advertisement
advertisement

I’m a scientist. This is what I had to ‘unlearn’ to build a successful business

Karn Manhas, CEO of Terramera, explains how he had to shift his mindset to build a sustainable company.

I’m a scientist. This is what I had to ‘unlearn’ to build a successful business
[Photo: agencyby/iStock]

My basement back in 2009 was a sight to behold. There were beakers, bottles, flasks, and pipettes everywhere, compounds with serious-looking labels, and dozens of tubes and spray bottles.

advertisement
advertisement

I’ll admit it looked suspicious—enough so that when the utility guy came over one day he winked and asked me to “hit him up” with some of whatever I was cooking. But if it was drugs he was after, I could only offer drugs for bugs.

For months, I’d been working on an all-natural way to control bed bugs without using harmful synthetic chemicals. When I hit on a successful formula I knew I had something special, but after I set off to secure patents and incorporate the business a big question loomed: Now what?

Having a background in science was key in the inquiry, but I quickly realized that my degree in genetics and biotechnology didn’t exactly equip me with the skills to successfully bring it to market. In fact, I’d even say I had to “unlearn” a few aspects of my scientific training in order to become an entrepreneur.

Letting go of the “what ifs”

My passion for science stemmed from curiosity about the world. After all, the role of scientists is to ask questions—lots of them—without necessarily having an answer or a destination in mind. Following a path of inquiry wherever it leads has given us some of the most important discoveries of our time; everything from insulin to x-rays, we owe to a scientific process that essentially asks, “What happens if I do this?”

In getting my company off the ground, however, I learned that entrepreneurs have to go about things from the other direction—asking instead, “How do we make this happen?” Rather than focusing on questions, it’s about focusing on answers, assuming solutions are out there, and working to find them.

You have to trust you’ll find the answers as you go, not hold yourself back until you think you’ve got every potential problem figured out.”

This change in mindset was subtle, but its necessity hit home for me in our early stages when we struggled to get out of R&D mode and into the market. The scientist in me could have happily stayed in the lab forever, tweaking chemistries in an effort to gather more information and hit on a more “perfect” formulation. But as anyone who’s even dabbled in business knows, getting something to market, and iterating based on real feedback from customers, is essential.

advertisement

You have to trust you’ll find the answers as you go, not hold yourself back until you think you’ve got every potential problem figured out. The more I let go of my scientist’s tendency to continually ask “what if,” the more I found that the concrete “how to’s” began to reveal themselves.

Learning the value of a good story 

Though I’m proud of my senior thesis in college, I’ll concede that “A Characterization of Genetic Mutations Among Patients Expressing Non-Phenylketonuria Hyperphenylalaninaemia (non-PKU HPA) Symptoms in Rural Quebec Populations” may not exactly be a compelling read for the general public. The work of scientists is extremely important, but the scope can sometimes be very narrow. Often, until much research has been accumulated, there can be a gap in communicating why the research and discoveries are important or how they fit into the big picture in a way that’s accessible. In short, as scientists, we are often not very good at telling stories.

Storytelling isn’t a new business concept, but it’s easily overlooked when you’ve spent your days focusing on the measurable details of studies, and you’re up to your eyeballs in the specifics of granular data and charts. In contrast, to get anywhere as a business, you need buy-in from consumers, investors, even your own employees. That means transcending the narrow confines of data and hypothesis and telling your story in a way that connects with people on a personal and emotional level. Also key: clearly and quickly communicating what the problem is that you’re solving, and what difference you are making to people and the world.

This was critical as we started to scale Terramera and grow from just making bug spray to applying our technology to agriculture and the food we eat. Motivating the team, investors, and consumers required coming up with a cohesive narrative.

Today, the kind of research and experimentation we do hasn’t necessarily changed. But how we connect and communicate has progressively gotten better—and that makes all the difference. We’re not just investigating more efficient and sustainable crop protection, pest and disease control, or the uptake of molecules at the cellular level. We’re working to reduce the global use of synthetic chemical pesticides by 80% and increase farm productivity by 20%. We have the technology to do it, and fixating on the end state is key to decision-making, strategy, and scaling to see that into reality.

Seeing business as a force for good

We hear so much today about millennials and Gen Z wanting to build meaningful careers with real purpose, be that through nonprofits, the arts, academia, or research organizations. Those are perfectly noble pursuits. But I’d add to that list applying technology and starting or working in a mission-driven business, especially if impact and scale are priorities.

advertisement

I could have spent my life in a lab incrementally adding to humanity’s collective knowledge, which is critical and important work. But my passion is to challenge conventions and team up with others who want to find solutions for some of the biggest challenges of our time. In the end, the most effective way I could see to do that was through entrepreneurship.

The fact is, solutions are only meaningful and maximally impactful if they are accessible, scalable, and economically sustainable. And here, the levers of capitalism can help. I’ve learned this firsthand as I’ve grown my business. To make good on our story, we need to succeed as a business. Changing a massive industry like agriculture, after all, requires global solutions. It’s not enough to only help a few farmers, or only those cultivating high-end, high-value greens and specialty products. While it is important to “cross the chasm” starting with a concrete, even if small or specialized, market area, having an impact requires getting your product into the hands of farmers everywhere. It means partnering with big industry players and new startups alike. It means attracting investment and developing a world-class workforce of thousands.

The engine behind all of that is economics and profitability. We can’t reach our goal of propelling our food systems toward environmental sustainability if we’re not sustainable, economically.

There’s this notion that there are two kinds of people, those who do good in the world without caring about money, and those who actively engage in commerce while caring only about money. That’s simply untrue. Money is a tool, a ledger of exchange for value. When we create solutions that solve some of the biggest problems of our time: That’s real value and real impact. Done well, business has an enormous capacity to truly move the world forward.

I couldn’t have imagined back in my basement lab where I’d be today. Science got me started on this path, and I couldn’t keep up with the progress our team is making in our labs and workshops without that background. But the entrepreneurial toolkit—one so rarely taught formally or in schools—has been equally important: the confidence to chase answers, not just questions, and move, however haltingly, from theory to solutions that create real value and impact.


Karn Manhas (@karnmanhas) is the founder of Terramera, which focuses on using technology to grow affordable, clean food for everyone.

advertisement
advertisement