Inside Kellogg had the opportunity to connect with Kellogg alumnus, Benjamin Hernandez (JD-MBA 2013, Founder & CEO of NuMat Technologies), about the founding of NuMat, its evolution as a company, and what he learned along the way about leadership–especially during COVID-19.
NuMat Technologies began at Northwestern. Can you tell us about how your partnership with Dr. Omar Farha began and the founding of NuMat?
While pursuing my JD-MBA at Kellogg, I met two unique individuals: One was a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering, Christopher Wilmer, and the other a young research faculty member in the department of chemistry, Omar Farha. Their research focused on the application of high-performance computing to design cutting edge nanomaterials called MOFs that could solve complex societal challenges such as carbon capture or energy storage. What united the three of us was a shared vision of what the future might be if we could successfully commercialize this technology in solving the problems that matter. Our relationship developed naturally and was not tied to any entrepreneurship class or program at Northwestern. However, the Kellogg and Northwestern experience provided the platform where I was able to meet two immensely talented individuals who became my co-founders for NuMat Technologies and dear friends.
The catalyst for us starting the company was a business plan competition sponsored by the Clean Energy Trust in Chicago. The prize was $100,000, which at the time seemed like a fortune. We ended up winning the competition, at which point we decided to enter every other business plan competition in the U.S. where prizes exceeded $100,000. We won every single one and walked away with almost $1.5 M in three months, all during my first year at Kellogg. The rest is history.
How has NuMat evolved over the years, especially as new challenges emerged?
Today, NuMat has grown into a leader in the field of molecular manufacturing – designing, building and delivering fully engineered products and systems which are atomically precise. Our work now spans multiple end-markets (electronics, life science, transportation, chemicals, etc.) and process technologies. In short, we take a precision medicine approach to chemicals, tailor designing chemistries for targeted applications. We then scale these chemistries (think craft brewing) and integrate them into end products and systems which can do some pretty amazing things.
The Department of Defense contracted NuMat to develop MOFs for use in personal protective equipment for soldiers, as well as advancements in other sectors beyond defense. How will these new developments and applications impact these sectors and influence the direction of NuMat?
These are strange times and with the pandemic, PPE is now a big topic. Fortunately, NuMat’s been leading from the front for years in developing next generation materials which can sense, capture and destroy chemical & biological agents. Imagine if your clothes or mask, instead of stopping chemical & biological agents, could actually destroy them on contact? As you might imagine, this is of significant interest to defense and industrial end-markets and we believe we’re uniquely positioned to create significant value in this vertical for our partners and customers.
With the urgent challenges and needs presented by COVID-19, how has this dramatically shifted climate impacted you as a leader? NuMat?
Being a leader and an entrepreneur is a deeply human endeavor as most companies (certainly startups) are little more than the team members who give their all to build something that just might matter. People are not robots, and we bring our personal histories, flaws and aspirations to work everyday. One of my most sacred responsibilities as a leader is to recognize this truth and to provide people the space and support needed to get through their most difficult moments in life, be it turmoil at home, illness or even death of a loved one. My evolution as a leader has been one where I’ve learned to embrace the power of authenticity, empathy and empowerment in building a high performing team and company.
Let’s be honest: this has been a crappy year. The pandemic is wreaking havoc, our political dysfunction is on full display, and we’re seeing mass social unrest–partly a response to the systemic brutalization of communities of color. Why do I bring this up? Because this is what people carry into work every day: fear, anxiety, uncertainty, anger. I can’t cure this, but I can create a work environment where people get the help they need, where they feel safe, and where they know it’s okay to not always be okay. Beyond being the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do: when you take care of your team, they will take care of the company.
Is there an experience or class from your time at Kellogg that continues to inform how you innovate, adapt, collaborate or lead?
Prior to Kellogg, I worked at a global private equity firm with >$30B in invested capital. Before starting class, I asked my boss what academic experiences I should pursue. To my surprise, he implored me to focus on strengthening my understanding of myself and of people. “Numbers are easy,” he said. “It’s people who are difficult and unpredictable.” I took his advice to heart and majored in organizational behavior (or “HR” as I like to call it). It’s through this choice of study I was able to fully explore the art of managing people for competitive advantage–the true foundation of leadership and entrepreneurship. That and accounting, because if you understand numbers, you understand how to make money.