Co-founder & CEO of Impossible Materials
by the p2i Network
Dr Lukas Schertel
Since the interview, Lukas moved to University of Freiburg as senior researcher, continuing his start up journey alongside his research and since Oct 2022 has become full time CEO of Impossible Materials and in April 2023, they have closed an oversubscribed CHF 3.4m seed round to accelerate the market entry of cellulose white pigments and build a pilot facility.
It would be great if initially, you could give us a snapshot of your entrepreneurial venture and what it brings to the world. What problem are you solving, and what solution are you providing?
So I’ll start with a little context about myself. I have been working as a postdoc in the chemistry department at The University of Cambridge, primarily on optical materials and so came across quite exciting potential on materials that we used there. I took that further through the p2i Network to create a business proposal.
I’ve now been working on this spin out creation for over two years. It's about an optical material - making a white pigment out of cellulose. Nowadays, white pigments are everywhere around us - from the toothpaste that you use in the morning to the wall paint behind you. It's a market that is well established and mainly dominated by one material - titanium dioxide. However, this material has more and more regulations coming in, because it was classified as potentially cancerogenic. Therefore a lot of businesses are looking for alternatives.
I work in the group lead by Professor Silvia Vignolini in Cambridge on biomaterials & biopolymers, including cellulose. We developed the technology to make a very white material out of cellulose and that's what we're now trying to commercialise through this spin out company.
How did you come up with your initial idea and has it changed compared to what your venture does now?
Yes, it has evolved. Our group there in Cambridge have been working on so-called structural colours and not pigment/dye colours - so colours made from scattering and not absorption of light - and that is a way to play around with different kinds of materials. In the beginning I worked more on making all kinds of different colours, and the idea to focus on this white was then also largely driven by getting more involved with customers, the market, and understanding the problem that needed to be solved. There was already research on that before in the group but focusing on that technology and trying to work towards this was driven largely by the engagement with the market. So it's something that changed a lot.
Why is it the right time for this problem to be solved?
In our case it's driven by two factors. One is very obvious - as I said there are regulations coming in and there is this classification of titanium dioxide as a cancerogenic. These regulations have already come into force in France, and are implemented in the whole EU in 2022 in the food industry, so that's a driver for us. Secondly, there is a more general drive towards sustainable formulations, especially in health sensitive sectors, such as food, pharma and cosmetics, in terms of greener solutions to the products that we're using, and that is something that definitely drives our business opportunity.
Who does your team consist of and how did you create your team (co-founder and first employees)?
“Professor Silvia Vignolini is still part of and co-founder of this company and has always supported me, but I drove the developments. In the early stage that worked well through working together with people who were already entrepreneurs, and just getting advice. I had all the product/communication/technology side well covered, but eventually we reached a stage where we realised that it would be good to have someone in the founding team that has a bit more experience in business and finance negotiations; someone who had expertise and had also worked in this scene before. So we were lucky and reached out to someone in our network in Cambridge who comes with over 20 years’ experience and has been CEO of a material start-up.
Together, the three of us are co-founders of the company “Impossible materials”. The other co-founders match my skill set quite well. The co-founder we met from our Cambridge network has no tech background but an understanding of what is needed in material science, and comes with the business and finance background that I don't have. Having a team that compliments your skills is one part that is needed for success; doing everything yourself will really cause you to struggle.
Is there a recent achievement you are especially proud of?
It’s difficult to name one achievement. I would say it’s the general progress we have made on the customer side; we are getting our first funding through having some traction. We have sent out some materials and we have successfully negotiated a collaboration.
These developments keep me going, show me that there is interest, and motivate me to continue. Those little moments like your first paying customer feel more important than, for example, winning an award of any kind. We won several awards throughout the year - I think we have won three or four prizes - which is great, and gives you a lot of exposure towards investors and customers. But what really brings you forward is getting the business moving, so that feels more valuable.
What has been the biggest challenge you faced and how have you or are you overcoming this challenge?
