Inventor. Founder. Professor. Star Trek Fan. Can I have it all?

David Grier is a Professor of Physics at NYU and Director of NYU’s Center for Soft Matter Research. After a postdoc appointment at AT&T Bell Labs, he joined the faculty of Physics at the University of Chicago, where he was a member of the James Franck Institute and Institute for Biophysical Dynamics. Grier moved to NYU in 2004 as a founding member of the Center for Soft Matter Research.

With progressive experiences at various institutions, he is a decorated researcher, specializing in soft condensed matter physics. Grier has been awarded more than 50 U.S patents and published over 100 articles on this topic. Grier’s work is featured in a Smithsonian documentary The Real Story: Star Trek, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the original series. 

He serves as a founder and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board for Spheryx, which provides a new window into suspensions at the sub-microscopic level.

Could you describe Spheryx and how your startup makes an impact.

When Spheryx was founded in May 2013, it was very much like being able to see for the first time. The instrument records holograms of particle travelling through light. In short, Spheryx allows the ability to distinguish materials by their composition, shape, and size. When you have that information, there’s a lot you can do with it.

The application spans from biopharmaceuticals, semiconductors, consumer products, manufacturing, to environmental sustainability. This includes petroleum waste treatment, oil purification, protein-aggregate centration, and more. Spheryx provides the microscopic view for product development. It improves the process and quality control for mass manufacturing of goods.

Explain your journey that led you to become an entrepreneur.

I did not think of becoming an entrepreneur but my work led me to become an inventor. I study the field where physics crosses chemistry, biology, and nanotechnology. It’s the science behind how nature puts itself together.

At the University of Chicago, I built Arryx. With a focus on holographic light trapping, it became one of our first milestones in gaining control of the microscopic world. Once I arrived at NYU, I explored  the intersection between academia and economics. The value of the soft matter physics industry relies on interaction of particle with each other. With greatly effective issues like the Billion Oyster bit, I began to see this behavior depends on colloidal dispersion.

When Arryx was built, we never thought about licensing our product to existing companies. We launched a company to start our own market and decided to educate our customers. Thankfully, Total Holographic Characterization (THC) entered a very rich industry that was very different than the existing and the company was acquired in 2006.

How did NYU’s entrepreneurial eco-system support your journey?

NYU is a great community to have access to. Spheryx licenses all of its patents exclusively through NYU. In support of internal employment, the software for our product was written by NYU graduate students. Tech transfer in the Office of Industrial Liaison (OIL), specifically Bob Fechter & Abram Goldfinger, has been very supportive of Spheryx. No one asked why would we want to do things a certain way. It was always, “That sounds great. Tell me more!”

Do you think of yourself as an entrepreneur and what advice do you give to fellow faculty members who want to commercialize their work?

My calling is research and teaching–I have a lot to contribute to a company but don’t think I could run one. Most of my colleagues do not have business experience and we don’t think of ourselves as entrepreneurs. For Spheryx, we found Laura Phillips, PhD, MBA, who had the business and industry experience and serves as the President and CEO. You have to approach the gap and find where business and technology converge.

What are some of the challenges of being a technology company in New York?

This biggest challenges for high tech startups in the city is lab space. This is especially true for hardware-based companies, as opposed to software. You have to ask, “Where is my company going to be?” Spheryx is housed in a one bedroom apartment. We are the Manhattan equivalent of a garage startup. With eight employees and successful funding, we’re new but fairly developed.

In your perspective, what is the single most important trait for entrepreneurs?

The trick is understanding what your strengths are as an entrepreneur and building a team whose strengths complement.

The trick is understanding what your strengths are as an entrepreneur and building a team whose strengths complement. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you have all of the expertise and inclinations. It is important to form partnerships with excellent business people and those with tech backgrounds.

Star Trek connection? 

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series premiere, NYU profiled David Grier where he explains how he made the tractor beam a reality. In this video, Grier explains how the technology works and how it could find practical use in everything from environmental science to—yes—space exploration.

About the author:

Cadence Daniels is a rising junior at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, pursuing her undergraduate degree in Integrated Digital Media, with a concentration in Human-Computer Interaction, and a minor in Computer Science. Cadence has a personal passion for leveraging technology to innovate communication, productivity, and interaction. She is currently continuing her work in user experience, immersive technology, social impact and empowerment.