Blending Academia and Business to Unleash Ideas

Dr. Oliver Mulamba, PhD

Recently, to the surprise of my academic colleagues, I accepted a position with a materials science company in Lubbock, Texas. “What could a commercial enterprise have to offer you that life in the laboratory and classroom cannot?” The answer is neither simple nor intuitive, but it boils down to one thing: the desire for my work to directly translate into a means of adding value and impacting lives around the globe.

That company, AquaSmart, is a unique animal in that it combines a scientist’s passion for innovation and verification with an entrepreneurial culture that shortens the distance between inspiration and implementation on the way to influence.

The company’s focus seems absurdly simple on its face – solve issues with innovations that bring value to their customers. However, the elegance of their innovations sets them apart. For example, they have a singularly remarkable method of coating substrates. They can enhance targets ranging from waste sand grains, to seeds and other substrates, with a wide variety of coatings, for an even wider variety of applications. These applications range from hydraulic fracturing and concrete, to baseball fields and residential lawns. More remarkable to me than how efficient they are with their wide variety of technologies, is the vision behind the company that pictures them changing the world for the better.

My insistence on finding abiding significance in my work may make me a bit of an outlier.But, having been exposed to the best and worst of people’s capabilities has shaped the way I view the preciousness of every available minute and opportunity. While I was born in Brussels, Belgium, my parents returned us to their native Zaire just in time for the outbreak of war. We ran for our lives, landing in apartheididden South Africa where the value, and lack thereof, of human life was very, very clear. In our efforts to control the controllable, my brothers and I focused our efforts on school and football (called soccer in these parts) and the hours spent on the pitch paid off, as I received a scholarship that funded my higher education.

While I have lived in Texas for several years and have had the privilege of attending some of its top academic institutions, I have never lost the lessons learned and foundations formed in an environment of hostility and hate. As a result, I cannot shake the conviction that I am called to do more than merely hypothesize and build a life of comfort. AquaSmart gives me that opportunity.

Together, we tackle every day with a willingness to accept new challenges and imagine new ways to help people, whether they live five or 5,000 miles away. Sometimes that help is improving the yields on a fracturing play to create jobs and spur investment, while other times it is a discussion of using our company’s water-efficient technology to enhance agriculture in drought-stricken Third World locations. My education in engineering and materials science gets put to good use in every case.

If my experience has taught me anything, it is that success lies on the path of cooperation and collaboration. Living under apartheid, I loathed that system in which people are categorized, separated and shunned. In my view, too much of the world is divided, with false walls between academia and business, and between work and faith. I seek to harmonize the distinctive, in pursuit of new solutions.

So, I have cast my lot with this team of dreamers, who value faith and family above socially-celebrated marks of success, who dare to speak truthfully to their business partners, whose minds are open to new ideas, who dare to listen before speaking. I think we are not just innovating in the lab, but also in the office, on our way to creating something truly transformative for the world.