boss is kind of a junior research group leader, he’s not one of the directors, so we had one of the directors, who our research group belonged to, and this was our professor in this case, and he had more experience, obviously, in this things. So we just went, talked to him, and then he said, “okay, let’s talk to the lawyers,” and together, we then decided as a group: that looks like could be useful for the industry. And then we decided to patent it so the Institute would get some royalties on this.

B: Okay, and you were involved in all of this?

LN: Right, yes, very exciting times. So I was involved throughout the whole process, basically. But, as I said earlier, these people are very experienced so they really knew what to do. They were just me giving a little bit of input and they handled all the rest of it.

B: Yeah, so you didn’t have to write anything?

LN: No, I didn’t have to write anything. Okay, so we just gave them our publication, they went through it – so these people are chemists as well so they really know what to look for – and they just did the rest for us, yeah.

B: Yeah, it’s really interesting. And so how long did the process take overall?

LN: Maybe three to four months. Yeah, but I mean, we approached these people when we first found these nickel complexes and, therefore, we ourselves didn’t really know where this would lead us. And so we just gave more and more input over the weeks and, therefore, probably could have been faster if we had to, yeah.

B: I don’t know how long like it normally takes to patent things, I’m really inexperienced in that.

LN: Oh yeah, me too, I don’t know.

B: This is your only patent, okay. Well, who knows, maybe you’ll get some more later on. Yeah, very interesting. And so what about this Max Planck Innovations? Because I’ve heard of it but I was actually interested in doing a podcast with those people…

LN: Yeah, you should, definitely.

B: Because I feel like no one really knows about it. So what is it?

LN: So Max Planck innovation, so the person that I was communicating with, he was in Munich, maybe the headquarters are also in Munich, and they basically are managing all the interesting stuff that can be patented from all the Max Planck Research Institutes. So I mean, there are many of Biology, different Chemistry, Physics, and so on. So they managed the whole process of patenting these things. But they also do many other things. For example, if you would like to found a company based on your research of what you did in your PhD or postdoc, they give you funding, for example, they help to develop a business plan. So these guys there also do very many different things to help the people at the Max Planck Institutes to develop.

B: But then, is it necessary to have patent lawyers and the Max Planck Innovation? For example, for your patent, do you think you needed both?

LN: So in our case, it was that our lawyer at the institute, he had so much to do that he just involved Max Planck Innovation because they also have lawyers that are chemists, as well, and are experienced with patents.

B: Yeah.

LN: So I mean, we just wanted to accelerate the whole thing and, therefore, we introduced another person as a patent attorney.

B: Yeah. So now to the question that everyone’s interested in: how much money do you get from it?

LN: Well, actually, so the patent is only about… Well it has been licensed so this is the important thing: you can make a patent and then people have to license the patent, and then you start to get money from it. And so I’ve only got one payment so far and it’s really not a lot: it’s a couple of hundred Euros. But I mean we’re getting started. And it has to really get into the industry and has to be used as catalyst. Otherwise, I mean you won’t get a lot. But it’s also not only me getting money. So yes, so I’m not sure about the percentages, but this is what I heard: is that the Max Planck society, so basically, all the Max Planck institutes get the part and then the Max Planck institute for Kohlenforschung, so our institute, gets one part and then the two people who are on the patent, which is Pep and me, so my former boss and me, we also get a part. But I’m not sure about the percentages. But anyway, I mean it’s just like a side product from the PhD: you’re actually going here to get a PhD and then you end up with a patent as well, which was, yeah, absolutely amazing.

B: Yeah, I mean I everyone’s probably so jealous of you because, yeah, I mean it’s incredible. But, like you said, I mean it takes time for industry to catch on to something. Especially because nickel chemistry is not, it’s not like a really old field either. So, you know, I think it will take some time. But that’s awesome.

LN: Yeah.

B: Yeah, okay. So since we’re talking about Max Planck Innovation, you have an own company now or, like, what do you do now?

LN: Right. So, correct, so this is not coming from Max Planck Innovation anymore. So, basically, after my PhD, I didn’t like the idea of this, I call it “standard career pathway”, which is probably not correct. I mean there are many different things you can do as a chemist but most of the people that I know, they went to big Pharma companies, for example, then they became head of laboratory, and then they worked there for three, four, five years, and then kind of moved on to management positions. And I didn’t like the idea of doing that. I don’t know, I always wanted to be independent, do my own stuff, and really work for myself. And, therefore, yes, I founded a company, just after my PhD, basically, yeah.

B: Okay, let’s rewind, there’s so many questions I have already. So yeah, so the standard career path is actually a very interesting one. Because a lot of people, when they start their PhD, they don’t really know what they want to be doing, but everyone will end up in the end applying for a research and development position at one of the big Pharmas or agro-industry, or you go into process chemistry, but it’s always that kind of career path. So what other career paths do you think there are for chemists?

LN: So I’ve seen some people who are, now I don’t know actually the English word, but they’re selling laboratory equipment. So, many people are doing that as well, especially if you are more the analytics person, then you can sell mass spectrometers and so on. So I’ve seen some people doing that. And then, there are also a few people who are going into law, which is also really cool.

B: So patent law?

