From optics engineer to founder of YC backed material sciences company – Dr. Whitney Gaynor, CEO of Sinovia TechnologiesFeatured

Hi Elphas! I’m Dr. Whitney Gaynor CEO and Co-Founder of Sinovia Technologies. Our company is using materials that we developed to print displays for small electronics and IoT applications. We went through YC in Winter ‘17 and raised our series A last year. We’ve won backing from the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy.I studied Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford and MIT and worked as an Optics Engineer at Nanosys prior to starting Sinovia Technologies in 2011.Ask me anything about operating in sustainability, applying for awards, fundraising for materials science startups, R&D, building a team, pioneering in a new frontier, leadership or anything else!
Dr. Gaynor, not so much a question as a high five. NSF grants are incredibly difficult. I get rejected every time with my computational cybersecurity software that came out of ORNL (a DoE lab) that was financed by DHS. I wonder how you felt pitching to female funders who more often than not, don't have very deep tech backgrounds. I find it very frustrating trying to explain my very complicated technology and the very specific national defense market, only to get dismissive, disinterested responses. I'm trying my hardest to get as many women as possible on my cap table...I think cybersecurity is super sexy! I'm found it more difficult to get other women excited about the vision. Was it the same for you? What did you do?
I'm working on my first NSF application (well, I'm doing their "Pilot Pitch" thing to figure out if it's worth doing a full application). I admire your tenacity in continuing to apply! Just applying once seems daunting and hopeless.
Because it is daunting! I learned a trick...make friends with the PMs. They tend to fund people they know. It's the main reason I moved to DC.
Thanks, guys! I feel fairly lucky that the NSF has always had a focus on new materials and manufacturing as well as electronics, so we've always been able to fit into one of those categories. The project managers at NSF all do have science backgrounds, so the advice to work closely with them, as they will understand what you are doing is really solid.I find that there is a formula that works for good SBIR proposals. I've served on review panels, and what I really look for is whether the proposed project solves a key issue in taking a technology to market, and whether the company has verified that said market exists. If you like, we can have a more in-depth conversation around this.I also hear you on finding sources of funding that are able to easily understand what you are doing, male or female. Honestly, one of the things I had to learn going through YC was how to speak in shorter sentences. Sometimes tying your work into something that the funder sees or experiences every day can also get them engaged. Hopefully some of this is helpful!
THANK YOU! This is great info to know. Emailing you to set up a time to talk SBIR stuff.
What you’re doing is incredible! Thanks for jumping in and lending your advice and your time! I’m applying to this seasons incubator at YC and have been looking for someone who’s participated in the past to look over my application! I was wondering if you or someone you know would be able to help me with this? Thanks so much! Continue to inspire us ! ❤️
Thanks, JasmineC! I'd be happy to look over your YC application, although my comments will largely be general, as it's not likely that we are in the same space. Feel free to email me at [email protected]. :)
Thanks so much! You can look out for an email from me! My email address is [email protected]
Hi Whitney. Congrats on starting a really cool company! I'm also working in the science space (did my PhD in Toronto and postdoc at Stanford) and am building a marketplace for scientists to find research help and expertise. We are looking for funding, and considering applying to YC, however we have only just got our first paying customers. My question to you is: when did you start fundraising (a certain amount of revenue, pre-revenue) and do you have any pointers or resources for finding fundraising in the science startup space?
Hi leighchristopher! I think that when to fundraise really depends on the type of company that you are building. For us, we are doing physical science / physical products. There are certain types of investors that are willing to take technical risks with a company, but I find that they are few and far between. So we went the government grant route for a long time while we worked to prove out our technology. We are actually still largely pre-revenue (unless you count small things!) but we have a large portion of our technology de-risked. So it really depends on how much technical risk you are beginning with. I think that if you are building a marketplace, and have some initial traction, that applying to an accelerator like YC is a good place to start. Accelerators can help you figure out how to find product-market fit, and how to grow so that you can raise additional seed or equity financing. Good luck!
Hi! Thanks for taking the time for this post. I am in device physics and the nanofab space. Are your light sources grown on your flexible substrates or are you integrating post-fab? I package laser chips on polymers for a completely different application (neural probes) but am wondering what the process for building optics on polymers is like (if that is in fact what you're doing). Additionally, how did you find/decide on a power source?
Hi mayalassiter!We are using OLED technology, which is thin-film. So all of our electronics are printed directly from inks onto plastic web, using printing technology that is normally used in the newspaper and packaging industries. Right now we are running our demos using simple circuits on PCBs with 9 volt batteries! The power source itself will eventually be the responsibility of the hardware company that will integrate our displays into a product, but we do use off-the-shelf drivers to run the displays. There aren't many options for OLED drivers out there, so we were a bit limited, as we didn't want to design new drive electronics ourselves.
Hey Whitney, awesome job getting a company together and your flexible display technology looks super cool. A couple questions: 1) How are you approaching the clean tech space? This seems like an electronics product to me. 2) which form of support did you get from DOE and NSF? SBIRs? Something else? 3) Do you use Nanosys quantum dots in your product? How did you manage starting a company in a related field with your former employer? 4) LinkedIn says you are 8 years into your journey with Sinovia. How have you stayed funded and motivated for 8 years if you just raise a series A last year? Do you have customers? I'm super excited! Can't wait to use your displays.
Hi clare! We aren't actually in the clean tech space. My co-founder and I worked in solar during our academic years, but the company never really has been focused there, with the exception of supporting the OLED lighting industry with our materials. Energy efficient lighting can be considered clean tech to an extent. We did pivot in early 2017 from making optical films for displays and lighting to printing displays themselves. It really has been the best choice we have ever made during the life of the company. A better business model, more interesting work, and a higher ceiling of what the company can be. This really breathed new life into our company and our work and it's this potential that keeps us going.We began by developing our technology through the NSF SBIR program. The work we did during that time set the foundation for everything we are doing now, even though the business model is completely different. The first grant program that we did with the DOE was actually not an SBIR, but a grant under the solid state lighting program. We have gone on to do an SBIR with the DOE as well since then and have another current NSF SBIR as well.The technology that we based the company on, the technology that we are now using, and my work at Nanosys are completely separate, as are the markets we are targeting. Nanosys uses quantum dots to make backplanes for large TVs. We are using OLEDs to make small displays for IoT applications and other small electronics using printing. So there really isn't any overlap. :)
I have a health tech startup and am desperately looking for a female developer. Do you have any recommendations? We are making women the experts on their body and health and we can't have a man build that! Everyone who has applied is male and I just can't find someone.
As a reminder: this conversation is part of our ongoing series with people in the Elpha community doing incredible work.