Meet The Disruptors: Luis Estevez of AIMM On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
…It’s important to be able to push who you are and what you bring to the table. As an investor, you want to know how you’re going to get this idea to market. If you have a great idea, that’s fantastic. If you don’t have a good path to market, it’s a non-starter.
As part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Luis Estevez, the founder of AIMM, which specializes in antimicrobial coatings for porous materials that activate upon contact with water. Right now, though, the company has felt a call to action to fight COVID-19. AIMM has pivoted to develop a self-disinfecting N95 respirator mask. The child of immigrants, Estevez made his way through a doctoral program at Cornell University’s Materials Science & Engineering department, landing the prestigious Linus Pauling Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship, and eventually winding up at the University of Dayton Research Institute, where he also conducts lab work. Estevez was the winner of the spring 2020 tech cohort of Launch Dayton’s Early Risers Academy, a 10-week program for entrepreneurs and engineers to learn how to bring their ideas to market.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
To start this chapter of my life, I think you’d have to go back to when I was 18 and I was going to college. I’m the son of two immigrant parents that came here to this country from two different countries: Chile and Spain. They both only spoke Spanish. My first language I spoke was Spanish, and I didn’t even speak English until I hit preschool or kindergarten. I walked into class in my neighborhood of Woodside in Queens, and it was just like a bunch of people speaking a language I didn’t know. And I was just like, “Holy crap, what’s going on?”
I went to college the first time around at 18. I tried different courses, met some really good lifelong friends I’m still really close with, and played a lot of rugby. But I never really found my academic footing, which was okay. So I just went back home, started working at my parents’ restaurant on Long Island. I spent the rest of my 20s working there full-time, helping run the place with my parents.
I remember just sitting at the restaurant, just cleaning menus, cleaning everything as many times as possible, hoping a car will just drive in and park and come in to eat. My parents were probably panicking, and I’m just working, trying to make things happen. Then, little by little, we start getting a following. Word-of-mouth spreads like crazy and the restaurant remains a success.
It got really crazy but it was really cool to be part of that success. And I thought that’s what I was gonna do. I was gonna be a restaurant guy. As my dad handled the kitchen, I handled the front-of-house operations. I got to talking to the restaurant’s patrons; learning about them, what they did for a living. The people who were doing engineering and science jobs seemed really cool. I didn’t know what engineering was when I was younger and going away to college, because I didn’t know any engineers in my life. We’re all blue-collar types, my family.
By this point I was about 30 years old. I was telling my girlfriend at the time, who eventually became my wife, “That’s kinda what I wish I did.” And she was like, “You know what? It’s not too late to go. If you wanna be an engineer, you should do that.”
I realized that if I really wanted to concentrate on my studies that I’d need to get out of New York, otherwise I’d be distracted by the restaurant. My now-wife suggested Maine. We moved up to woodsy New England. We spent a year up there to get residency and I took some community college courses to brush up on my math and science. I then applied to and got into the mechanical engineering program at the University of Maine at Orono.
I dug it pretty hard core. The summer of my junior year, I got an internship opportunity to go to Los Alamos National Lab outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was working with these little, what they call piezoelectric materials, that are these small ceramic disks that you can stick on to things and you can either cause them to vibrate or they can detect vibrations, and I won’t go deep into the weeds on how they work, but they’re fascinating. That’s how your phone is always listening. Basically, they have these piezoelectrics just sitting there, and when the vibrations of your voice triggers them, they can wake up without having to waste batteries too much. It’s fascinating. I just couldn’t believe people got paid to do this kind of work. I was like, “This is incredible.”
So I returned to Maine and asked my academic advisers, “How do you get a job like this?” Their response: “You need to get a PhD.” I came home and told my wife my goals. To her credit, she was just like, roll with it.
We stayed in the snowy Northeast, though back to New York State. I got into Cornell’s Material Science & Engineering doctoral program. A lot of stuff I learned as a mechanical engineer was not applicable to what I was doing then. So I had to relearn a lot of stuff. But at the same time that got me into working with the porous materials, that led to me working with functionalizing these porous materials, which was putting little nanoparticles, particles several thousandths the thickness of hair, on things to get them to change how they interact, and to make them electrically conductive among other properties. I was in this amazing playground where I got to do a lot of scientific work and an amazing advisor who gave me a lot of freedom to explore that playground.
As I neared the end of my studies, I realized I wanted to take my work to the next level, so I set forth and applied to postdoctoral fellowships. It’s where the government will pay you money to do the research you want to do at a national lab if it aligns with what they’re trying to do. My energy storage work was a big thrust of the US government and their national labs. I applied for this fellowship at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) called the Linus Pauling Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship. In the meantime, I interviewed and got a job offer at Intel. My advisor told me to take the job, as the Pauling Fellowships “are nearly impossible” to get. After I refused, and told him I’d happily do a postdoc under him while I waited to hear back from PNNL, he said, “I can’t stop you if you want to be underpaid by me.”