LN: Patent law, for example, right. But I guess the demand is not as high for chemists to be in these positions. Yeah, these are probably the major career pathways that I’ve seen so far. I mean you don’t always have to go to the big Pharma companies or agro-, chemical companies, there’re also smaller ones. But basically, you’re trained to be a head of a laboratory and to lead your own research projects, with a couple of people working for you.

B: So what about that didn’t really speak to you? Was it just the fact that you really wanted to work independently? Because, like you said, as a research lab leader, you still lead a team. So I do think you kind of do have some kind of say in what chemistry goes on. Obviously, you can’t decide fully exactly what chemistry goes on because that’s determined by the company…

LN: Right. So this is the thing. Yes, I really wanted to fully follow my own ideas. And what was also important for me is that I work for myself. And I wanna make progress for myself and not for the company. Or for my own company, then, maybe but not for somebody else’s company. And I mean this just motivates me much more than working for somebody else. And, I mean, for other people, it’s probably that they say, “I’d rather have the stability that one of these positions can give me,” because I mean: yeah, you’re probably not going to get fired if you’re at your job and I guess most people are after getting a PhD. So yeah, I really just like the idea of being independent and working for myself.

B: Okay, yeah. So we haven’t defined what you do. So what is it that you actually do and what kind of company have you started?

LN: Right, so I started a startup with two co-founders. And what we are doing is we developed a so-called asset tracker, which is a small device: it’s maybe the size of your fist, maybe smaller than that, and you can attach this asset tracker to industrial goods and then you can follow the position of that. So a little bit similar to, let’s say, these Apple air tags that came out last year or this year. So you can, basically, follow something throughout the whole Europe or the whole world. And then also looking back in the past, I mean, which transportation ways did this industrial good, whatever you need take and how long has it been standing at place x. And you would usually probably guess that most companies know: “my machine is exactly today is here and tomorrow’s gonna be there,” but in reality companies really struggle with following all these pathways on such a small level. And that’s where we come in and help them.

B: Okay, so it’s like really small and then you just stick it on to the goods?

LN: So we have a magnet, because we are right now only working with metallic things, that a metal can stick to and, therefore, it’s really… We could always call it a “plug-and-play” solution: you just take it out of the box, it’s already running, and then you just put it with a magnet on the machine, and then you can follow it all over the world.

B: Okay, and have you, like, already sold it to certain companies or?

LN: Yeah. So yeah, we just, I mean we’re just getting started. It’s always that, as a founder, you feel like, “oh, it’s going so slow,” but I guess we are doing all right after only one year. Because at the beginning of the year we actually had to finalize the product and then we contacted companies, was really hard to get into because Corona so nobody would invite you. You had to do everything all over zoom teams and whatever. But yeah, we sold already some trackers. And now we have several test companies who are evaluating them. And let’s see what 2022 brings.

B: Yeah. So what kind of companies have you sold it to? Like what kind of areas: pharmaceutical companies?

LN: No. So, because the tracking device is not very precise, so what we usually know is our phone, which has a GPS system, but in our case, the GPS doesn’t work, because industrial goods are usually indoor and indoor GPS is very, very hard to determine the position. And, therefore, we are not as precise, which doesn’t apply to many use cases. For example, if you have a medical transportation somewhere, you will not precisely know where it is. And in our case, we needed use cases that are okay with being: I know roughly where it is. And in that case, as I said earlier, we are tracking machines, for example, so primarily injection molds: which are two pieces of metal, and you can put them on, you press them together, and then you inject whole plastic, and then you make a form, let’s say, you’re making a garden chair for example. So these injection molds are changing locations quite often for industrial goods because of the amount they have to produce. So sometimes, let’s say, they are in Eastern Europe, and then Western Europe again, and then they get shipped to China. And you need to be able to follow all of this, yes.

B: Yeah, interesting. But then, so these things are small, so could they be used for like other purposes, apart from machines or not yet?

LN: Right. So we were thinking for very long about that because, I mean, the bigger the addressable market is the better for you. But we really had struggled to come up with other applications for it. And I also have to mention that we are by far not the only company that provides tracking solutions. So there are many many different ones. I mean our technology is based on cell towers but, I mean, I’ve mentioned the GPS, there’s bluetooth, there’s wi-fi. So there are many many different technologies and all of them have, well, use cases that they’re good for and use cases that they are bad for. And I think we just found our niche and we are doing well in that niche so far and we would like to expand. But right now, I think we are better off just not trying to go into fields that we are not good at.

B: Yeah, yeah. Establish yourself first.

LN: Correct, yes.

B: Yes, but then, how did you come up with this idea? I mean it’s so far away from anything you did during your PhD.

LN: Absolutely, yes. So it was not my idea, it was my co-founders. So my co-founder started that idea or developed that idea before I actually joined them. So one of my co-founders is an engineer, and he’s working with these injection molds, and he said, “there has to be a solution to track these injection molds”. And he didn’t find one. And therefore he talked to my second co-founder and they developed this idea: how you could really make this into a product. And I met one of my co-founders at a lecture series and started talking to him. And actually wanted to do something chemistry-related because, obviously, after studying for eight, nine, ten years, depending on how long you take, you wanna apply all of this knowledge. And he was really nice and he kind of was a sparring partner for me: we always discussed ideas that I had that are chemistry-related. But on one argument or the other we were always like convinced that my ideas were not as doable as other things are and, therefore, in the end, I kind of said, “okay, then I’m not doing something with chemistry – it’s more important to me to be independent and to lead my own company than doing something with chemistry”. And with these priorities, we founded Loc Check, yeah. And it’s something that I really didn’t know nothing about and had to get into.

