Startup Spotlight: Ras Labs

April 24, 2016

Check out this week’s Startup Spotlight: We’re talking to Eric Sandberg, CEO at Ras Labs which develops Synthetic Muscle™, which includes a material that allows for life-like motion and control that can bring form and function together for prosthetic devices.

GH: What is Ras Labs?
RL:  We are a four person, early stage materials company with expertise in designing, synthesizing and testing electroactive polymers, for applications in medical devices, athletic and protective gear, robotics and bionics.  Our plastics contract and expand, attenuate impact, and sense changes in pressure.

GH: What is your name and role?
RL: I am Eric Sandberg, and as CEO of Ras Labs, I am in charge of sustainably growing the company while providing for a positive return to all stakeholders.

GH: What was your Eureka Moment and how did you get started?
RL: My Eureka moment occurred after working as a free advisor for Dr. Lenore Rasmussen, the founder of Ras Labs, during the last three months of her participation as a MassChallenge Global Finalist in 2013.  At the time, I had already recognized significant shared values through Lenore’s description of her founding principles to develop healing and enabling technology through material science.  I also appreciated her own catalyst for starting the company after one of her cousins almost lost a leg in a farm accident.  As the resident scientist in her family, Lenore was asked to research prosthetic solutions.  Not happy with what she saw, she envisioned developing a synthetic material that would be able to bridge the gap between form and function for prosthetic devices.

During the MassChallenge 2013 Awards Assembly, Ras Labs received grant funding by CASIS, the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, to run an experiment aboard the International Space Station.  At that moment, I knew, without hesitation, that I had to join Ras Labs and help Lenore make her vision a reality.  If Ras Labs material science was literally going to get launched into space, the possibilities for this company appeared limitless.

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GH: How did you build your team?
RL: Building the Ras Labs team is an ongoing process.  The company was founded in 2003 by Dr. Lenore Rasmussen as the sole proprietor, sole operator and principal scientist.  I joined the company as CEO in January, 2014 after Lenore and I had identified complementary professional skills and a common mission.  When selecting candidates with whom we want to work, we identify fits and gaps within the organization and engage with people who can demonstrate shared vision and values.  We have found that technical skills and professional experience provide general capabilities to perform certain tasks, but more importantly, individual motives drive action and learning and therefore must be in alignment with our enterprise goals.

We have been very fortunate to bring on our Chief Operating Officer who not only has complementary skills and experience as a PhD Polymer Chemist who has developed medical devices from the nano to industrial scale, she studied with Lenore in graduate school.  In similar fashion, our Product Developer joined us after working as an intern.  She approached us because she believes in our mission.  Consequently, she has demonstrated an impressive level of entrepreneurial thinking and action combined with knowledge in biology and electrical engineering.

GH: What is your company philosophy driving your company culture?
RL: Our company philosophy is to provide benefit to all stakeholders, achieving sustainable profit and growth through our socially and environmentally responsible actions.This is driving a corporate culture based on mutual trust and respect which celebrates diversity, individual, and collaborative efforts.

GH: Startup life is full of failures and ‘make it work’ moments – can you identify how you bounced back from one of yours?
RL: In the summer of 2014 as a pre-funded, bootstrapped startup, we had some “make it work” moments where failure lead to some great success as a team.  In this particular case, we failed to show adequate electronic shape-morphing control of our material during a live demo with a prospect’s Chief Technologist.    Extremely fearful of leaving a bad impression, we analyzed where the demo broke down and explained the situation in our next email to the Chief Technologist.  We subsequently worked doubly hard to provide a working proof of concept system with video capture that pleased the prospect so much, they decided to seek out a joint development program with us through DARPA.

GH: What did you learn from your first customers?
RL: Ras Labs’ first paying customer was the US Army, where we learned the importance of developing collaborative relationships with a broad spectrum of decision makers while synergizing on target applications, particularly since our mission is to develop protective, healing and enabling technologies.  We also learned the importance of iterative design and testing in order to effectively demonstrate our material capabilities.

logoGH:  What has the Boston ecosystem provided you?
RL: Boston has an amazing ecosystem for growing businesses.  Here are some organizations that have helped us significantly along the way: MassChallenge, Babson Venture Accelerator,Worcester Polytechnic Institute, NSRDEC,NESACS, TCF Law Group, WilmerHale, Medical Development Group, MassTLC Robotics Cluster,MassRobotics, MassLifeSciences, MassBio, MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge, The Capital Network, and The Venture Forum.

GH: What is the Boston ecosystem lacking from your perspective?
RL: Opportunities abound in the Boston ecosystem.  The challenge for any startup is to build an identity and a favorable reputation in this tight knit community.  Since Boston investors are reputed for being somewhat more conservative than in other areas of the country, startups here need to be confident that with time, patience and perseverance, strong business models will rise to the top, thus providing further evidence that our ecosystem helps builds national and world leaders in multiple industries.

GH:  What’s the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?
RLWorst Advice – Focus exclusively on one product application and one market.  Best Advice:  You have patented technology and therefore have assets in the company.  Do not be afraid to approach potential technology partners/customers in multiple industries as long as you can provide a minimum amount of data that provides evidence towards some of the relative features and benefits your materials could provide.  It is better to understand customer needs early in order to determine business and product feasibility.  If you go too far down one product development path without feedback, you may find yourselves running out of money with nothing of value to show for your efforts.

GH:  What was the best thing that happened to you last year?
RL: Thanks to our early seed investors, Ras Labsbecame an operating company last September.  This allowed us to hire our Chief Operating Officer and our Product Developer who have both helped us make significant progress toward accomplishing our early stage commercialization goals.  We have a working prototype and are in active discussions with potential technology partners in advanced materials, electronic component manufacturing, robotics, prosthetics, and bionics.

GH: What does the future hold for RasLabs?
RL: Near term, Ras Labs is in the process of opening a second round of seed investment while continuing to develop relationships with prospective technology partners along the value chain. We anticipate entering into negotiations for funded feasibility studies with at least one potential partner within the next few months.  Long term, Ras Labs electroactive polymer sensors, actuators and pads will provide advancements in applications for aeronautics, robotics, medical devices, and protective gear.

Learn More About Ras Labs

 

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