As it turns out, I got that fellowship. By way of a recommendation from my contacts at PNNL, I wound up at the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI), where I’ve been for nearly three years now. I’ve gotten some local news coverage about my work, including this great video clip and a front-page story in the Dayton Daily News.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
FYI, AIMM stands for Advanced and Innovative Multifunctional Materials. But really, I’m a huge comic book geek growing up and still am. When I was a kid, I read every comic imaginable — especially Marvel Comics. I wanted to name it after AIM which, in the Marvel Universe, is Advanced Idea Mechanics. It’s like these scientists and engineers who try to take over the world. I was going to call my company AIM, Advanced and Innovative Materials.” Somebody else took that name. I’m like, “ah, crap.” I added “multifunctional materials” for the extra “m.”
Anyway, AIMM’s secret sauce is our ability to work with porous materials. Actually, we decorate them with all kinds of different nanoparticles, attaching them to the pore walls. If it’s a porous network of fibers, we can attach the nanoparticles to the fibers. That’s the tricky part.
We’re interested in biocidal properties or antimicrobial properties that kill viruses and bacteria. We use nanoparticles of silver, which are nothing new. In ancient times, urns and bowls were made of silver. People didn’t know how it worked, though they knew that water didn’t develop biofilms and algae and stayed clean when stored in silver jugs.
In hospitals, in emergency rooms, medical professionals use nanoparticles of silver on bandages for victims of severe burns. They’re used on the Russian side of the International Space Station to treat water. So, silver is not a secret. Getting silver into nanoparticles and attaching them where we want sterilizing materials, however, is tricky. When we pair this technology with our abilities to work with porous materials, it gets really interesting.
We can lay silver nanoparticles on N95 masks, creating an outer disinfecting layer. We can also use this methodology in water treatment products to kill viruses, bacteria, and capture organic contaminants.
Making materials into their own virus-killing machines has the potential to be incredibly disruptive technology — and help save lives, while we’re at it.
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?
I can tell you, I love cringe humor. Cringe humor is one of my favorite things in the world. My first foray into entrepreneurship was at the Early Risers Academy Bootcamp. The culminating project is doing a business pitch. Looking back at my slides and business just makes me cringe. It’s a lot like learning to play guitar: When you start out the first three months, you write a lot of really terrible songs. It’s not funny per se. It’s the same way when you’re learning how to be an entrepreneur: how to put together a pitch deck, how to give a proper pitch, and so on. When you look back at it, you cringe, but you build on it and you get better.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
There have been so many! I’m going to have to start with Katie Hill at The Entrepreneur Center, who encouraged me to apply to the Early Risers Academy bootcamp. She was so instrumental in the beginning — and still is! I also have to give a shout-out to Jordan Roe at the same organization. At the bootcamp I met Eric Wagner of Converge Ventures, where he was teaching entrepreneurship and commercialization strategies. He, in turn, became a huge mentor as well. Recently I had to put together a proposal. Part of that was putting together his bio. I’m just amazed how accomplished he is.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
First off, I have to describe disruption. I would say disruption is just a fancy way of challenging the mentality of the way it’s always been done. It’s a way that potentially works better. In that regard I’m super pro-disruption.
This being said, there are examples in which disruptive technologies become detrimental. Fossil fuels at some point were disruptive. Polymers were disruptive. Yet now they cause issues for which we need another wave of disruption: containing carbon dioxide emissions or finding recyclable alternatives. In these instances, disruptive technologies grow stagnant and are no longer disruptive. The technology is a negative.
I like things that perturb. I like people that perturb, even if they’re wrong. At least they’re interesting. Disruption can be the momentum to change the status quo.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
Not too long ago I was at AFWERX, which is a conference-type event hosted by the Air Force where entrepreneurs and researchers present their technology in the hopes of getting connected with commercialization and funding opportunities. This year the event was virtual, of course. I was putting together my presentation slides. Katie Hill reviewed my deck and asked where I was in all of it. She pointed out my PhD from Cornell and my Pauling Fellowship.
We academic types, at least historically shy away from talking ourselves up. She really got into my head when she said the following: “Investors would rather invest in a strong team with a bad idea, than a weak team with a good idea. You have the scientific bonafides.”
The second is that it’s important to be able to push who you are and what you bring to the table. As an investor, you want to know how you’re going to get this idea to market. If you have a great idea, that’s fantastic. If you don’t have a good path to market, it’s a non-starter.