B: Yeah, so can you tell me, like, what other ideas you had? Because you always wanted to go independent, right, also during your PhD? So did you start thinking about what kind of chemical companies or other related ideas?

LN: Correct, yeah. So, for example, one thing was that I was really fed up with Kendo, actually. Okay, I think they could do much more than they are doing right now. I always felt like this is too slow, the 3D pictures that you can generate are not nice, but I mean you’re not going to convince anybody anytime soon to go away from Kendo and to buy a solution from a startup that is still developing. Yeah, so that will probably take several years of developing and you need several software engineers, that you also have to convince to do something chemistry-related that they don’t know anything about, probably. So that was one thing. Then, I also obviously thought about selling these catalysts that I developed on my own. But then, I saw that it’s probably hard to have a market that is big enough to really sustain a whole company and, therefore, it was much easier to just license to one of the companies that they are out there already.

B: Yeah, yeah, I agree with that.

LN: Actually, it’s been over a year, I cannot remember any other idea… But yeah, there were several ones and they were not the best, probably, in the end. But it’s fine, I mean I still have some years ahead of me so maybe there will be another idea.

B: Yeah, so they were all chemistry-related though, yes?

N: Yes.

B: And you started thinking about them during your PhD?

LN: Absolutely, yes. So it was not my idea, it was my co-founders. So my co-founder started that idea or developed that idea before I actually joined them. So one of my co-founders is an engineer, and he’s working with these injection molds, and he said, “there has to be a solution to track these injection molds”. And he didn’t find one. And therefore he talked to my second co-founder and they developed this idea: how you could really make this into a product. And I met one of my co-founders at a lecture series and started talking to him. And actually wanted to do something chemistry-related because, obviously, after studying for eight, nine, ten years, depending on how long you take, you wanna apply all of this knowledge. And he was really nice and he kind of was a sparring partner for me: we always discussed ideas that I had that are chemistry-related. But on one argument or the other we were always like convinced that my ideas were not as doable as other things are and, therefore, in the end, I kind of said, “okay, then I’m not doing something with chemistry – it’s more important to me to be independent and to lead my own company than doing something with chemistry”. And with these priorities, we founded Loc Check, yeah. And it’s something that I really didn’t know nothing about and had to get into.

B: Yeah, so can you tell me, like, what other ideas you had? Because you always wanted to go independent, right, also during your PhD? So did you start thinking about what kind of chemical companies or other related ideas?

LN: Correct, yeah. So, for example, one thing was that I was really fed up with Kendo, actually. Okay, I think they could do much more than they are doing right now. I always felt like this is too slow, the 3D pictures that you can generate are not nice, but I mean you’re not going to convince anybody anytime soon to go away from Kendo and to buy a solution from a startup that is still developing. Yeah, so that will probably take several years of developing and you need several software engineers, that you also have to convince to do something chemistry-related that they don’t know anything about, probably. So that was one thing. Then, I also obviously thought about selling these catalysts that I developed on my own. But then, I saw that it’s probably hard to have a market that is big enough to really sustain a whole company and, therefore, it was much easier to just license to one of the companies that they are out there already.

B: Yeah, yeah, I agree with that.

LN: Actually, it’s been over a year, I cannot remember any other idea… But yeah, there were several ones and they were not the best, probably, in the end. But it’s fine, I mean I still have some years ahead of me so maybe there will be another idea.

B: Yeah, so they were all chemistry-related though, yes?

LN: Yes.

B: And you started thinking about them during your PhD?

LN: Yes. So I had these lectures, that I mentioned earlier, where I met one of my co-founders. So that was a very nice lecture series that was about: how do you become a businessman from being a researcher? So how can you make a science-based startup, kind of? And doing this lecture series I kind of got the idea that it is actually possible as scientists to fund a company. Which, before, I always thought that it’s rather hard because you have all of these big players, all the big Pharma companies. And to start new is very very hard because you need all the laboratories, you need probably years of research to do something, at least, in the Pharma business. and therefore I didn’t really think it’s doable. But, in the end, if you just switch the field a little bit, then it is possible to do something as a scientist.

B: Yeah. So how many co-founders are you guys? You mentioned two, so is it three now?

LN: Right, so we have three co-founders: one is an engineer, yes, the other one is, actually, an astrophysicist. But I mean, it’s the same story: he was an astrophysicist, also did his PhD, and then he went into consulting, and then was really fed up with it after only, like, two weeks, and then he quit.

B: Two weeks? That’s really not long.

LN: Yeah, he was really fed up with it. And then he decided he wants to found companies. And that’s what he did. So he’s more, let’s say, in the software business. He has also several different companies so he’s not only working in Loc Check, he has several companies, it’s really impressive. Yeah, he’s putting in a lot of work.

B: Wow, and what kind of lecture series was this? It actually sounds really interesting.

