Fortune and failure go hand in hand
Furman scholar-athlete Dr. Ginger Denison Rothrock ‘00 was only five years old when the Chemistry Department staged its first Corporate Luncheon. That was 1983 – the same year Michael Jackson’s Thriller shot to #1 and compact disc recordings were first introduced. At the annual event, faculty, students, friends, alumni, and reps from local companies gather to network, converse over good food, and hear about happenings in the world of chemistry.
Dr. Lon Knight, who steps down this year as chair of the chemistry department after a record 33 years, introduced keynote speaker Rothrock at the June luncheon before a crowd of 135 in Younts Conference Center. The highly decorated chemistry major accomplished much during her time at Furman, and went on to do even bigger things once she departed Furman’s gates.
Rothrock received the Donaldson-Watkins Medal for the most outstanding graduating female. In a Furman academic hat trick, she took all three honors as a Goldwater, Beckman and Truman Scholar, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. She was named to the 2000 USA Today All-American Academic First Team, was honored as South Carolina’s 2000 NCAA Woman Athlete of the Year, and was an All-Conference member of the Furman Track Team.
Now, the thirty-something mother of two spends her time developing nano-enabled products for use in the oil and gas sector and global health care at RTI International (Research Triangle Park, N.C.), one of the world’s leading research institutes.
In the nanotechnology realm, thicknesses of materials are measured on a nano-scale, where particles are so small they can’t be seen with a light microscope. One nanometer is equal to one-billionth of a meter. In general, scientists who study nanoparticles are interested in particles which are less than 100 nanometers wide. For scale, a human hair is roughly 80,000 nanometers and a sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick.
Slivers of these submicroscopic particles find their way into food packaging, sunscreens, drug delivery systems, solar panels, and glare-reducing eyeglass coatings among other uses. As director of emerging technologies at RTI, Rothrock investigates nanotechnology and other advanced materials as they relate to oilwell cementing formulations, sensors for oil and gas downhole environments, and encapsulated chemicals for production enhancement, including fracturing. In the global health arena, her group is focused on medical device technologies to help stem the spread of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The road to success for Rothrock was not without a few potholes. In fact, in her talk about scientific entrepreneurship she says, “I think the most important thing that has ever happened to me, despite getting a couple of accolades along the way, is failing. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing and makes you much, much stronger.”
After graduating Furman, Rothrock took a year-long hiatus and moved to San Francisco before starting grad school at UNC-Chapel Hill. And through her advisor, a series of chance encounters, pollen (no kidding), a willingness to take risks, and hard work, she became co-founder of Liquidia Technologies, a Research Triangle-based nanobiotech firm which is still going strong with 75 employees. And in case you missed it – she became co-founder as she was finishing her Ph.D.
In her humble and casual way, Rothrock offered words of advice to the Furman would-be graduates in the audience. She says opportunities start with ideas, but to have good ideas, the right environment is imperative. “Furman is an amazing environment. As an undergraduate, you get to have an opinion, and your opinion matters.” She encouraged those going to grad school to choose an advisor who values students’ ideas.
She also stressed the importance of effectively communicating ideas. She says while Furman students get a great deal of exposure communicating at conferences, “It’s not about showing people how smart you are.” She says what’s more important is the five-second elevator conversation you have with your CEO in which you’re able to tell him/her in two sentences how you are adding value to the company.
Rothrock, who is listed as co-inventor on 25 patent applications, says risk tolerance is a function of who you are and lifestage. Rothrock says her freedom to roll the dice was easier at age 22 when she didn’t have a mortgage and wasn’t the primary bread winner for her family of four.
After stepping out to take a risk, Rothrock says you must be driven to invest time and energy into your vision. She adds, “It’s hard to convince someone else to work on your idea, so do it yourself.”
Following her segue into how she co-founded Liquidia, Rothrock described how her foray into materials science at Liquidia almost catalyzed a spin-off cleantech company with huge market potential in energy storage and conservation and other industries.
Operating from a knowledge base built up over three years, Rothrock and company perfected an innovative and scalable molding technique which promised a sea of potential applications ranging from infrared optics for aerospace and defense industries, to nanostructured electrodes for more efficient batteries, to more sophisticated LEDs, electronics and photovoltaics (solar panels).
Sitting on a technological goldmine, and with more than $7 million in commitments from investors for developing new products, Rothrock couldn’t imagine anything going wrong.
But, following an ill-fated business trip to Asia in 2009, a cascade of unfortunate events ensued. The photovoltaic market tanked, investors became skittish, and Liquidia’s board decided in 2011 to refocus on health applications and pull out of the materials science business altogether, which meant Rothrock’s dream of starting a new cleantech company vanished.
You know the saying, “When a one door closes, another opens.” Rothrock says it’s hard to leave a company you started, but the closed door at Liquidia led to RTI where Rothrock is having the time of her life pouring her time and talent into the environment and global health industries.
She concluded her talk with some more sage advice and axioms about scientific entrepreneurship:
- You have to start, don’t wait for the perfect idea or situation.
- Hire people smarter than you (and different than you). Diversity of perspectives is so important.
- It’s lonely at the top, but (“trust me,” she says) even lonelier at the bottom.
- Have a “NOAH” (or “no jerks”) policy. Bad customers, employees and bosses will drain you of passion.
- About once a year, your ideas will almost die, and you think you’ll have to get a job at McDonald’s.
- Even if you fail, you will LEARN A TON.
- I would and WILL do it all over again, with no second thoughts.