Polyurethane. Probably not something you think about much. But it’s everywhere.
It keeps your home warm, softens your mattress and cushions your sofa. You wear it, run in it and drive in it. Play sport? Chances are you’re using it. You’ll also find it in electronics, paints and adhesives. Polyurethane is one of the world’s truly ubiquitous materials.
It’s also big business. 24 billion pounds of polyurethane material will be produced this year. As an industry, it’s currently worth more than $50 billion a year, and estimated to rise to $80 billion by 2023 (according to Global Market Insights, Inc.). Like so many other industries, it’s also being disrupted.
Econic Technologies, founded just over 3 years ago, is one company doing the disrupting.
Econic’s catalysts are created by removing expensive, petroleum-derived content usually found within polyurethane, and replacing it with carbon dioxide, a waste by-product. Less oil required and more CO2 in its place results in a lower cost, cleaner, high performing material.
The company’s award-winning technology is powerful, with a first-class group of investors, enthusiastic technology partners and success in achieving its major milestones. But the journey has not been without its challenges. Econic’s Chief Executive, Rowena Sellens:
“I joined the company in 2014 and after settling in, a number of things occurred to me. The first was that despite our small size, we had some talented individuals around the table. They were very smart and some of them were very experienced, particularly on the board. The second thing was that we had no strong sense of team. We had a group of individuals, each with their own views, style and priorities. My priority was to create a team.”
Transition and Team Building
This wasn’t easy. For one, there was the transition between the academic environment in which Econic had started, and the new professional environment that was emerging.
New responsibilities were defined, creating roles that required different ways of behaving, different disciplines and focus. For those without any prior corporate experience, this represented a big change.
“Going from an academic environment to a business one while you’re still situated on campus is challenging. Many of the people are used to relating to one another as students and supervisors, not professionals. For those who haven’t worked in such an environment before, it’s a big change. We talk about things like ‘leadership’, ‘delivery’ and ‘teamwork’, and for many of them, it’s the first time they’ve had to adopt these concepts in a professional environment.”
There were also challenges related to team interaction.
“One of the challenges facing academic spinouts is that younger members of the team are not accustomed to challenging their supervisors. We see this more in the private sector but for post-docs, it can be uncomfortable. But it’s vital that they get comfortable with this quickly. They have to move beyond the previous role as a student or researcher, and find their voice within the company.”
While the development of the team was ongoing, the board was focused on results. They understood the challenge in realising value from new chemistry. While the opportunities are enormous, the ecosystems are dominated by large corporates that often adhere to different timescales.
As Rowena tells it:
“We have always had a very supportive group of investors, but they want to make sure we hit our marks. The challenge with any new chemistry innovation lies in achieving value beyond what the industry would normally pay. The benchmarks are pretty well-defined and they represent the targets that technology companies like ours aim for as our starting point. Getting beyond those is the real challenge.”
Econic wrestled with all of this while continuing its focus on team building. The management knew that if people on the team related to one another in a more powerful way, many of the technical and commercial challenges would be easier to overcome.
There were uncomfortable conversations. There were role changes. Members of the team were forced to go beyond what many felt was possible. It was hard.
But in the space of 12-months, changes started to show through. People were coalescing as a team, working together. Confidence grew and motivation increased. Technical challenges were overcome and milestones met. Commercial progress accelerated. The new fundraising got away successfully and ahead of schedule.
According to Rowena:
“We’ve still got a long way to go but I’m convinced that the upfront effort and focus on building the team has affected us in a very powerful, very positive way. It’s formed the basis of our culture, and I’m proud to say that we have a great place to work as a result.
At the heart of it, we have the belief that we have great ability as a team, and we can develop that as well as deliver our business challenges. It helps that we’ve had a good amount of success so far, of course. But without going through what we went through, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in and have the confidence to tackle the bigger challenges ahead.”
Building a team means more than just hiring great people.
It means finding a way to bring people together over things they really care about. It means having difficult conversations that keep people engaged, but that are also in the best interest of the company. It means challenging individuals in ways that may be uncomfortable but that are important for them to grow.
At the Peloton Leadership Network, we understand that success is a journey.
The Peloton Leadership Network is a management consulting group that helps young technology businesses maximise their talents, capabilities and opportunities. Through executive data analytics, coaching & education and executive search services, we help transform high potential businesses into high impact companies.