LN: Yeah, so that was at the university of Bochum, and the lecture series was called “From Top-Level Science to Top-Level Business”, and was specifically designed for scientists who were interested in funding a company. It was very, very cool lecture.
B: Yeah, okay, so then we talked about Max Planck Innovation, and so did you not want to go through them? Or were you thinking about asking for their help since they also help fund companies?

LN: Definitely, yes. So I thought about it, but then I read a little bit about it, and I’m actually not 100% sure, if somebody’s interested better double-check, but I think they only fund companies that are kind of based on research in the Max Planck Institute. And because I didn’t have any suitable ideas to go into a chemistry-related field that wasn’t the option that worked for me.

B: Yeah, okay. And so what was, like, the turning point during your PhD where you decided that you wanted to go fund a start a company?

LN: Yes, that was probably exactly the lecture series that I mentioned earlier. Because it was very nicely set up: every week you would have somebody else giving a lecture, and several of these people were also former scientists and then became entrepreneurs. And because, as I said earlier, I didn’t really think is possible to fund a company based on Chemistry, so… well. it’s probably possible but it’s very hard to sustain that because, as I said earlier, the many laboratories: you probably need millions of Euros just to start with. Yeah, but these people all showed me it is indeed possible with a few different ideas. Maybe if you are in different niches. And that inspired me to really start thinking about it more deeply.

B: Yeah. Were you ever worried, though, that because you did a PhD in chemistry you would lack maybe some knowledge?

LN: Oh, yes. I probably do. I lack knowledge all over the place. But I mean, you kind of grow into it, you go into your role and you also, I mean me being the CEO now, I don’t have to know how to do everything. So, on one hand, I have my two co-founders, which are very experienced, as I said the one is already founded many companies, the other one as well, so if I have any questions: just pick up the phone, call them, is very, very short ways to handle things. And then, on, let’s say, the more software- and hardware-related things, we have freelancers, which we are working with. And I mean, at the very beginning, was kind of hard because we didn’t speak the same language. But I mean, I just kept asking and asking more questions to learn from them. And I think I’ve reached a point that I, at least somehow, can guess how much work certain tasks are, let’s say that way. Because at the very beginning, I would tell them, “okay, let’s do this”, and they would take it, but this is three months of work. And, therefore, I kind of learned how to, at least, guess the amount of work that they have to put in, and what is possible, and what is not possible. And I guess it’s getting better every day.

B: Yeah. So when you started off to now, you’ve probably gained like crazy amount of knowledge?

LN: Right. I mean, always not as much as I would like to.

B: Yeah, you’re never gonna be satisfied.

LN: Yeah, you’re never gonna be satisfied, correct. And also you don’t always know in advance what you have to know in, let’s say, two weeks from now. So you’re just trying to get into different topics and read a little bit about it. And then, in two weeks, you will need something completely different. But that’s nice about being self-employed, I mean, you always have to really keep up and educate yourself and I really like it, I enjoy it.

B: Is there something like that you learned during your PhD that you’re actually using now? Maybe knowledge or certain skills?

LN: Probably reading.

B: Okay.

LN: I mean that was never my favorite task: reading, reading literature, but at some point, you have to. And you get better at it and you really extract the knowledge much faster. And that helps now, obviously. But apart from that, probably not too many skills, unfortunately. I would love to but…

B: That’s okay. You acquire new skills. I mean you’re going to be working for so many years, it’s good to do different things then, at the end, you’re going to be knowledgeable about that. So how big is your company now?

LN: So we are, basically, as founders, we’re only three of us. And then the rest is only freelancers. Because, at the point right now, is way too expensive to have a permanent staff: we just couldn’t pay for it. You really just have to ramp up the sales first and then you could get, for example, the first person I would hire is probably a software engineer. Right now we have very brilliant software engineers that we’re working with but only as a freelancer. And that means they’re not always 24/7 available for you. There were instances where suddenly our server crashed and then I’m like, “oh, what to do now?”. Because I don’t know anything about it. And then you have to call these people on a Friday evening and then, probably, pay them twice as much. But yeah, I mean they’re very very easily approached and that probably helps. So we have really good freelancers at the moment, which I’m very happy about.

B: So how often do the freelancers work for you? What does it exactly mean to be a freelancer?

LN: So we, basically, tell them when we have new ideas that we have. Let’s say, usually, it’s a software solution that we want to be developed. And then we just text them or call them, and we tell them, “okay, this is the task, how many hours do you need for that?”, and then we basically hire them for this very small project and pay them on an hourly basis.

B: Yeah, okay. So the biggest question that I have about, like, starting a company is funding. I mean, actually, it’s funding and then, how to find the right people. But I guess we’ve established that you found the right people to work with…

LN: Hopefully.

B: Or, hopefully, and then, yeah, I guess you did that through contacts and…

LN: Correct, yeah. So that is one very important thing: you have to have the right people and for that you have to have a network, which is also hard because, when you’re doing your PhD, you, basically, always talk to people also doing a PhD, or doing a PostDoc, so only chemists. So getting to know other people, outside of your field, who can help you with that, is very important. And if you want to start a company, you should start early to talk about your idea with anybody that you can meet. Because there’s always one friend that knows a friend and this is how you get the people to work with you.

B: Well, it’s a bit hard, during Corona, to talk to people, though.

LN: Absolutely, yeah. I mean COVID is a pain for everybody.

