“I love strong female characters”, she declared. “Marie Curie, Jane Austen, Jane Goodall – women that have created a niche where you don’t usually see women making a stand.”
Spoken like a true CEO, I thought.
Meet Dr. Renuga Gopal – an avid reader, true blue engineer, PhD, and currently the co-founder of Matralix, a nano and micro materials foundry. Established in 2014, Matralix focuses on developing micro encapsulation systems such as the methods of protecting and delivering active ingredients in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals and food. They develop manufacturing systems with better control and precision for nano and micro-scaled materials, which are then licensed out to larger firms for use in their labs. The size of their projects now ranges from S$50,000 to six-figure values and involve strong business links between Singapore, US and France.
Being brought up in a Singaporean household of independent women and having done her schooling at an all-girls school, she’s never felt limited or defined by her gender. Never openly discriminated against.
“I have never seen it as being crippling,” she said re-crossing her legs. “Personally I have always seen it as an advantage. People look at you. They take you for who you are. That’s important when venturing into the start-up world.”
With raised eyebrows I jotted this down. This was new. Refreshing. Here was a lady, incredibly successful in her own right, telling me that her success or failures had nothing to do with being a woman. It was this attitude that led her to patenting the product at her first start-up BioMers, one that received acclaim for being the first in the world to develop translucent orthodontics.
Whilst pursuing her PhD in Mechanical Engineering and nano-technologies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), Dr. Gopal’s Master’s thesis was pitched as part of a class assignment at the London Business School by her friend Dr. Fathianathan and Mr George Aliphtiras. After receiving positive reviews they decided to give the venture a go and took part in business plan competitions that gave them the seed money to start the company in 2006.
Since then she’s learnt many valuable lessons from her mistakes: being selective your about investors and knowing who you take your money from; transitioning away from protecting team-mates and taking on their workloads; and realizing that people are your most important asset and weakness.
“You could say that I learnt the art of firing.” she mused. “Working with great teams is a reward in itself. I love building great teams. But deadlines are critical to me. I would often jump in to not make anyone liable for an error. This also meant that I was working crazy hours and only getting 2-3 hours of rest a day. In the end you need to know that letting someone go is the right thing to do.” As an entrepreneur, she was advised to consider the livelihood of her whole team rather than that of an individual.
From a business perspective she has also learnt that sometimes it is best to end and restart venture, rather than getting yourself entangled with unfavorable terms from investors. Startups end up making the mistake of giving up equity too much which can come back to hurt them later on. Knowing to value equity is something that has shaped her personally and professionally. She found herself at a crossroad after seven years at her first venture, and subsequently decided to leave the comfort of a secure job to find herself again.
Her time off led her to finding a balance. For the first time she didn’t look tired. Her personal life-hack is to designate a day of the week where she doesn’t reply to emails unless it is from a specific list of individuals.
“If I think it will take me more than five minutes to respond I don’t do it”.
Reclaiming her time has been important in preserving the essence of being a scientist-entrepreneur. As a young girl, she had had an aptitude for science and assumed that she would become an engineer or a scientist. However, these series of events led Dr. Gopal to entrepreneurship. For her, it has been important to preserve the sanctity of what it means to invent, to create and to build.
Her definition of success has been shaped by Ralph Waldo Emerson's quote: “To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”