"We believe we have a huge opportunity from the customer side, because there is a huge bill to replace the material currently used. However, that means we need to scale our business fast, and that means we need to have funding. Convincing investors that our material is an attractive proposition is not easy, because material science is associated with long time scales. So really having the business plan/vision going and bringing them over the line for the investment is the challenging part. We are facing a lot of difficulties because the landscape of investors nowadays is so focused on software, AI and all-things-robotics and other areas that allow you to expand very quickly. Whereas material science is quite a classic business.
The other thing is that if you're at a very early stage, you need to not only find someone that works with you, but some really good people, because each person that you add to the team is very valuable in the beginning. So to summarise, what I am currently finding challenging is identifying the right people and getting the investors on board.
Did you always know that you wanted to start a venture?
“No, Absolutely not. I never thought I would be in this position. I have worked in science for nearly 10 years now, and that’s because I really found it fascinating. I always knew I had an interest in more the applied industry side, but then the opportunity to start a venture and the interest came largely through my work in Cambridge. There are multiple opportunities I was fortunate enough to encounter in Cambridge to broaden my knowledge beyond science. So taking part in this p2i network training and participating in business plan competitions helped me identify my interest in entrepreneurship.
In your opinion, what are the similarities and differences between researchers in Academia and researchers turned start up founders?
"Similarities to academia that help you in the beginning of starting a business are being used to problem solving, which is something you need to do every day. As a postdoc you're very much used to working on a multitude of projects; you never only have one thing going. If you want to start a business you need to get involved in many very diverse topics, and that is something that shouldn't scare you off. So, being well organised is a shared skill.
Being able to communicate scientific details from your business is also a skill we are used to as scientists. Pitching is different to communicating your project in a talk, but the skill of transferring that knowledge to someone else - a targeted audience - is also something that you can say is a similarity.
In terms of the differences, I think business is much more solution focused. For example, say you solve a problem for a customer, in business sometimes you just need to be happy that it's actually working, even if you’re not sure why. I think as scientists, we often have a drive to dig into all details and that will hinder you from getting forward fast enough in the business world.
You also do more people management than technology management. In the early stages you’re doing technology management too, but you're also getting a team together, communicating with customers a lot, and communicating with people that are helping you. You still do the project management that you're used to, but instead of the technology side, it’s more on the people management side.
There are a lot of other topics we are not used to, from business planning to finances and so on, but I think in my opinion, these are all things that can be learned. There is no magic behind it and so I would say it's probably much easier for a scientist to become an entrepreneur than for an entrepreneur to become a scientist.
In 2019 you participated in a p2i In Action event and the p2i Online Course, and following those, in 2020, the Cambridge Postdoc Business Plan Competition. Can you list a few aspects (mindset, skills and competencies) you have observed in yourself after participating in the p2i opportunities, and how has this has helped you in your entrepreneurial ventures?
“Communication skills were something I improved during the p2i training. It's something that we can always work on, but understanding the mindset of investors and businesses is something I profited from after the training. For example, things like the business model canvas - I had never heard of this before as a scientist. Following the training, I was quite familiar with it. Learning how to structure a business plan helped me a lot, even though I didn't go on to use the technology I was working on during the course in my business. However, having a document structured in the right way was useful in the beginning, when we applied for our first funding innovation grants. Participating in the p2i training was also beneficial because it allowed me to prove that I have an entrepreneurial mindset towards, for example, funding agencies on my CV. Most scientists don’t have this, so it's an advantage when you really go out and try and raise funds for your business.
Would you say the p2i online course is a good starting point for researchers delving into entrepreneurship?
Yes, all of the 3 entrepreneurial programmes I participated in were quite different in terms of how the learning experience was delivered, but all of them had their advantages. The course is extremely useful because it's not an overwhelming amount of work as you can do it in your own time. On the other hand, during the business plan competition your communication skills are much more tested in person because you have to pitch, etc. So there's a range of different skills that you learn in the programmes, but all of them were beneficial. I did the online course before the business plan competition, and the course helped with the business plan competition - I can recommend completing the training in this order.
Would you recommend engaging in entrepreneurial activities to other researchers?
