First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Linh Le: We’re surviving! I’m grateful we’ve all stayed healthy, safe, and employed, though it’s definitely been a journey. We have two boys, ages 3 and 7, so my wife and I have had to juggle being full-time workers and full-time parents. Luckily my team has gotten used to seeing Harvey or Aiden on Zoom calls with me, and my wife and I take turns going to our (sanitized and safe!) offices to get some alone time.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Flextrapower.
Linh Le: After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Vietnam, I came to America in 2007 to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Columbia University before transferring to Stevens Institute of Technology. I could never have imagined that I would stay in America for that long; the plan had always been to return to Vietnam after finishing my studies. It turns out that I’m still in America, 13 years later! Flextrapower was founded in 2015 to develop further and commercialize the invention that I was working on during my Ph.D. on graphene material. At the time, not knowing what an entrepreneur is and how business should be done, my only intention was to bring great technology out of the lab and products that add value for customers, especially in the preventive health space.
How does Flextrapower innovate?
Linh Le: We’re constantly thinking about, researching, and testing how graphene-infused e-textiles can be used to promote better preventive and digitized, decentralized health. We currently have three products in development and/or on the market that utilizes graphene in different ways to promote better health, from an insole that detects diabetic foot ulcers to a graphene mask that blocks virus-containing microdroplets and a smart t-shirt that can measure muscle activity.
We see our innovation as the ability to take research and science and apply it to technologies that better the world.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Linh Le: It’s impacted us in a multitude of ways! The timing couldn’t have been more trying; we were about to start clinical trials for our smart insole when the virus became a pandemic. Our partner hospitals have since put trials on pause to rightfully put more energy into COVID treatment. However, this ‘pause’ turned into a new opportunity for our team to expand our business, and, just as importantly, make an impact. This summer, we developed a face mask with a graphene-infused filter. Graphene has antiviral properties that add an extra layer of protection for the wearer without compromising breathability. The mask has been on the market for a few months now, and we see great success.
So, to answer your second question, I’m coping well. It’s definitely been a rollercoaster ride, but what startup founder doesn’t go through these ups and downs?
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Linh Le: The past few years working full time on the business has been an exciting journey, from improving communication with investors and generating customers to building a global team. The most difficult decision was to take on the risk of becoming an entrepreneur, not knowing when that first paycheck would come and how I could support my family. If I could go back, I would have made the same decision, as I’m truly enjoying both the ups and downs of leading a startup. On this road, the best lesson that I’ve learned is “perseverance.” I recognize that I’m in the middle of an ultra-marathon, so pacing this entire journey is key.
Another difficult choice was deciding whether our products would be designed and sold to the medical industry or directly to consumers. When we decided to go medical, we saw the huge impact we could make with patients, though at the same time, we recognize how difficult it is with regulations and red tape. It will be a long process, but one I hope will yield higher and more impactful results.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Flextrapower in the future?
Linh Le: I block off an hour every day to go on a bike ride with my older son Aiden. I also try to find time to go on rides or runs just for me, especially on the weekend. Getting outside and getting my heart rate up has been super helpful for dealing with stress. For example, just yesterday, I went on a short 5K run during the workday. I put on music, got off my screen, and was able to recuperate and finish the day feeling more energized.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Linh Le: Right now, diabetic foot ulceration prevention is a large market, and many companies are doing great work helping people manage this disease. I believe that the more competitors we have, the better it is for patients — because technology and product and service need to be available for everyone. As for the masks, there are seemingly a million cloth masks on the market, but very little ones that utilize our unique graphene technology. We firmly believe we’re filling a gap in the market.
As for staying in the game — we build our technology and products based on the unique advantage of our graphene technology, which has been patented, tested, and piloted with several hospitals. We do believe the company with the best product/service will stay in the game. And we strive to be that one.
Moreover, our secret sauce has a diverse team with expertise ranging from scientific research, chemical engineering, and medical regulation to business operations, product marketing, and user design. We can stay relevant by being one step ahead of where we think trends are heading and test and implement tests quickly with our range of knowledge and experience.
Your final thoughts?
Linh Le: While our products and technology differentiate us on paper, it’s our mission-driven team and organizational culture that I’m most proud of. Our team has always been distributed/remote, so we were set up for success when the pandemic hit. We have a strong internal communication strategy in place, document everything well, work collaboratively and effectively, and, most importantly, put caring and work-life balance before all-else. Getting to know one another, finding time for “water cooler” talk, and holding space to share more of our personal stories is key to Flextrapower being an inclusive and rewarding place to work. There’s no set time people “need” to be online, except for a few team meetings every week. We hold each other accountable yet also have immense trust in one another that we’re all working hard and striving towards the same set of goals.
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