Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Max Mankin
posted: 5/15/2017
listed in Fellows

Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Bonnie and Clyde. R2-D2 and C-3PO. Batman and Robin. They’re better together, as the best teams are. Working together to solve problems, overcome obstacles and support each other. That’s what teamwork and partnership are all about. And teamwork often results in success. After all, two heads are better than one.

That is certainly the case for me in my quest to bring new energy technology to market. My business partner and I come from very different academic, scientific and engineering backgrounds. Tony is a physicist by training so he’s very good at thinking through how things work at a fundamental level. My background is more in tinkering, materials science and chemistry so I’m the one who can take an exciting new concept and make it happen. That kind of partnership is incredibly valuable. If you look at a lot of the big tech companies that have emerged in the last 30 or 40 years, the founders were often combinations of the thinker and the builder who could take those ideas and make them a reality.

The founding team of Intel is one of my historical favorite teams, comprised of Andy Grove, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. Gordon Moore was the physical chemist. He was the tinkerer and the materials scientist who could build anything. Robert Noyce was a visionary. He had big ideas and could inspire people to work toward a common goal. And Andy Grove was the manager. He effectively kept his team on track, on schedule, and on budget. Successful teams are comprised of people with different backgrounds who bring complementary skillsets to product development. Teams that combine strengths in creating a vision and then executing it can make a huge impact in the world, especially when it comes to deploying new technologies.

Part of what makes my partnership with Tony successful is that we challenge each other and push each other to come up with ideas and solutions. Tony is a theorist, so sometimes he comes up with ideas that are extremely difficult to build in the real world. I’ve told him, “I can’t build this. There’s no way to test this in the lab.” And that starts our creative cycle where I push him to take his theoretical idea and make it something that can be built in the lab. We go back and forth a bunch of times. Tony will often ask, “Well, why can’t you build that? What’s standing in the way?” His challenges push me out of my comfortable ways of thinking, beyond the traditional ways that devices are tested or constructed, and into new ways of thinking about how to build something. An idea may come completely out of left field but could ultimately be valuable if applied in the real world. Some of our best ideas (and iterations of our product design) have come from thinking up the wildest and craziest ways to tackle different problems, then bringing them back toward designs that can be built and tested.

One benefit that the Hertz Foundation has brought to my career was introducing me to an amazing community of brilliant, driven people that I consider our extended ’team.’ Joining the Hertz Community was instrumental to my development as a scientist and as a leader. The Hertz Community exposed me to challenges people are working on beyond what I had experienced myself. At the retreats, for instance, I met leaders working on important challenges in fields from finance to agricultural technology development to rocketry. I learned from entrepreneurs, managers, scientists, engineers, and everyone in between about compelling problems outside of my immediate technical area. That crosstalk and exposure to people who are doing all kinds of work can be formative for someone like me who had been on a linear career track. The Hertz Community helped me realize the impact I could have on the world with my specific skills and interests.

The Hertz Community was also where I met Tony. Our company is the result of cross-pollination of different technical fields, a hallmark of the Foundation’s retreats for Fellows. Without that, Modern Electron might not exist today. Modern Electron has been privileged to collaborate with countless members of this terrific community, including technical help from fellows Chris Own, Rod Hyde, Jordin Kare, and Lowell Wood, business (and food!) advice from Nathan Myhrvold, and an incredibly productive-and-ongoing internship project with Arvind Kannan. Outside of Modern Electron, I’ve had a blast collaborating on projects with Ed Boyden, Adam Marblestone, Sam Rodriques, and Jon Russell.

To that end, I encourage scientists, engineers, and technologists working on big ideas and developing new products to create an extended team for themselves. Get out of the office, the lab, or the manufacturing floor and talk to new people. Talk to people in different industries to get an idea of how the science and engineering that you’re working on can really impact the world. And take time to help others, even if they’re outside your field. You’d be surprised what you can learn humoring questions from people who don’t think the same way you do. A lot of academic problems are focused on discovering something new for the sake of being new. That’s incredibly important because it can and does lead to the growth and development of entirely new industries and technologies. But it is equally rewarding when you think about the fact that your research could have a direct impact on someone’s day-to-day life. By developing a new technology or a new scientific protocol to address a specific problem, you can open up an entirely new field of business—and open up someone’s world.

Max Mankin is a co-founder and the CTO of Modern Electron, an energy startup in Seattle on a mission to make electricity available to anyone, anytime, anywhere. His an inventor on 18 patents and patents pending, was named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in Science (2016), and is the co-recipient of the 2016 Peter Strauss Award from the Hertz Foundation. Max holds a ScB in chemistry from Brown University and PhD in chemistry from Harvard University, where he held two national fellowships from the Hertz and National Science Foundations.