Published November 8, 2013
Ann Brozek was just the person two chemistry students needed to help develop a sound business plan for a technology that could make buildings more energy efficient.
The dual Master of Architecture/Master of Business Administration student came to UB with several years of experience as an intern architect. A LEED Accredited Professional, Brozek also happened to be well versed in green building design.
It turned out to be a winning combination. The student trio took home first prize in the 2013 Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition for their plan to commercialize a material coating for windows and building surfaces that can sense temperature changes, and then adapt to either reflect or transmit solar heat. The competition, sponsored by UB's School of Management and its Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, provided the team with $25,000 in start-up funding for the business, diMien LLC, including legal, accounting and business development services.
Brozek’s first exposure to the idea came as an MBA volunteer for the annual Pre-Seed Workshop, a boot camp of sorts for university inventions across the state with commercialization potential. Brozek was matched with Sarbajit Banerjee, PhD, UB assistant professor of chemistry, whose patented vanadium oxide coating was one of several ideas being evaluated by angel investors, entrepreneurial coaches and business advisors.
While Brozek mostly served as a recorder for Banerjee’s team, she had impressed the chemist with her understanding of the technology and related experience. And so when two of Banerjee’s graduate students proposed entering the coating into the Panasci competition, he was quick to recommend they round out their team with Brozek.
To stand out among 42 teams of start-up hopefuls, Brozek and her chemist partners would need to convince a jury of investors of the product’s commercial viability based on their business plan and pitch. While the two chemistry students, Brian Schultz (PhD ’13) and Peter Marley (PhD ’14), focused on the R&D side, Brozek took the lead in identifying business strategies, financial projections and target markets.
Brozek says her understanding of how architects select and design with products helped her shape the product’s marketing plan. For instance, the fact that the material remains transparent even as it reflects heat is a key advantage; most reflective window coatings on the market are permanently tinted and impede visual transparency.
While demand is high for architectural glass and glazing, Brozek says, there are also cost challenges, particularly due to the energy inefficiency of glass relative to other materials. To make the financial case for the project, she quantified the coating’s impact on a building’s operating costs and also gauged tax benefits gained through the LEED green building rating system.
“Architects typically spec products that they’re familiar with. If they’ve never seen your product or don’t know of a project it’s been used in, they won’t often take the risk,” says Brozek, who spent four years in architectural practice in Washington DC before coming to UB in 2011.
Brian Schultz, team lead for the project, said such inside perspective shifted their entire market strategy.
“Ann’s knowledge of original-equipment-manufacturers (OEMs) in the window and glass industry led our team to the realization that in the commercial building field, architects are key influencers that often decide on the final insulating glass products. This entirely changed our going-to-market strategy and target markets.”
“Furthermore, her expertise in the architectural field enabled her to propose a percent savings with our material, evidencing a return on investment in 3 ½ years,” added Schultz.
Brozek says the ultimate value to architectural practice comes when you combine business perspective with architectural training:
"Businesses want creative CEOs – they want creativity because they see that as problem solving. Well, that’s what architects are trained to do. I think as architects, we can market that better and use that in a wider array of services, particularly on the operations side of the practice.”
At several points in the competition process, the team was required to deliver an oral pitch to the panel, including a 90-second pitch for the semifinal round. Brozek credits her educational experience in studio review and critique with building her presentation and persuasive public speaking skills.
“Architecture is just a great primer for public speaking because you’re constantly presenting your ideas to others,” she says. “This training translates well to delivering pitches, which require precise information, interesting visuals and a compelling case.”
Brozek says the trio gelled well and that it was refreshing to work with scientists. “We each had different strengths, but maintained an objective approach throughout. We could be critical of one another in the interest of a stronger presentation.”
In fact, the value of collaboration in architectural practice is one of Brozek’s primary research interests as she develops her MArch/MBA thesis. Brozek hopes to explore options for architectural practices to integrate more efficient business practices to build resiliency – an interest she developed while hopscotching around firms in Washington DC after the recession.
“I saw so many different operations during this time. I went to business school to better understand why there are all these different structures, and how you can become a more efficient operation.”
Brozek says the ultimate value comes when you combine this business perspective with architectural training. “Businesses want creative CEOs – they want creativity because they see that as problem solving. Well, that’s what architects are trained to do. I think as architects, we can market that better and use that in a wider array of services, particularly on the operations side of the practice.”
Meanwhile, Ann isn’t ruling out the possibility of rejoining diMien LLC. Schultz, who graduated last May, is advancing the project to the next phase, though the product likely won’t go to market for three years, and won’t turn a profit for four to five years.
“It would have to be a side project in the beginning, but knowing that in the future this potential business will emerge in Western New York from a project we worked on in school, I think that’s just the coolest thing.”