Greg Olson - Farley Fellow Q&A
Olson is a leader and pioneer in the field of computational materials design. In 1996, he co-founded QuesTek Innovations, a new-materials design company and global leader in integrated computational materials engineering. In 2005, QuesTek was named on Fortune magazine’s list of 25 breakthrough companies.
What was your first introduction to design?
As a student and researcher at MIT, I had this interest in music composition. I studied it for 20 years. I was lead trumpet in the MIT jazz band for 17 years, and our band director was probably the most distinguished professor across the river at the Berklee School of Music. At the very end of all my minors in music, he let me sit in on his top-level Duke Ellington course. I learned how to write for an 18-piece jazz band in the style of Duke Ellington with these very complex structures. I had an epiphany in the course and thought, "This must be what engineering is."
I was able to see these analogies between the evolution of a composition and the evolution of materials. When you're writing a composition you're not discovering something, you're not looking for something that's out there, you're creating something. You're using what you learned to make something happen that you want to happen. I took the principles of music composition and I took all this material science knowledge and I created computational materials design.
That was my design education. That was my model of engineering. So, yes, I'm a nutjob.
What prompted you to commercialize your materials science research?
In 1982 my daughter was born, and it turned me into a mammal. I suddenly had this urge to contribute to society. So I started thinking seriously about creating technology — something of actual value instead of stuffing stuff in a library. That's where it started, wanting to be a responsible member of society.
View Greg Olson's faculty profileI knew that if I really want to practice this design technology I was creating, I had to start a company. I didn't know how. And it's still true. I'm not really interested in business. I'm interested in enterprise. It's not about making money for me. It's getting my technology out.
I was looking for help at the time. At that time, in the mid-’90s, it wasn't respectable in the academic culture to have a company on the side. So I thought it ought to be a serious activity at McCormick, and I wanted this company to come through the front door. So I subjected myself to endless committee meetings. I suffered. They were asking me how I wanted to do it, and I was asking them how should I do it. Nobody had the answers until Ira (Uslander, former director of industry relations at Northwestern) showed up. We got the thing going.
I give (former McCormick dean) Jerry Cohen credit. He had this notion that for faculty entrepreneurship to work, you need to structure the company in a way that you only have an adviser role, because you can't be doing the day-to-day. That was pretty clear to everyone. He came up with the idea of the entrepreneurial sabbatical. The idea was to go into the company full-time on your sabbatical and structure it so I could walk away from it. Jay Johnson from Abbott came and joined as board chairman and temporary CEO. So Jay was retiring from Abbott, and he really turned it into a business at the time.
We did need to raise some money, and Jay was using his connections to do that. We had talked to a few VCs, but it was pretty clear they were only going to give you about three years. We knew we needed more than that, so we managed to raise money with some angel investors who, in the end, didn’t get a return for 12 years. And they had the patience. With technology you need that, and you need to know you need that. Unfortunately, a couple of them died before they got their return. Real angels.
What is happening with your company now?
QuesTek had a major event last October when a famous Silicon Valley consumer electronics company — who is the most secretive company in the world and was the world's biggest company back in October, but will rename nameless — came in and bought half the company. Under the deal, our CEO and core design group left the company. As part of it too, they bought our proprietary software and databases but under agreement we're allowed to use it. But they don't want us selling again to competitors so they were trying to slow us down. We can continue to do our design service work, but it would be difficult in the near term for us to sell again. In the long term, though, we can see ways we can rebuild with commercial software. But we've agreed to stay out of consumer electronics.
Tell us about a failure or frustrating experience you have had to overcome.
One day an ice-cream researcher from a Chicago gum company approached me and wanted to know if I thought our approach to steel design could be applied to low-fat ice cream. I certainly wasn't going to say no. We had a lot of fun. I had breakfast with the nation's leading ice-cream researchers. It was interesting to see what they knew and what they didn't know.
We saw the opportunity, but unfortunately Unilever bought out all American ice cream and moved research to England. The researcher left and was at Nestle for a while but then came back to work in the gum business in Chicago. So he supported my first PhD student in bubble gum. I advised a four-year student who built out the science of bubble gum and designed the world's highest-performance bubble gum. The company already had the highest performance bubble gum on the market, but it was only slightly better than normal bubble gum. The normal stuff has four components; this was 16 components.
The challenge was to develop a formula that met that performance of the 16-component bubble gum, but with the manufacturing simplicity of four components. We came up with the approach and we benchmarked the existing gums. Then we did some serious modeling and adapted principles of the “bag blowing” technology by which polyethylene garbage bags are produced. It all had to do with molecular weight distributions. In the end, we came up with a bubble gum that was way better than the gum they had. And so a preliminary filing was made between the University and the company, but there were some issues with the company’s commitment and some poor communication, and we lost it. We lost the protection on the “super bubble.”
I've since had some Design Thinking and Communication teams look at this and see if there's a part, some process technology, of this thing we could protect so we could spin-off the super bubble. I think it still has potential. I would like to see the Wildcat bubble company.
How do you think the entrepreneurial landscape could be improved?
Well, if they made me emperor, I would create a National Engineering Foundation, equal and opposite to the National Science Foundation. On the national level, we need to step up to engineering, show that we respect it as much as science, and give it a foundation. The NEF would look at new ways to engineer that are deliberately structured to use the new sciences out there. I think it would also help the scientists figure out what they should be working on.