B: Yeah. Well, yes, I mean, I think that’s really hard especially because, like you said here, you just talk to chemists. And also your professors: they will mainly be able to advise you to go study, you know, or to go work for a pharmaceutical company, or in the chemical field. They don’t really know, they don’t have that many contacts outside. So how do you find those people?

LN: So that was, again, you have to have co-founders. So all the people that we’re working now, my co-founders knew, so the one that is an engineer, he knew people, for example, who can build the structure that protects the tracker, and then the astrophysicist knew people who are good at software development. So you have to find these people, and the network helps, and the more co-founders you are, basically, the bigger the network.

B: Yeah. And then it just grows exponentially. Then it grows exponentially, but it’s always the starting point. But I think it’s a really good idea to just talk to people because you never know: the world is so small.

LN: Right. And you always have to discuss your idea because, doesn’t matter how smart you are, there’s always a person that can give you some input on your idea, even though there might be not their field of expertise, just, like, they’re asking questions, and then you’re responding, and maybe thinking about certain things. So I would highly recommend to talk as much about your ideas as possible to really evaluate: is it actually a good idea? Before you’re starting out.

B: Yeah. The second biggest thing is the funding…

LN: Right, the funding. As I said earlier, if you’re doing something chemistry-related or, let’s say, science-related Max Planck Innovation is probably very good advice. On the other hand, there are different programs in Germany. So there’s the EXIST program, which is of the Federal Government, which gives you, I’m not sure, like, 200,000 or 300,000 Euros to start with for 18 months. So that really gives you time to evaluate your idea, to build up initial customers, and see if it’s a fit or not. And there are programs of the Northland Westphalia Government: so I’m on one of these programs, it’s called a Gründerstipendium in German – so, basically, a Founder’s Fellowship, and they will give you 1,000 euros per month for one year, which basically covers all your basic needs. Doesn’t really help for much more than that, but it will really give you the time to fully focus on your idea and not have to have a job on the side that you have to worry about. So there are, especially in Germany, there are many of these kind of fellowships that you can get. Also companies might offer that. So that’s probably something that you should look into at the very beginning, before founding the company. And then there’s also venture capital, for example, but for that you probably have to have some more crazy ideas. So some big ideas that may also takes several years to be implemented. And I was rather looking for something that could be implemented quite fast and has a, let’s say, at least, a good probability of success. Because you could also just go to venture capital and say, “okay, with this technology we are going to cure cancer, but the the probability of that happening is probably below 1%”, and then you might invest 10 years of your life researching and burn through much money. And in the end, you still don’t have really a company, because it wasn’t a sustainable business model, because it didn’t work out. So it really depends on what you want to do: if you want to do something risky or if you want to do something that is not so risky. Because for our things, what we’re doing right now, I don’t think we would get venture capital, it’s just not the market, it’s not big enough for venture capitalists.

B: Yeah, it’s good to know that, like, the German Government provides you with such schemes.

LN: Right, yes. I mean you have to go through a process, just like, applying of two rounds. But it’s a very, very good opportunity. I mean you just have to apply, it doesn’t cost you anything except for, I mean, it’s probably a rather long document. It will cost you some time, but in the end, it’s definitely worth it.

B: Yeah. And do you get any other funding apart from the Government? So not the stipend or the German Government, do you have any external funders?

LN: So me, personally, I don’t know. So I was really living on a budget this last year, which wasn’t so easy, but I mean due to Corona, you didn’t really go anywhere at all.

B: Didn’t have anything to do so you’re stuck at home.

LN: Right. And, therefore, has probably saved some money, which was good in that situation, even though it wasn’t a great great time to start a business.

B: Yeah. And so do you see yourself in the next five years really getting more investors and growing fast? Or do you think the company is going to stay pretty small?

LN: Right. So we will be discussing that on Friday. Because I have a meeting with my two co-founders, what we’re gonna do. So let’s see what their thoughts on that are. I mean it’s really a decision on if you wanna go really fast, and you probably need more money, and you need some private equity to get into your company so you can invest. Or you can just go slowly, just grow based on your sales. So this is probably a very basic decision that we, as co-founders, have to take this week.

B: Yeah, wow, okay. Well, the funding is interesting. It’s good that you said that. I think a lot of people always wonder, like, “where am I gonna get funding?” and then, “how am I gonna contact the right people?”.

LN: Right. It’s not so easy and there are also so many opportunities that, if you start researching on it, I remember I had like 50 different tabs open in my internet browser because there are so many things all over the place. And some things are for only specific fields and some are very general. And yeah, really look into that deeply because there are many opportunities that you might miss otherwise.

B: Yeah, I think also being within the Max Planck society, there’s probably hidden opportunities there that you also don’t realize.

LN: I bet, yes.

B: And that’s what’s a shame about COVID because, if it wasn’t for COVID, maybe different institutes could also be doing a bit more, have a bit more contact.

LN: Yes, I agree.

B: Yeah. So what does a day-to-day for you look like? What you do on a day?