Yeah, for sure. Even if you are considering a career in industry, the skills that you learn through entrepreneurial training will help you in your industry job. I’m not saying that everyone needs to become an entrepreneur - that's not going to work - but entrepreneurial skills are widely appreciated in industrial jobs, and also even in scientific jobs in academia. It might broaden your communication. Nowadays when you think about academic careers, there's a lot of focus on how you need to acquire funding and things like that, and how you need to be able to present yourself in grants and show the bigger purpose and applications of the science, so thinking that through at that early stage is helpful for all kinds of other careers too.
What would you say to postdocs who want to pursue an academic career and perceive entrepreneurial activities as a shift away from their academic goals?
“It’s my personal opinion but I think at a certain stage when you're a postdoc and you have published 5-10 papers or so, no one will care about your 11th or 12th paper when you apply for a position. But people will care if they see that you have broadened your horizons in communication skills, which you can apply in industry settings, or in some interaction with other stakeholders. That has much more worth. It's not stealing a lot of time from your project either - at that stage where I completed the online course it was a few hours per week - and you can easily afford that compared to how much time you spend on research.
Did you have a supportive PI while you were starting your venture or did they need to be convinced that this would be a great opportunity for you, them and the research team? If they were hesitant, how did you convince them?you think that the p2i online course helped you with the business plan competition?
“I understand fully that this is a problem, however I was lucky in the sense that my PI was very supportive - not actively pushing me towards entrepreneurship - but allowing me the freedom to decide on my own to push for it. That's one of the reasons we are co-founders now - because I was supported.
I think perhaps PI's need to be made more aware of the advantages it can provide in postdoctoral careers beyond science. It might not always be in the PI's interest, and they may feel that time is better spent on something else. But at the end of the day, I think it's also an advantage for the career of the PI and for the research group if someone takes an idea and thinks about how their scientific discovery can actually be applied towards a product, because this is going to end up in a conclusion or an abstract of a paper, so it's a win-win.
What do you consider as key messages or takeaways from the p2i course/event for postdocs wishing to start their own venture?
“Whenever you change fields it's about understanding the language. If you have participated in these courses, for example, you get used to a lot of new words and things that are relevant for business planning, for pitching, and all this kind of stuff. l didn't understand the language of this topic before the training, and I think it prepares you quite nicely for later, when you really have to focus on planning your business. So basically, you don't have to overcome this extra hurdle because you already know what people expect from you and how to communicate it.
It's never too early to start learning. It takes a lot of time to create a company and I’m still in the process - I haven't ‘succeeded’ exactly yet. I have succeeded in some ways in that we have created the spin-out company and I enjoy what I’m doing, but it really takes a long time to establish relationships, understand the whole process beyond the technology, and establish customers, etc. So thinking through the very early stages during a postdoc, and just actually considering if you have any interest in entrepreneurship as early as possible is a good idea."
What are the top skills you would encourage a new founder to develop?
Coming back to what I just said - resilience. Also, because it's a lot about talking to people and selling this idea, communication and presenting skills can only be beneficial. Even if you feel you are not the person for the job, then get someone on board who can do it.
Work in a goal-oriented way and set small milestones. Set yourself small goals that you try to accomplish and then work yourself iteratively forward because it takes time, and having small achievements keeps you happy and keeps you motivated, because otherwise you might lose the resilience.
I would say start to engage as early as possible with all kinds of people. Networking is a huge factor in the early days. I would say the main message is talk to people, work out business plans, test them… and talk to even more people. I think scientists are often trained to work things out themselves and that's something that is different if you want to start a business; you need to have the ability to ask for help, and not be afraid of doing so. So always engage with customers, engage with other people, test your business idea, test your material, test everything and learn from that feedback.
Is there anything you would have done differently in hindsight?
There’s not one big thing; it’s a lot of minor things. I think this is how life and the learning curve goes. Maybe engaging earlier with someone with complementary skills - the earlier you can test your idea the better. Yes, it can fail, but at least you know early on.
Is there any advice / parting pearls of wisdom you would give to someone at the beginning of their journey?
Ask for help, as I just said. If you really want to lead this project then you really have to lead it; by lead it I mean run after people if they don't get things done, or do it yourself. Engage with people, and get everything together. Go through the different hurdles but don't panic if not everything works out - that’s normal life!
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