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Success Stories

Katie KollhoffCo-Founder + CEO, NUMiX Materials

"The myth of the independent entrepreneur is just that—a myth."

Biography

Katie Kollhoff is a part-time Master of Engineering Management student and a safety engineer at Northwestern University. She has a B.S. in chemical engineering and over ten years of experience consulting with a range of clients from the chemical process industries to major food processing to research and development at the lab scale. Her first introduction to the hazardous waste space was a summer job in college, where she was a labpack chemist at a household hazardous waste facility. Her career has been built around protecting communities and the environment through safe handling of toxic materials. She is known for developing reasonable solutions to compliance with complicated federal, state and local rules while meeting business goals and keeping workers safe. Tackling big, worthwhile problems with a notable effect on people and the planet is her passion.

Farley Q&A

How did the idea for NUMiX come about and how did your team form?

My Co-Founder Matt and I had been working together through previous MEM classes. We knew we wanted to take a NUvention class together to ‘try on’ starting out a business. We went to an intro session a couple of weeks before the class started. There we met our Co-Founder, Olivia [Lugar], and we were shown a portfolio of patents that INVO, the tech transfer office, had ready for students to work on.

We found an interesting intersection where our lives and careers overlap. Matt is an equipment design engineer. I’m on the safety and hazardous waste side. Olivia has done contracts in that space. Also, Olivia’s mom runs a municipal solid waste facility. So, we came across this overlap, then Matt pointed out the technology that fits within our intersection [in our interests/backgrounds], and we and spent the winter break before class brainstorming what a business could look like.

On the first day of NUvention: Energy, we went around the classroom to make introductions and discuss what we would be interested in working on during the 10 weeks of the course. The future NUMiX crew was all sitting in the front row. I said I think I’d like to work on this patent. Because everyone else in the row had been in on early discussions, we all said the same thing.

Then, when it's Laurelle [Banta]'s turn to speak in the second row, she says, “I’m interested in this adjacent thing,” and it took off from there!

What were some challenges you had to overcome as an entrepreneur?

Keeping a certain mindset can be a challenge. The idea of having a work-life balance or some steady state doesn’t exist right now, so embracing that way of being and riding the rollercoaster has been a key to moving forward. Also, using critical feedback as good information to inform next steps has been a technique the whole team has dug into. Time management is another persistent challenge, as entrepreneurship is much less-structured than an office job. This is very self-driven.

What’s an example day for you now?

On any day, I might be doing data analysis and reviewing test results with Olivia and Laurelle, focusing on team development and introspection, or pitching potential investors. I might be talking to customers about future projects, I might be strategizing finance with Matt. I may have somewhere between five and ten roles. It’s a lot, but it’s awesome! It’s so much fun to be constantly challenged and I feel well prepared for the massive growth that happens as a result.

How do you feel NUvention helped you and your team?

One of the best things that we took away from NUvention was pitching skills—tailoring pitches to different audiences, rapidly accepting their feedback, sorting through it, incorporating what’s valuable and discarding what’s not in line with our vision. Essentially, we learned how to tell a good story. That proved to be really helpful in competitions.

In most competitions, there’s a day of practice where you get 30 minutes to pitch and 30 minutes of feedback. Judges want to see that you’ve heeded or addressed the criticism they've given between the practice day and the competition. That’s where the mindset of ‘taking criticism as beneficial’ comes in. We really learned and practiced that in NUvention. In the course, teams are pitching every single week, starting from week one. We made a point of pitching every single week in NUvention: Energy, even if it wasn’t our turn.

For me, coming into the course I was a nervous, introverted Engineer, so forcing myself to pitch, listening to how the message was received, refining it based on feedback, and then having the opportunity to practice these steps over again during those ten weeks of the course was a big personal growth opportunity. It helped me push through my own limitations.

Also, across the board, the class resources were top notch. We still use them today. I feel that NUVention provides some of the best entrepreneurship training available.

What are the next steps for NUMiX?

Our next big step is to take in outside investment, which we plan to do in the next six months. In the meantime, we are focused on developing and understanding customers in our beachhead market, then analyzing goodness-of-fit for crossing into follow-on markets in the years to come.

At Rice [Business Plan Competition], back in April and then again in June, interested investors would ask us if we were raising. I told a lot of people 'no' at that point. My view was that we needed to prove certain things to ourselves before being able to be a good steward of other people’s money. We had to get to a point where we could say to ourselves, ‘this is viable,’ based on customer validation of our product-market fit hypothesis. Now, we know how much production we’ll need to sustain in order to solve the customer’s problems, and we have an idea of how expensive their pain is. Reaffirming that the market need is there was a big push toward beginning to consider building more quickly. We have a few more steps, but test pilots for customers are planned for January 2019.

Any advice for aspiring innovators?

Do it! The world needs your energy, creativity, and passion. But listen while you are doing it! Then seek out people who tell you 'no,' and ask why. Seek to understand all of the reasons they said 'why not' objectively.

Make sure that you are being honest with yourself about what your intentions are and what you can offer to a team. Take time to be introspective. I hope by now the myth of the independent entrepreneur is by the wayside. [Entrepreneurship] is so people heavy. So much of it is about relationships, and understanding how you participate in relationships is nearly as, if not more important than, the technology that you’re seeking to market. Think about what drives the team forward, taking into account independent spirits and desires and individual goals and how those map on to what needs to be done to drive the organization forward.

NUMiX is a very diverse team. How has that helped and/or impacted your entrepreneurial experience?

I have generally worked in male-dominated fields and often have been the only woman on my team, in meetings, or in the manufacturing facility. Being on a team with rockstar women is great, especially with my teammates, Laurelle and Olivia, who are among the most incredible human beings that I’ve ever met in my life. Their strength and openness and ability to analyze situations and creativity and communication go above and beyond. I am constantly inspired by them as people, and they each add incredible depth and passion to the team.  

My other advice to entrepreneurs—build a diverse team with depth of skill, breadth of expertise, different backgrounds, and experience.

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