LN: Yeah, totally different, every day is totally different. Really, just like you might imagine: on one day, I might be writing a small article to be published on some magazine, on the other day, I have to arrange, for example, I remember that we ran out of the modules that are connecting to the cell tower, and I really had to search all over the internet to get these modules because otherwise we couldn’t build our trackers. So I had to find companies in China and contact those companies. Then, there might be days where I’m really just writing emails back and forth to coordinate everybody. Then, there might be days where I’m researching on how to improve on our product, so what the next generation might look like. As I said, every day is completely different and you really have to adapt fast to what your daily task is.

B: That’s really nice! That’s very different to a standard job as a lab leader.

LN: Right. I mean you have to probably also encounter different problems every day but, as you’re always doing research, you always kind of know your tools and know kind of what to do. An in my case, I don’t. And sometimes I also sit there in the morning and there’s nothing to do or nothing urgent to do. And then you really have to search for your own work to improve the company. So you will start thinking about, “okay, what can I do, even though nobody told me to do that?”, because you’re your own boss. And that is also something that you have to get used to at the very beginning.

B: But that’s, like you said, in the end, you’re even more motivated to work because you know it’s something that you’re building. You want to see you grow so then that probably makes it easier?

LN: Correct. That helps, yeah. Yes, absolutely. But sometimes still, you’re sitting there and thinking, “what can I do? What helps my company right now?”. But because you’re unexperienced you don’t know. So then maybe things, like, this article that I mentioned, pop up in your head and then you just do it. Which is good but you have to get this experience and that just comes with time and with work.

B: Have you ever had, like, a talk with a potential investor to see if you could get more funding?

LN: Not yet. So we’ve been contacted by one of these venture capital force, yeah. And they were asking for pitch deck, which is basically: you just show them what is your idea, where are you going, what are the numbers right now. But at that point, when they contacted us, we were not really thinking about doing that so that has to be, again, a discussion between our co-founders, yeah, if we want to do that or not. Because it really means a different strategy for the company: if you have venture capital, you’re going to spend a lot to accelerate your growth, and if you don’t, you rather go slowly. So yeah, we haven’t discussed that deeply yet.

B: Yeah. I mean you’re only like a year old so I think a lot of questions also come later on. So then, before you started your company or, you know, you had the idea, you’re like, “I want to do this,” were there some people that didn’t support you with it? Or did everyone kind of believe in you? Or, like, it’s okay that you’re not doing Chemistry?

LN: So many people were like, “no, you’re such a good chemist, why are you leaving this field?”. And then there were several people saying, “why are you doing this? This is so risky! Just go get a nice pharma job, and you’re going to earn amount x, and then you’re nicely settled!”. And then, yeah, some people are also supporting me and were like, “okay, nice, really cool idea”. But probably like 50% of the people were kind of shocked that I wanted to pursue that.

B: Yeah.

LN: Which is fine. I mean it’s not for everybody. I’m absolutely convinced it’s not for everybody. And I’m also not mad at these people for telling me that. I mean this is their personal view. And it’s good to hear that because you probably also need some correction in your mind, otherwise you’re getting too overwhelmed on your own idea and you fall in love with your idea, even though it might be not good. So I enjoyed those discussions. But yes, it’s not for everybody to become their own boss.

B: Yeah, was it sometimes hard? Did you then have second doubts about it?

LN: Not really, no. I was too convinced on my own. But you probably have to also, more or less, be very convinced, otherwise you’re not gonna take that step.

B: Yeah. How long after you finished your PhD did you actually get started?

LN: So I finished my PhD at the end of November. On the 1st of January, we started the business officially.

B: Of 2021?

LN: 2021. So we are not one year old yet. Yeah, the reason was just, basically, otherwise we had to do our taxes for the year of 2020. although we were only like four weeks old. Yeah, so we didn’t want to do that, therefore we just waited with the official announcement into the first of January.

B: Wow, that’s a really quick turnover time. It’s really quick.

LN: Yeah, was kind of short, yeah.

B: But I mean, better, you don’t want to waste, yeah, so…

LN: Otherwise, you’ll just be sitting at home and being bored, yeah.

B: Especially during Corona.

LN: Especially during that time, yes.

B: Yeah. So how do you think Corona has impacted your company and like the growth of your company?

LN: So about the growth, I’m not so sure, but it was very hard to get customers at the beginning. Because you could only call people up, and these people get several calls probably every day, and they realize within a second that you want to sell them something, and they’re not very happy about it because you’re wasting their time, in their eyes, at least, you’re wasting their time. They’re always just like, “we don’t need that, I don’t have time for that”. And this is one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done – trying to sell something over the phone. And I wasn’t successful at all with this. I was very fed up after one day doing that so that was very hard. Because otherwise, if there wasn’t Corona, you would just drive up to a company, and, if you confront these people personally, it’s not so easy to reject you.

B: Yeah.

LN: Which might also take courage. But I would totally do it. But it was just not possible, they wouldn’t let you in because of Corona. So that definitely impacted a lot. And then, the other thing is that many meetups of startups or many events that startups can pitch at don’t take place this year, which is very unfortunate. So many people try to do some kind of format online – it’s never the same. I mean, I guess everybody knows at this point that some things just work much better in person. I mean I attended a few of these things but you’re really just sitting alone at home, watching on a screen, and it’s not as passionate as in person.

B: Yeah. Yeah, it’s also a lot harder to talk to someone over zoom. Yes, I noticed that with podcasts as well. This is why I’m really happy that you came to the institute and we could do this in person. Because a podcast on zoom, it’s like that millisecond delay just makes difference, yeah. It just…

LN: Mixes up many things, right?

