Be prepared for the spotlight to be on you — I’m not a natural extrovert, I have had to train myself to be able to confidently appear in public and to get the company and technology across successfully. You need to get used to the fact that as a founder, it’s hard to hide.
As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin O’Toole, Managing Director and Co-Founder of Exergyn.
Based in Dublin, Ireland, Kevin is the CEO and Co-Founder of Exergyn, a creative-clean tech company specializing in the application of shape memory alloy (SMA). A mechanical/manufacturing engineer by trade, Kevin has spent over 15 years working in the field and received his Doctorate in 2011 from the Technical University of Dublin. He is a chartered engineer with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I am at heart a technology geek who likes to understand how things work, which stems from watching my dad work as I grew up. It was inevitable that I would pursue engineering in some form. My initial interaction as an engineer with shape memory alloys (SMA) — which is central to all of Exergyn’s work — was in the biomedical space, developing them for use in prosthetics. However I couldn’t help but feel that the phenomenon which underlies SMA had so much more potential, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. This thought process churned in my head for a few years, and then serendipitously through discussions with a colleague in the energy space, Dr. Barry Cullen. We identified that SMA was an ideal candidate technology to fulfill a gap he had identified. This cross-pollination of our independent research directions ultimately resulted in the formation of Exergyn which has been ongoing now for nearly a decade.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Securing and maintaining funding in the early years was tough. We develop large-scale hardware, which has a much longer incubation period than software. The lead time, resources and costs required to get hardware to a point where something viable can be demonstrated is much larger and fraught with risk — particularly for such an experimental technology such as ours was back then. Couple that with the fact that we were working with a little-known technology (SMA) which meant that we had to simultaneously educate people as to the possibilities, and convince them that this was worth taking the chance on. We had to do this consistently to maintain staff engagement and focus on the technology.
On one occasion we actually ran out of cash, meaning we didn’t have the funds to pay our team their salaries for one month. That was extremely difficult. Sitting staff down and explaining this is not something I would like to go through again, particularly considering we were a small tight-knit team, and I was aware of most people’s personal circumstances. Having that on my shoulders through that period enhanced the difficulty of the situation. Our staff was great though; we managed to somehow maintain the whole team and got our funding back online not long afterward.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
A few factors come into play for me. Firstly, as a technologist, I had a vision of the technology rolling out and gaining acceptance in the industry. I still maintain as much desire to see that happen today as in the early days. Secondly, I was used to hard frugal times from studying for a Ph.D. — one gets used to making the most of a very basic salary, so I found ways to get by. And thirdly, and probably most importantly, I learned early on to compartmentalize my thoughts to deal with the lows & negativity we experienced on occasion, in so far as possible. I’m an optimist by nature, and my internal process is to continue to search for chinks of light and options even in the darkest times. This ability to somehow override negative thoughts and believe in myself gave me comfort and allowed me to continue.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today we have proved out the fundamentals of the technology, are working with a world-class multinational partner and the future is extremely bright. The technology has surpassed expectations and is starting to get noticed at the right levels and by the right people. There are still days when things go wrong or the unexpected occurs, but that’s the nature of R&D. We have the knowledge, tools, people and processes to get around these issues. I worry less about funding and resources than I did in the early days as I know we are sitting on something desirable.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It wasn’t a mistake per se, but I do remember the mental gymnastics we partook in to attempt to justify that our first prototype outputted a whopping 60W for 4 seconds. We were desperate for a win but we couldn’t be sure that we had produced the power, or whether a minor fluctuation on the grid caused it. We took it as a win and moved on, but looking back it was most likely a grid fluctuation. However, we made hay whilst the sun shone and used this as a psychological victory. It helped morale and we pushed onto greater things over the years. We also have a back catalogue of failures and have seen metal fail in ways that were unimaginable — the “museum” as we call it. The less said about that the better…
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The people and the technology. Our staff is our lifeblood. Many of them have started with us when we were a small struggling start-up, and have grown with the company and the technology as we made our breakthroughs. The knowledge and know-how they hold is second to none in our field. Coupled with our very unique technology which is pretty much unknown in the mainstream, this forms a formidable combination of factors that helps us stand out. I have held multiple conversations with some of the biggest and most successful companies in the world, educating them on SMA and its possibilities. It is exciting to see their surprised reactions when showing results or demonstrating the technology in action.