Member Spotlight – July 11, 2014

Sarah Haig  – VP Operations/Business Development & Co-founder, Silverside Detectors Inc.

Sarah-haig-silverside-detectorsWhile national security may not be the first thing that crosses your mind when you think of cleantech, when it comes to nuclear power, the two are very closely linked. Greentown Labs member company Silverside Detectors is combating the threat of nuclear terrorism by developing cost-effective neutron detectors that can be installed in urban infrastructure (e.g. roads, jersey barriers) to  create a wide-area network of nuclear bomb detectors. This same technology could some day be used to improve the safety of nuclear power plants as well.

We caught up with Sarah Haig, Silverside Detectors’ co-founder and head of operations and business development, to understand what excites her about this field. Sarah has a strong background in international development and policy – her resume includes over five years leading microfinance organizations in China and Afghanistan, research work  at NATO ISAF Joint Command in Kabul, Afghanistan, and an MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Rapid Fire

What I wanted to be when I grew up: Favorite book Best event in Somerville:
A Ballerina.

When I realized that was out of the question, Secretary of State.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb The festivals!

What makes you happy?

Favorite city you’ve visited? National security threat type that best describes your personality?
Dancing. And boats. Cape Town, South Africa

…my puns might be considered a threat to national security?

My Company

 Why do you do what you do?

It’s the easiest question with the most complex answer…

The objective answer is that nuclear terrorism is the greatest threat to international security. Nobody knows what the actual risk is, but the consequences are so enormous, it could dwarf any events that are in the news today. The scary part is that even a small nuclear event can have such an impact. Sure, there’s still risk associated with nuclear warhead that 8 other countries have stockpiled, but the bigger threat today is terrorists rigging an “improvised nuclear device,” or essentially a crude nuclear bomb. A small one could decimate a city block, and beyond the human damage and economic cost, think about what the security response might do to democracies.

We think that 9/11 changed the security landscape – this would be orders of magnitude worse. And I’m not being alarmist here–President Obama has said that what keeps him up at night is the prospect of terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear weapon.

The personal answer is that I like to look at the biggest problems and take a bite (ok, a nibble) out of them. I’ve always loved political security issues. My background is in microfinance – I ran a microfinance company in Afghanistan, and did research there during grad school. I want to democratize security. I want to take something that is scary, that people think should be left to the experts and say no, we can allunderstand it and be engaged in the solutions.

How did your company start?

I was all excited to work in a civil/military capacity after grad school, but when the time came for the job search, I realized that I didn’t want to move to DC or Kabul. I’d spent 4+ years in Asia, and it was just time to be closer to home (in Boston). Then, through a mutual friend, I met Andrew (Dr. Andrew Inglis, Sarah’s co-founder and CEO of Silverside), who was working on this new type of nuclear bomb detector. With my security/public policy background, and his physics background, it seemed an intriguing fit. We said let’s make a go of this. That being said, retrospectively, we can say this was linear, but it was really a stream of consciousness set of events that just worked out.

Because I don’t have a physics background, and Andrew is really good at explaining this research, I feel like we are really able to engage people on this topic of detection to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. I want this to be a discussion that people feel they have a right to be engaged in. This is something that everyone should be able to talk about. We’re not going to be up there throwing out vocab so people think we’re really smart, we’re committed to talking about it in a way that is understandable and truly representative of the opportunity and the challenges equally.

It can be a bit difficult to explain in the short time you have in most pitches though, so one time we ended up doing an interpretive dance…

Sarah and Andrew creatively explaining Silverside Detector’s value at the Challenge Cup

What is top of mind right now in your company development?

Engineering to hit a price point. Our prototypes have been lab tested and embody a proof of concept of the detector materials and design principles. A lot of it comes from IP that was developed in the 1980s and is now public domain, so it’s very reliable. All of it lines up in theory; now we have to make it a reality.

Up until now, the price points of detection have precluded massive deployment. Our design can make this affordable at scale, so the government is very motivated to see us succeed. We can now stop making one-offs, and start making orders of 10s, 100s, 1000s to prove the price point and make this happen.

What are your aspirations for the company?

In terms of the detectors, no one’s asking me how they should be deployed, although we have suggestions. The marginal value of detection has to keep climbing. I want to see the U.S. nuclear threat posture to be at least the equivalent of patting airline passengers down. Let’s get to that point, and then argue about where our dollars should go. WIth the price that our detectors will be at … it’s a no brainer to get at least that level of security.

My goal in life is always to have a job for which I’m not qualified. My goal in a startup – be good enough at everything that I need to do to get us to the place where we can hire an expert.