B: Yeah, exactly.

LN: Especially with people that you don’t know – it’s much harder. So with people that you already know, you can kind of communicate well on zoom, but otherwise, I found it very hard.

B: Yeah. Yeah, I mean we’ll see how now the next year goes with omnicron. I don’t know, well, let’s see. I hope for you and for your company that you can start seeing people and that you can start talking to people in person.

LN: I hope so, yes.

B: Yeah. So are there any like top tips that you would also give PhD students or PostDocs that are looking to start their own company?

LN: I probably dropped a few of them already.

B: You did, yes.

LN: So one is definitely talk about your idea as much as possible. Probably that much that people get annoyed of your own idea. Yeah, so really just communicate it to everybody. And then, second thing is probably you should definitely not found alone. There are gonna be moments where you definitely need co-founders with different expertises, that will be the very best. So if you have somebody who’s a businessman or, let’s say, some kind of Economics-driven, and the other person is a scientist, that would be very good. So I would probably recommend two, three, maximum four, because, otherwise, it gets too messy. But I wouldn’t do it alone. It doesn’t matter how smart you think you are, don’t do it alone. You will definitely need your co-founders. And then a third thing is probably, I think I’ve also mentioned that a bit, you should really think how bold your idea is and if the idea should be that bold. Because you can have a very high risk business model and, let’s say, Biontech, I mean, they were really… Now they are very, very good in separate place, but they were funded, I don’t know, like, 10-15 years back, and they didn’t have any product for very long time. They were just doing research, and research, and research. And maybe ultimately that company would have failed if Corona didn’t happen. So you should really think about how risky your business model is: if you want to do something that makes you a billionaire if it works or if you want to do something that has a higher probability of working but will just make you a decent living. So yeah, that’s probably the top top three tips that I have in my mind right now.

B: Okay, that’s already really good. Man, I had a question as soon as you were talking about the co-founders and now I forgot it. So, I mean I can just ask you another time… Oh, such a good question, but I really can’t think about it now. But yeah, so I guess that’s, like, all the questions I really had about, like, the company. Well, and this one that I can’t think of but I’ll ask you another time. So that’s about that part. But I did also want to talk to you about your swimming. Because I was online, and then I was like, “let me just see about his papers and stuff,” and then, all of a sudden, I see you on a Wikipedia page. And then it just says everything about swimming. And I was like, “what?”. Ao if you want to talk about that, I’d be really interested in it. Just because, yeah, I just think, like, extreme sport is super cool.

LN: Yes, it was a very good time. So yes, I started swimming at around four. Because I almost drowned, and my dad really saved me last second, and then my mom was like, “okay, he’s gonna learn swimming now”. And then I went to a swimming course – I learned then. And I was always very afraid of competitions and, therefore, I didn’t ever go to a competition, although I was much faster than all of my mates back then already. And at some point, my mom, basically, just signed me up for one. Yeah, when I was 10 or around about 10. And then I was even faster than the people who were two years older than me. And at that point, my mom really realized that I might be kind of talented. And then, therefore, we went to a bigger center.

B: Kind of talented!

LN: We went to a bigger swimming club because, back then, it was just in the small village that I grew up in. And then we went to a bigger one, which also had people training for the Olympics, and then I really started swimming at, let’s say, age 11 or 12. So that was then three or four sessions a week. And then it grew really rapidly with, probably, I don’t know, like, 17, I did then eight sessions a week. And then I went up to 10 sessions on the very high time when I was like 18, 19, 20.

B: That’s like two a day!

LN: Right. So when I was doing 10 training sessions, the Monday was the day where I kind of slept in, which was then 6 o’clock and, on the other days, I got up at 4:30. The problem was, I was living with my parents in a small village and I was training in Wuppertal, which was about 40 minute drive, and our training started at 5:20. And therefore, I had to get up at 4:30, just have breakfast in the car, and then I, basically, got there, got changed and then jumped right into the water. And then we trained from 5:20 to 7 o’clock. Then we had another breakfast in in this swimming pool, basically.

B: Yeah.

LN: So there was a small kitchen, our coach just made some breakfast for us: some bake up bread. And that’s what it is. And then my school was just right across the street, which was a really nice setup, and that really enabled me to train that much. But yeah, it was very stressful. So Tuesday to Friday, I had to get up at 4:30. And then, on Saturday, our training started at 7 o’clock, so then I got up, I don’t know, like, 5:30 or something. And on Sunday, I finally had a rest. But yeah, that was lots of training, which really probably influenced me a lot. So you’re getting really determined: fighting for your goals and getting up every day at that age, like, all of my classmates back then were like, “you’re crazy! Why are you doing that?”, but it really teaches you so much, so, so much, and I’m still profiting of that. And I will probably for the rest of my life profit of that.

B: Yeah, probably also this this motivation or this desire to work for yourself and see your company grow, that probably also comes from your determination?

LN: Yeah, there’s definitely some parallels there.

B: Definitely, yeah. But then, why did you quit?

