HAHDhAHSDHAHS

Cultivating Confidence

How an innovative female scientist launched a Turkish startup, forged a career in global research and development and created a legacy of leadership

A strong foundation

Sibel at her college graduation

When Sibel Selcuk joined Heritage Research Group (HRG) in 2006, HRG looked very different than it does today. “There were only three female scientists, including me,” said Sibel, who first came to the United States after graduate school in Turkey. “Now when you look at HRG, we have not only female scientists but female engineers. We’ve become more diverse in every angle you can imagine. And that’s really important.”   

Back in the mid-2000s, Sibel was new to Indianapolis and searching for a job. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and the help of the American Chemical Society, Sibel connected with Erin Clark, a senior analytical research chemist at HRG.   

Erin introduced Sibel to The Heritage Group. Soon after, Sibel joined HRG as a research chemist, working on everything from asphalt emulsions to shampoo. The diversity of the job brought surprise and satisfaction.  

“What I ended up doing for the Heritage Research Group — I didn’t even know a job like that existed,” Sibel said. “One day I’d be working on an asphalt-related project, and then it would be an environmental customer’s project, and the next day I’d be doing analytical work.”


“You work with something new every day, and you make new things out of the things that people can’t use. It’s always problem-solving, and that’s the part that I love.” 


Launching innovation

Sibel networking with young professionals

In addition to her dedication to the work happening in the lab, Sibel formed a bond with her HRG co-workers. “When I joined HRG, I had just gotten married, and I had absolutely no family in town,” Sibel said. “Everyone in that group became my family — and they treated me like family. It doesn’t matter where I am. I know they’re there for me and I’ll be there for them.”  

After finding a home in the lab, Sibel began to consider how total waste management could apply to new settings. Observing a coworker’s business venture abroad, she sought out new opportunities for the business to grow internationally. “I came up with a couple of ideas and I presented them, and for some of them they said no,” Sibel noted. She remained determined to keep her eyes open for opportunity. “Then I presented the opportunity in Turkey, and they said yes.”  


“When they said, ‘we’re going to do this,’ what they meant was: ‘We’re going to do this because we believe in you.’ That meant a lot to me.”


International insight

Sibel’s daughter Ada, an aspiring scientist

Starting a business in her native Turkey was a turning point for Sibel’s career. “The Heritage Group believed in the business,” she recalled, “but more so, they believed in me.” Betting on Sibel paid off: İnteraktif Çevre, Heritage’s Turkish waste management venture, was established in 2015.   

Sibel had experience in market intelligence and technology evaluation, and the Turkish startup was her first foray into business management. But she was ready. Her background in science had prepared her for much more than working in the lab.  

“In chemistry, graduate study is more like problem solving, so it teaches you how to approach a problem or an opportunity and figure it out. That’s similar to building a business and doing a startup,” Sibel said.  After seeing her success at İnteraktif Çevre, Heritage leadership recognized Sibel’s talent. “I was so lucky. Amy (Schumacher, CEO of The Heritage Group) was my mentor throughout my career. She always supported me, so when she asked if I would consider a position at Monument, it turned into my best experience at Heritage.”  


“I did lab work, I did development, I did a startup, but until joining Monument I was never part of an operating company. Seeing how Monument works has dramatically changed my perspective on research and how we do things.”


A lasting bond

Sibel during her first year of PhD studies

In her current role as vice president of Global Research & Development and Strategy for Monument Chemical, Sibel unites her passion for chemistry with business savvy to solve problems for customers across the globe. She credits her experience at Monument with a new perspective on the chemical research process.   

“When we develop something in the lab, we’re fairly good about thinking big picture. But when we live it day in day out, it’s really different,” Sibel said.  

“It takes big-picture thinking in a real-world context to take opportunities to the next level. We need more scientists and engineers who lead with practical applications in mind. It’s really important for them to develop themselves, but it also helps the businesses overall.” 


“Within Heritage it doesn’t matter gender, ethnicity, background, culture, all that—if you create value and if you do the right thing, you have tons of opportunities.” 


Facing the future with confidence

Reflecting on her career as a woman in a male-dominated field, Sibel noted that gender shouldn’t hold anyone back from their aspirations.   

