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Innovators in the News

8/11/10 - Susan MacKay, President of MTI-funded Zeomatrix is one of five Maine Women to Watch

Reprinted from MaineBiz 8/9/10

Susan MacKay has a Ph.D in chemistry and has spent the past four years turning a science startup into a company gaining international recognition. So it’s surprising when she admits that her best subject in school had nothing to do with test tubes. “I wasn’t the number one chemistry person in class,” she says. “Actually, I was the English award winner.”

And she thinks her business is better because of it. MacKay is the president and one of three founders of Zeomatrix, a company in Orono that makes filtration materials and other products using zeolite, a powdery, white mineral. Launched as a spinoff from a University of Maine research project, the company has already put one invention — an odor-absorbing paper material — to market and is working on another product that could make generating biofuels and providing the world with clean water easier and cheaper.

MacKay founded Zeomatrix in 2006 along with her husband, financial analyst Don MacKay, and fellow scientist Karl Bishop, after Susan MacKay and Bishop did postdoctoral research together at UMaine. As president, MacKay manages the company’s day-to-day operations, including bringing in the funding vital to a science startup’s survival. With no prior experience as an entrepreneur, MacKay has made impressions within the science and small business world with her ability to make that tough transition from scientist to business owner. “I think it’s because I had to work at science that [making the transition] is easier for me,” she says. “The academic world can breed arrogance ... I’m very willing to admit I don’t know everything, but I’m confident I can learn it.”

To make the leap, MacKay padded Zeomatrix’s advisory board with business and finance professionals and sought out services that aid small entrepreneurs, like the Maine Center for Enterprise Development’s Top Gun program, where she learned the art of describing her venture without losing investors in the nitty-gritty chemistry details.

So far, MacKay has attracted $50,000 from outside investors, as well as nearly $500,000 in grants from the Maine Technology Institute and more than $600,000 from the National Science Foundation. Her goal is to raise another $1 million from investors, half of which NSF will match. “The biggest challenge when we pitch is to convey what we do and the excitement about what we do,” she says.

MacKay has reason to be excited. From a modest office and lab in the Target Technology Center, Zeomatrix has developed a unique filtration membrane made in part using DNA. The technology attracted the attention of Germany-based BASF Chemical, the largest chemical company in the world, which has invited Zeomatrix along with 11 other startups involved in water and membrane science around the globe to a September venture fair. “This is a huge break for us,” she says.

A Florida native and mother of two, MacKay spent a chunk of her career at Minnesota-based 3M, where she was the first woman Ph.D in her division, an R&D lab specializing in surface chemistry. MacKay took time off to raise her children, and the couple spent four years in Boston before moving to Orono in 2002 in search of a different lifestyle.

She’s found “an incredible amount of support” in Maine, support she hopes to further. MacKay has worked with the city of Old Town and others in an effort to establish a new technology and energy business park adjacent to the UMaine campus, which would house her company and serve as an incubator for other startups. Part of her motivation is selfish — she’d love a bigger lab within walking distance to the university and space to accommodate as many as 25 employees. But she’s also eager to see the region recognize its full potential as a science and technology hub. “We need more jobs for engineers, we need more resources,” she says. “It’s not a competition. I’d love every company that comes out of UMaine to be successful.”

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