LN: I quit because studying Chemistry is very time-intensive. And I mean, I was doing really well in my swimming but, at some point, it was the decision: am I ever gonna make it to the Olympic games or not? And if not, then you should probably do something proper, to study something. And so one of my best friends actually made it to the Olympic games two times. And he was also swimming until last year. Actually, this year because Corona postponed the Olympic games, so this year. Unfortunately, didn’t make it, but he was in London in 2012 and in Rio in 2016. So I was training with him for a good part of my career.

B: Yeah.

LN: But, at some point, I realized I might be not that talented to go to the Olympic games, although I got quite far on the national level, and, therefore, I had to quit at some point. Because if you study Chemistry, you don’t have that much time to do it. And then there were always lab times in the afternoon, where you have to be in the lab doing research, and then you cannot go to the training anymore. And, at some point, it become becomes really stressful. And then I had to take a decision and yeah, chemistry was it.

B: Yeah, well, you did develop nickel zero complexes so you’ve done the chemical industry a favor, which is probably a good thing. But do you miss it?

LN: Swimming? Yeah, a little bit. I mean now I’m doing different sport and playing volleyball. But that’s just twice a week, just for fun, so it’s nothing competitive anymore.

B: Here in Mülheim?

LN: In Mülheim, right.

B: And you can still train because, with COVID…?

LN: Yeah. I mean there are certain regulations. Yeah, we cannot use the changing room, for example, but yeah.

B: But you don’t need to wear a mask, right?

LN: No, fortunately not.

B: Yes, because I find that crazy when I see people doing sport and they have a mask.

LN: People running outside with a mask – no way, what? I cannot even get upstairs with a mask.

B: Oh me too, yeah. So you picked up different sports?

LN: I picked up different sports. I’m occasionally still swimming but not that much anymore. But the problem is always that, like, in my head, I’m way too competitive. So when I’m actually jumping into the water, I’m just going all out always – I cannot control myself anymore – and then I’m, after being in the pool, I’m always so exhausted that, basically, the rest of the day is just couch time for me. Because I, again, couldn’t control how much effort I’m putting into that training. So there’s just no way for me to relax, swim just back and forth, I always just go for it. And then yeah, I’m too exhausted afterwards.

B: I mean, that’s fine, I guess.

LN: It’s fine.

B: You know how to swim so you can always jump in and swim. But it’s good to try other sports. You probably meet some people as well if you play volleyball?

LN: Yes. Yes, I mean I met very new friends when I started. So I actually started while I did my PhD here. Yeah, so I’m doing that for three years now, volleyball, yeah. It’s a lot of fun, yeah, but it’s not competitive anymore – it’s just for the pleasure of it.

B: So do you think you’re going to be based in Mülheim for a long time now? Are you thinking of moving somewhere else?

LN: No, I’m not thinking of moving. Because my girlfriend grew up here, and we’re going to get married, and we’re going to stay here, because the family is here, so… And I like Mülheim. I mean, back then, when I was asked to do my PhD here, I really thought of this as the very bad side of the Ruhr. And I was so positively surprised how nice Mülheim actually is. And I really like it here and I don’t want to move away anymore.

B: Crazy thought. I would move tomorrow if it wasn’t for the Institute. I would take the Institute with me.

LN: The Institute is very good.

B: No, I mean you do have a point, like, Mülheim is not as bad, yeah, as other areas in Ruhr.

LN: So depending on what you’re used to, yeah. I came from Wuppertal, which is also not the most beautiful city, exactly.

B: Yeah. How international is your company, though?

LN: So right now… So, mostly, Germany. But, okay, so there’s one company in Finland, one in Spain, one in Mexico, testing our product right now.

B: Okay, okay.

LN: So, but I don’t think we’re gonna have to move for that, yeah. So we can do everything from here, Germany’s internationally set up.

B: Yeah. Yeah, well, this has been a really cool talk! I really enjoyed it! You gave everyone a lot of cool tips if they want to start their own company or if they want to publish a patent. So thank you again so much for your time!

LN: Well, thanks for having me, Bea! It’s been a pleasure and I hope I was able to help somebody out there! If anybody needs a sparring partner for discussing things, they can approach me, I’m happy to discuss things with people and help out where I can.

B: Cool, yeah. So I know that you’re on LinkedIn, is there any other social media platform that you usually use that we can maybe link in the show notes so people can…?

LN: Actually, not anymore. Because I was wasting way too much time on these other platforms. I had Twitter for a long time, Facebook, Instagram. I deleted all of those because, otherwise I would just be sitting there and scroll, and scroll, and yeah. So LinkedIn. But I’m usually looking into LinkedIn every day so you can definitely approach me there.

B: Good, so then, yeah, we’ll put that in the show notes and then people can find you there. Okay, great, thank you so much!

LN: Yeah, thank you, Bea!

B: That’s it. Thank you all so much for listening! If you would like to learn more about what Lukas Nattmann does, you can follow him on linkedin. And if you like our podcasts – make sure to follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and instagram. Thank you all again for listening! Bye!

Offspring Magazine the Podcast is brought to you by the Max Planck PhDnet Science Communication group, known as the Offspring Magazine. The intro-, outro- music is composed by Srinath Ramkumar. And the pre-intro jingle is composed by Gustavo Carizzo. If you have any feedback, comments, or suggestions, please feel free to write us at offspring.podcast Until next week! Stay safe, stay healthy! Bye!

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