Catalyst Spotlight: Sameer Bharadwaj

July 23, 2021

Sameer Bharadwaj is CEO of Orbia, a global community of businesses united by the shared purpose to advance life around the world. Upon joining Orbia in 2016, Sameer first led Orbia’s compounds business group and later assumed leadership of the Alphagary, Koura, and Vestolit commercial brands. Previously, Sameer held key positions at specialty chemicals company Cabot Corporation and worked as a strategy consultant for The Boston Consulting Group, serving clients in a variety of industries. Sameer has been a Catalyst mentor with the Deshpande Center since 2016.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q. You started your career as a research engineer at Dow Chemical Company. Tell us about your path from Dow to CEO of Orbia.

A. I joined Dow right after finishing my PhD in chemical engineering, and worked in Michigan in central business R&D. At that time, I was working on a breakthrough tech initiative—a new process to make ethylene—and helped lead the effort at Dow to bring that research closer to commercialization. It was a great experience because it involved putting the business case together, looking at the economics, and convincing senior stakeholders of the merits of developing the technology.

From there, I moved to the Boston area for Harvard’s MBA program. My wife was finishing her PhD and got a job in Boston, so we decided to stay. I joined the Boston Consulting Group and worked with clients in the healthcare, telecommunications, and semiconductor verticals, but I wanted to get back to industry. Consulting is nice in that you’re a business doctor: you fix things and move on to the next case. But my DNA is in building things, brick by brick.

I went on to Cabot Corporation, where I had the opportunity to help build a business from scratch in the realm of elastomer composites that are used in tire and defense applications for safer, economical, and longer-lasting transport. We piloted the technology in Malaysia, partnered with a global tire company, and helped build a plant in Thailand. Later on I had the chance to run the oil and gas drilling group at Cabot.

I joined Orbia in 2016, first in a role steering the specialty compounds business, then taking on responsibilities for our Fluorinated and Polymer Solutions business portfolios. It has been an incredible journey full of learning. Today, Orbia is focused on ensuring food security, reducing water scarcity, reinventing cities and homes, connecting communities to data infrastructure, and expanding access to health and well-being with basic and advanced materials and solutions. Key to achieving this is engaging in innovation efforts across our businesses, and through the investments of our $130 million corporate venture capital fund. We’re looking for those breakthrough technologies to invest in.

Q. What advice do you have for Deshpande teams looking to spin out their ideas and prototypes into companies?

A. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Never hesitate to draw upon the fantastic resources and entrepreneurial support network that MIT has available, as those are incredible blessings and advantages.

Q. What should Deshpande grantees and other MIT researchers who want to spin out look for in a potential CEO?

A. I’ve seen many Deshpande Center spinouts at early stages, where founders often step in as CEOs. Many founders are students, and this can be a great learning opportunity if they get the right coaching, mentorship, and guidance. But there comes a point in raising a decent amount of capital that an experienced CEO or COO makes a difference. Though it can be hard to find experienced people who are willing to get into startups as CEOs or COOs, the right profile of candidates would be experienced professionals who are in between opportunities. Teams should be looking for people with the right skill sets that their company needs at a point in time to advance. Teams should also acknowledge what they are good and not good at, and not be averse to bringing in external help.

I see a lot of excitement at MIT, technical expertise and real desire to change the world, but also the need for market exposure and business know-how. Getting out there and talking to customers, stakeholders, potential licensers, and potential partners is crucial, but it’s just the beginning.

Sameer Bharadwaj

Q. What would you say are common pitfalls for budding entrepreneurs?

A. I see a lot of excitement at MIT, technical expertise and real desire to change the world, but also the need for market exposure and business know-how. Getting out there and talking to customers, stakeholders, potential licensers, and potential partners is crucial, but it’s just the beginning.

There’s the issue of time. Think through all the steps to commercialization. Having a good result in the lab is not enough. From there you have to figure out: How do I take this prototype to a pilot stage, to large-scale pilot, and then through several more steps of customer and market analysis to create something that people value and are willing to pay for? This is not an easy undertaking for a grad student doing research and finishing a thesis at the same time. Often 6 to 12 months is not enough for students who are learning for the first time to calculate value and put business cases together and professors who are incredibly busy.

Perhaps there’s something here in integration: pairing up Deshpande grantees with Sloan students or professors who can help them shape their efforts and provide industry expertise. Also, leveraging the Catalysts even more could be helpful to entrepreneurs.

Q. What interested you in becoming a Deshpande Catalyst?

A. I find emerging technologies fascinating and true door openers for better lives. Having been through new tech scale-ups and commercialization efforts multiple times, I know the challenges and can help with the opportunities. For me, this is a way of giving back to the academic communities that have given me so much.

I think Catalysts can play key roles in helping teams think about their innovations broadly and narrowly, from how they could be brought to market to whether there’s a spinout opportunity to helping with licensing issues, go-to-market plans, and making connections. It’s otherwise hard to find people to ask. Deshpande Executive Director Leon Sandler has built a strong ecosystem of Catalysts who can bring their industry experience to emerging leaders. That’s the fun part, besides previewing the incredible technologies coming out of MIT.

Q. What’s the most memorable project you’ve mentored with Deshpande?

A. Convection-Enhanced Electrochemical Energy Storage in 2016 was a great one. I worked closely with the team, and while it ultimately didn’t become a spinout, it was an ideal Deshpande project that made it to prototype. Now I’m working with Zachary Smith and Francesco Benedetti on Polymer Membranes with Exceptional Performance and Stability. Their startup, Osmoses, recently won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition and aims to dramatically increase the efficiency of chemical separations.

Q. What do you like to do in your spare time?

A. I spend a lot of time on astrophotography. I love the equipment, the telescopes and mounts. It’s my escape from busy life. While it’s different from conducting an experiment, you’re collecting photons from far away, processing the data, and maybe even spending 6 to 8 hours for a glimpse into the furthest reaches of the universe. Each output reveals a bit more in the way of understanding. You could say that the scientist in me is very much alive.

— Shirley Goh, Marketing and Communications Manager
MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation

July 2021