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s probably obvious, but it’s absolutely essential to manage your own time and workload. Every founder thinks they can keep going 24/7, but they’re mostly lying to you or themselves. At the very least they cannot remain at the top of their game, from my experience anyway. So, take your breaks and enjoy your days off and your holidays, try to switch off, as difficult as that can be! Don’t be the person who sends out emails at 3 am to prove how hard they are working, as it’s ultimately counterproductive. Sometimes the best solutions to problems occur in the unconscious mind when least expected and when resting. Allow and trust that process, it seems to me to be a built-in evolutionary trait.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Probably my parents. They have always been supportive since I was young and spent long hours helping me through my schoolwork. In 2005, when I graduated with my B.Eng degree, I had a choice between taking a good graduate position in a well-respected engineering firm in Dublin or rolling the dice, traveling for a year and writing an application for my Ph.D. I asked them what I should do — fully expecting them to say that I should take the job. They didn’t though, they encouraged me to go traveling and think about what I really wanted. I ended up writing and submitting my Ph.D. application from a beach in Thailand on the worst internet connection imaginable. That was ultimately approved and I returned a few months later to begin my career working with shape memory alloys — where I remain today.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I haven’t yet, to be honest. I hope though that via the industrial adoption of our technology, a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved. Our appeal will be to the logical, financially astute side of the business, not the altruistic side. By appealing to the pockets of business to adopt our technology because it is the best solution (whilst also being the cleanest), a substantial impact on emissions can legitimately be the by-product. I’d like to look back someday and say I had a part in bringing that goodness to the world.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why.
- Know who you are getting into business with — you will likely fall out with them at some point on the journey, perhaps for good. People have different motivations, and they are not always going to align with your ideals or drive. Therefore invest in getting the right advice and right agreements in place upfront from the get-go.
- The highs and lows can be extreme. I have had multiple occasions where the team has delivered another outstanding result, only to be brought crashing back to earth by some bad news in a different part of the business. Knowing that the team members, and ultimately their families, are depending on me to keep them financially stable acts like a stress multiplier — in both directions!
- Be prepared for the spotlight to be on you — I’m not a natural extrovert, I have had to train myself to be able to confidently appear in public and to get the company and technology across successfully. You need to get used to the fact that as a founder, it’s hard to hide.
- Finding time to switch off is difficult but absolutely necessary. This is the biggest lesson of all for me. If you think you can continue under abnormally high stress, minimum sleep whilst still delivering your best for a sustained period of time, you are likely wrong. I have found that this just can’t be done to any meaningful degree. The company will not disappear overnight if you take a few days off, especially if you have a good staff that you can trust.
- Attaining financial independence is really, really hard. This was the advice given to me by a well-known, successful entrepreneur whom I look up to. And I’ve found it to be very true. The whole journey has taken more time, more money and had more problems than I ever imagined possible in the idealistic days when we started the company.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Try to keep everything balanced and your demeanor centered insofar as possible. The lows will be extremely low but allow yourself time to think of avenues out. Get rest, switch off. Let your unconscious brain do some of the heavy liftings. Believe in yourself that these things can happen. A good night’s sleep also does wonders for a reset to allow you to tackle the problem with a fresh pair of eyes the following day. Usually, things are never as bad as they first seem, so learn how your body reacts to bad news and let the process happen. Listen to others, such as colleagues or advisors. Everyone has different approaches to problems, some of which may complement your own thinking, or inspire solutions of your own.
Equally don’t celebrate wins too early, or get carried away spending your potential fortune in your head only for it to be taken away from you at the last minute. Resist the temptation to look at that new expensive car or house you plan on buying until it happens. The disappointment of failure is bad enough without the added amplification of what you are potentially going to miss out on!
Let the company stand on its merits or not at all. Creating false hype about a product may give you some short-term gains, but the course of time will expose the actual facts. Therefore, keep your head on your shoulders, don’t get carried away with your own excitement.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would certainly not be the originator of the movement, but I would throw all my weight behind any movement to educate the world in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). A STEM education is the gateway to logical, critical thinking, which seems to be on the decline recently — ironically through the likely influence of some technologies. That said, a STEM education, if done right, will lead to humanity being in a position to understand their influence on the world around us, and to come up with the solutions to help tackle the big questions.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
We keep a reasonably low profile at the moment but our website (www.exergyn.com) and company LinkedIn profile are the best places. I am hopeful that as a result of some of our breakthroughs you will be reading more about Exergyn in the press and technology journals in the near future.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!