My Work

What motivates you?

The challenge of making this whole enterprise work. I like identifying the strategic challenges on my plate for today, and then translating them into tasks that I can finish, that will inch us forward to big-picture goals.  You can get immobilized by the scope of what’s ahead of us… if I really thought about the whole scope of this I’d be hiding with blankets over my head. But I’m motivated by finding the one thing I can do towards that goal and doing it well –  being better today at what I was mediocre at yesterday.

Month to month, I’m motivated by making a material impact on our nuclear threat preparedness. Even once Silverside has succeeded, I’ll always want to be engaged in cutting edge security – government, startup, something completely different. Who knows what the next curveball is going to be – I just want to be strong enough to hit it.

How do you work?

Depends on the day! But I shape my work approach around my calendar: . is it a day that’s broken up into small chunks or wide open? That determines whether I will dive into a project that will wholly absorb me,  or scratch away at the surface of a million different tasks. The great thing about this job is that it is so varied! If I have 2-3 days of diving in, I miss the big picture; if I have 2-3 days when I’m just scraping away at the small tasks, I feel like I’m a poser and don’t actually accomplish anything meaningful. The mix is what makes it fun.

On top of the day-to-day tasks, there are weekly dynamics of priorities that shape my tasks: whether finding – general liability insurance, reading/negotiating contracts, doing market intelligence. Since I’m doing pretty much everything that’s outside of the lab, it’s a challenge to make sure I’m on top of everything – from running payroll to buying paper clips – while still making sure I make time to put on the headphones (literal) and blinders (metaphorical) and work on the big problems.

How does start-up life differ from your previous work or studies?

It’s so funny – it turns out international development was phenomenal training for running a startup! I’ve been so surprised with how much commonality there is with running microfinance:

  • All hands on deck.
  • Learn in the morning what I need to know how to accomplish in the afternoon.
  • Learning the vocab of a dozen different interest groups.
  • Learning how to contextualize and filter everyone’s input, and then march ahead.

Initially in figuring out if I have the background it takes for a startup, I realized nobody really does. You need to be able to do all the tasks of a larger company, with just two people – no one knows everything.

My Greentown Labs

What brought you to Greentown Labs?

When we were in MassChallenge, we heard about Greentown from another MassChallenge company (Energy Intelligence) . It was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The catch-22 of hardware is that you need a prototype to get money and you need money to pay for space to build your prototype. Greentown is affordable space with amazing networks and resources – it’s perfect!

Silverside Detectors team accepting an award at MassChallenge
Silverside Detectors had a very successful run at MassChallenge before joining Greentown, winning a total of $125,000 from MassChallenge and Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.

 What’s something that has surprised you about Greentown Labs?

I expected that Silverside would be more of an outlier given that we have less of an immediate focus on clean tech, but it’s great how transferable the experience of a lot of companies has been to us.

It’s also fun to see how much you can contribute to the community. For example, Andrew is really attentive to air quality. He’s on a bender to figure out how to get the best quality air in the manufacturing space here at Greentown. We’ve seen other people take on causes that help the whole community. When you have a lot of highly motivated people, so when one person finds their agenda, everyone benefits.

What Greentown Labs resources do you currently use?

My colleagues use Altium and Solidworks, and I’ve seen a number of lunch & learns that will be helpful, but I haven’t been able to make any yet. It’s great that there are educational sessions around even the boring details, like the internship lunch & learn that ADP did. It’s daunting trying to learn all that on your own! The community has also been really helpful – just this week I sent out an e-mail asking if anyone could help with an IP question and there are a couple of real experts here.

My Advice

What advice would you give to a hardware entrepreneur?

Get a generalist to join you (yes, I’m tooting my own horn, but it’s true)! Everyone knows you need a tech expert, and you really do, but a team thrives when you have smart people with the capacity to learn whatever it takes to meet your next goal.

It’s tempting for companies to flash their credentials, but that builds distance. You have to build bridges. With Andrew’s great communication skills, and me not being a physicist, we’re able to interact and make non-physicists feel like insiders.

Finally, make sure you’re honest and open about your successes and failure. It can be really easy to fall into pride and arrogance in this space, if you’re doing well and being told you’re doing well. The flip side is you feel like you’re a failure when things aren’t as smooth. Having an honest understanding of who you are as people, beyond your company, keeps your grounded. That comes from having to talk honestly about what you’ve done well and wrong.

What would help someone thrive at Greentown Labs?

Anyone who is willing to be themselves and contribute. Don’t fit the environment, offer who you are and what you have – that’s what makes this place vibrant.