The third point comes by way of Eric Wagner: “You don’t have to convince us how it works. You have a PhD from Cornell. We assume you know what you’re talking about. Just tell us why it’s important.”
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
I’m in the beginning of the non-dilutive capital acquisition stage of AIMM. But for getting other qualified leads, I tap a lot of my mentors, friends, and fellow entrepreneurs. I’m lucky that I have a lot of former colleagues that I’m really still close with. Those circles are expanded by the fact I haven’t taken a traditional path of staying in one place; I’ve bounced around quite a bit.I have people at Cornell and at PNNL. And of course, University of Dayton and UDRI. Big time.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
My overarching goal is not unlike Advanced Idea Mechanics, the name that I borrowed from the Marvel comics universe: I’m not trying to take over the world, but I am trying to. I kid, I kid.
We do share something in common in that we’re both trying to change the world; namely that I’m trying to make as positive an impact as possible on this planet of ours and more importantly, towards the population of people that inhabit it. And given that I’m on this planet for about another 40-ish years, I don’t have all that much time, I need to make as big of an impact as possible. This is my path to doing that.
So the virus-killing N95 respirator mask, of course, would have a tremendous impact in that regard. Granted, we have to get it funded, optimize the proof-of-concept stage, then to a prototype.
Beyond the present pandemic; post-COVID, this technology can reshape the way we think and approach water purification. I think this is where we can make the biggest impact and be the most disruptive. Older technologies involve too many multi-component systems, especially for places like in the developing world that have unreliable power infrastructure. A gravity-powered water purification device that removes turbidity — essentially the grainy-looking stuff from water — but also kills viruses and bacteria while leaving the water tasting good would prevent disease more effectively in disaster areas and remote zones; in turn lessening the burden on health care systems.
This is not just a developing-world problem, mind you. Climate change is going to make water perhaps the biggest problem we have as a species. Increasing temperatures means increasing severity of storms. Look at Louisiana this past summer: hurricane on top of hurricane. People within the US were deprived of potable water because of all of the flooding. Chlorine tabs work, but no one likes how that water tastes. Technology such as our nanosilver-based system can scale from enough to fill a personal pitcher to multi-gallon tanks that can serve and be quickly dispatched to communities of varying size — all without the need for electricity.
Water stress stands to be a universal problem. If we start to develop solutions now, we can hit the ground running and be prepared with the right solutions.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I’m big into podcasts. I go crazy for them. I love Sam Harris, who is just a really great thinker and speaker. He’s got the podcast called Making Sense. I don’t always agree with him, but he always brings good arguments to the table, and he’s one of these perturber types I mentioned earlier.
I also like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis, they both have podcasts and they’re both fantastic. When I read a book or watch a movie, I love stories that shock and surprise me from what I was expecting. For example, I thought Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk was about underground fight clubs. Yet it’s this really interesting play against consumerist attitudes. I found that fascinating.
I read this book called Boom Town about the backstory of the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA team. Yes, there was basketball. Yet why was it so important to the city that it had its own NBA franchise? According to the book, the town has always had a chip on its shoulder. The writer, journalist Sam Anderson, dived into civics and civil engineering: urban planning vs. suburban roadways. It captured Oklahoma City’s politics and intrigue. I went in expecting a nice time killer about a basketball team but it was so much more.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My dad’s got a million of these quotes. I first started working in the restaurant at about age six or seven. I was just peeling potatoes and such at that point, though. I first started really doing restaurant work at around age 13 as a busboy. I was pretty shy. I didn’t like to approach people or tables so I was hesitant to ask if something needed to be done. My dad told me that it’s better to just make a mistake and then recover, than just stand there paralyzed.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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 have a holy trinity of things I’d like to suggest to the world. Number one: I’d like to make it mandatory to have logic and reasoning taught as a school subject starting in middle school. I want people to understand what are fallacies and how to avoid them. What are good arguments? What are not good arguments? Many politicians seek data that back up their version of truth. Scientists are the converse, they seek the truth by digging into data.
Number two: I’d like to see an emphasis on numbers literacy. No more anecdata. I want people to understand the concept of sample sizes. A single data point is great, but an anecdote shouldn’t inform an entire worldview. I would love for people to understand how numbers work in this regard and how probabilities work. The order of a deck of 52 playing cards is incredibly improbable but it did just happen.
Number three: I just sound like an angry scientist now, but I would recommend everyone read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. It’s a book decrying pseudoscience.
I’m lucky I have a scientific background in that I can spot the fakes a little easier. Nonetheless, there’s just so much out there that is kind of a little woo-woo. This book can serve as a good disinfectant, if you will, against all that stuff.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!