The key is to build self-confidence, something Sibel prioritizes when mentoring young scientists. She encourages her mentees to build their confidence in the lab before venturing out: “Giving yourself time there will strengthen your leadership skills and your contribution to the business in the long run.”  

Linda Osborn (left) and Sibel at The Center

Scientific skills have value in the business realm. That’s just one reason, Sibel said, that all scientists should feel confident that they can contribute beyond science and technology.  

In addition to mentoring, Sibel prioritizes giving back to the American Chemical Society, which helped her secure her first job at HRG. In 2013, she and Linda Osborn, Director of Analytical Research at HRG, worked with ACS to plan an event for children to celebrate science. The event was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), which has benefitted from HRG’s research on and development of asphalt and aggregates.   

Sibel hopes that her passion for mentoring and inspiring young people will encourage more kids — especially more young girls — to explore science. Her advice for them? “Whatever you want to do as a woman, you just have to believe in yourself and go after it. Being female or male is not a differentiating factor.” 

HAHDhAHSDHAHS

Innovate to Accelerate

How the Heritage Research Group fuels innovation for Techstars Accelerator startups.

The Center, Electrified

Those who tuned in to virtual Demo Day, the culmination of the 2020 Heritage Group Accelerator Powered by TechStars, witnessed the final product of the development, strategy and mentoring that went into the 13-week accelerator. Each of the ten founding teams participating—some of whom hailed from as far as the Netherlands—created a five-minute recorded pitch showcasing their startup’s vision, progress and plans for the future. If you just watched the video, you might have missed the months of creative collaboration that laid the foundation for the pitches.

 

Despite the impact of COVID-19, the accelerator produced an “electric” Demo Day, according to Senior Director of HG Ventures Ginger Rothrock. “The environment in the accelerator when it’s full of founders is incredibly active and upbeat,” added Chemistry Research Manager Meghan McLeod of the 13-week process preceding Demo Day. “There’s so much energy. There’s so much excitement.”

Participating founders quickly discover a hidden gem of The Heritage Group (THG) Accelerator: the Heritage Research Group (HRG). When introducing the accelerator in a May 2021 Crowdcast, Nanci Churchill of Techstars touched on this aspect of the program: “The lab that’s on site at The Heritage Group is a world-class facility that allows startup companies to run experiments in cooperation with the HRG lab team, which is phenomenal.”

 

Staffed by a team of experienced chemists and researchers, THG’s in-house research and development laboratory solves some of the biggest business and customer problems among the Heritage family of companies. Their work is behind several innovations that THG harnesses to build a safer, more enriching and sustainable world.

A Dream Team

The process begins with McLeod, whose non-accelerator months are spent overseeing analytical chemistry research for HRG. McLeod acts as a liaison between HRG and the startups involved in the accelerator. “[When] all the companies come in, I have one-on-one meetings with them, and I identify product characterization, development, and pilot opportunities that we can work on during the program,” she described. After this initial meeting, McLeod assesses the tools at her disposal, including those on-premise at HRG facilities (all of which are accessible to accelerator startups). After identifying an expert in the area in question, McLeod assembles a team of researchers to address the startup’s unique issue.

 

The Work Begins

In the case of Mobile Fluid Recovery (MFR), a startup dedicated to the cleaning and reuse of industrial waste streams, the collaboration with HRG took about a month from start to finish. CEO Justin Edmondson described the root of the challenge in his Demo Day pitch as “unlock[ing] the liquids from the solids in the waste stream.”

 

“The waste stream he had was too high in sulfur for resale,” said McLeod, describing high-iron metal fines with resale potential. “Justin already had that in mind, and when we met, that was something he identified as a particular problem the research group could help with.”

 

To resell the metal fines, MFR had to satisfy requirements for sulfur content by removing that element from the waste stream. HRG’s chemists rose to the challenge, taking a sample of metal fines and performing elemental analysis. “We helped him both quantify and type the sulfur, and then come up with an approach to remove it [from the waste stream],” McLeod said. The process evolved to a point where Edmonson’s team could perform it in their own facilities, opening MFR’s services to valuable new customers and, potentially, a new market.

 

“Industrial waste stream management is about a $60 billion industry. We recycle only about 30% of all waste streams today,” said Rothrock, “but the EPA believes about 75% of the waste streams are recyclable. MFR is unlocking the value of waste streams that are not currently recycled… and now, thanks to our research group, [Edmondson] has a solution that adds value to the company and his customer base.”

