Science and Technology: out of the lab, into the market

By Eloise Vitelli, Special to the BDN
Have confidence. Be willing to take risks. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Sound advice for any entrepreneur, but these tips are offered especially to women contemplating a technology-based enterprise by someone clearly in the know.
Susan MacKay of Orono is founder and CEO of two such enterprises: Zeomatrix started in 2006; and now Cerahelix.With a PhD in chemistry, MacKay knows something about the science behind her business of advanced water filtration systems, and has learned a great deal about building successful ventures.
Her background of working in the private sector for both small and large corporations grounded her in the areas of product development, sales and marketing. When she was ready to take her own ideas to the market, she was wise enough to surround herself with mentors and advisers who could fill gaps in her knowledge.
“Mentors and networking are key,” according to MacKay. Maine is a good place to start a business, she notes, in that our scale makes it easier to connect with individuals and programs that are there to help. The support she got from the Maine Technology Institute and as a participant in the Top Gun program were critical to her early success.
“Finding the right people to pitch your ideas to takes time,” she said.
To grow her new venture, she is expanding her network of potential investors and customers beyond Maine’s borders.
Never give up. No is not an answer. Follow your passion.
Susan Corbett, CEO and owner of Axiom Technologies, an Internet service business based in Machias, offers those words of advice.
Corbett turned to her technology venture out of sheer necessity. She needed access to broadband Internet to conduct her billing service; reliable broadband was not to be found, so she determined to build out a broadband network in one of the most rural, sparsely populated parts of the state.
“Entrepreneurs in a certain age group — 40-60 — have to learn the technology, unlike younger generations who have been using computers since they were [age] 3,” she said, and admits proudly to being self-taught.
The only female-owned Internet service provider among a field of 40 in Maine, Corbett had to work at convincing financial institutions to lend a hand as she got her business off the ground. She followed her own advice and kept at it.
“I take a collaborative approach with everyone, including my customers,” she said.
She has been able to leverage public funding to build out her service, providing a public good and good jobs in her community. Among her own employees, she is actively mentoring young women’s skills in marketing and communication, by teaming them up with the (mostly) male technical support staff. In Corbett’s view, this combination fosters excellent customer service and a more versatile staff.
Women entrepreneurs in the technology sector can use their “high-touch communication” and customer service skills to their advantage, according to Meriby Sweet, senior partner in Ropewalk, a collaborative consulting business. Even where they may feel a lack of technical “expertise,” it seems to be “easier for women to have meaningful conversations with customers,” she observes, and, as one of Sweet’s clients discovered, “talking to customers can be a gold mine.” Asking questions and then listening to their answers can provide insight into how the product or service is really functioning to solve problems, where slight improvements could be made, and even how the product stacks up against competitors.
On the other hand, where women tech entrepreneurs may get hung up, in Sweet’s view, is in the “art of the deal.” Where outside investors are concerned, women tend to lack the language of finance and can be turned off by the tone and posturing of the negotiations involved in wooing the right outsiders into the business.
Developing the vocabulary of finance is important; so is having a clear plan for growth, the faith in one’s own abilities, combined with a realistic market assessment. As CEO MacKay puts it, “You have to know what you need and have a plan.” In fact, she believes in having several different strategies for going forward, advice she was once given by a professor.
Increasing activity in STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is seen as one of the keys to economic vitality, both in Maine and the nation, and increasing women’s earning power.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women in STEM careers earn 33 percent more than in other fields.
There is lots of room in the tech sector, notes Susan MacKay, who is doing her part to create a science and technology “hub” in Maine. Both she and Susan Corbett stand as positive role models for those wanting to join them in creating technology-based enterprises.