 

This waste stream innovation also underscores an essential tenet of THG’s mission: sustainability. By reusing the de-sulfured metal fines rather than disposing of them, MFR contributes to the circular economy by eliminating waste and making the most of available resources.

From the Ground Up

Some Accelerator projects have a much longer scope. Sunthetics, a startup that aims to make the development of new molecules more sustainable, harnessed HRG’s resources and brainpower to develop their pilot product: an electron reactor that enables organic synthesis.

 

“Sunthetics was developing new hardware, and we were the first pilot users of the product. So as you can imagine, there was a lot of trial and error in the lab and collaboration with the founders to get to a functional prototype,” said Rothrock.

 

The reactor, which uses electricity to produce a small-scale chemical, is paired with machine learning software, which predicts the most efficient conditions for reactions. Configuring the reactions was just the beginning.

 

“We had a lot more optimization and work that had to go into understanding the system,” said McLeod, who brought together a large team of researchers to work with Sunthetics. “Myself and one other chemist were working with the hardware to perform the reactions, and then we had another part of the team doing the chemical analysis and method development.”

 

The outcome of the accelerator for Sunthetics was an effective, repeatable framework for testing reactions. “We can run the Sunthetics system and demonstrate improvements in efficiency over multiple tests,” said McLeod. “That was a significant outcome for the Sunthetics team.”

 

A Vision Realized

For accelerator startups, the benefits of working with HRG extend far beyond the doors of The Center. For participating startup Pretred, the accelerator served as the perfect place to brainstorm. Working to mitigate the environmental impact of tire waste, founder Eric Davis envisioned road barriers made of recycled tires. “There’s got to be something we can make out of it,” he said in a Techstars Crowdcast of the tire and plastic waste occupying a local river. “It’s high volume and potentially high value.”

 

“We have members of the HRG team who have previously worked in related industries — tire, rubber, resins, all the different components that he was using — so he found a knowledgeable resource in simply having access to those people, brainstorming ideas, [and] talking about his process,” said McLeod.

 

One such team member is Research Engineer Dennis Justice. “The wide range of product and process assignments we participate in sets us apart from other research groups,” he said. “My knowledge, matured in multiple manufacturing environments, aided Pretred directly in building prototypes and rapid production improvements.”

Dennis Justice with the Pretred team and prototype

Justice aided in identifying materials and processes needed for Davis’s idea to become a reality: six-foot-long, one-ton construction barriers made of over 95% recycled material. With his help on the first manufacturing run, Pretred went from proof of concept to a full-scale product in just two weeks. “Over a short period of time, with limited resources, the Pretred sustainable construction product has gone from an idea on paper to a one-ton reality. The company continues to build on these manufacturing learnings and uses the first set of manufactured products to capture customer interest,” said Rothrock.

 

A year out from the accelerator, Pretred is looking forward to commercial scale manufacturing and product launch as well as addressing alternative waste streams. A seed-round investment of $3 million led by HG Ventures proves Pretred’s potential within the hard tech industry.

 

Justin Edmonds, founder and CEO of MFR, will be deepening his relationship with Heritage Interactive Services. “He’s made strong connections with the business unit and is actively working with them to help solve our customer’s waste problems,” Rothrock said.

 

Currently, the founders of Sunthetics are moving forward with the reaction method pioneered in collaboration with HRG. “That’s actually one of the biggest takeaways: now they have an established method for data analysis to use with targeted customers,” said McLeod.

 

After the Accelerator

Startups leave the Heritage Group Accelerator with 13 weeks’ worth of collaboration, creativity and innovation that translate into an incredible amount of business value. In return, the impact they leave behind is a major motivator for the Heritage family. “I just love that the broader Heritage Group gets exposed to entrepreneurs and their thinking, their energy,” said Rothrock. “It’s electric. It’s awesome.”

 

As the 2021 cohort of startups travels to Indianapolis for their own turn at the accelerator, Rothrock anticipates seeing The Center once again abuzz with the same lively dynamic. McLeod agrees: “There were ten different companies that were in completely different markets, and I got to learn about all of them and be involved in that process,” she said. “Our ability to catapult both their technical and business development is incredibly valuable.”

 

To learn more about the accelerator, visit hgventures.com/hgaccelerator/.