Haley Marie Keith never planned to stumble upon a great business idea in her first MBA class at Oklahoma State University.
It all started as an assignment for which she and her classmates partnered with an inventor to develop a commercialization strategy for his “next big thing,”: a hybrid additive that strengthens materials such as plastic and carbon fiber by as much as 135%. This allows manufacturers to transition from steel to lighter, more durable polymer materials; two pounds of the hybrid additive can make either 3,000 carbon fiber bike frames or enough high-strength parts for five Ford F-150s.
Hailing from an industrial hub in Indiana, Keith knew that durability and performance were big issues for manufacturers, and her solid business background and penchant for innovation compelled her to create a business plan.
“No one expected it to become a company,” says Keith, “but [my husband] Kevin and I validated the market concept, winning $161,000 from business plan competitions in 2017, and receiving an additional $70,000 from grant organizations to continue product research.”
In December 2017, Keith and her husband graduated and launched Mito Material Solutions. It was immediately clear that the company would need a steady stream of capital to begin production, and the duo started working full-time with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation and pre-seed investments from Oklahoma State University alumni, Rice University and VentureWell. Seed investments came from a few angel groups, including Vision Tech Angels, and CAV Angels.
To date, the company has secured over $3 million in funding, paving the way for the rollout of its first product, E-GO, a graphene-based product that required only a 0.1% concentration in relation to the polymer. At the moment, Keith and team have completed pilot sales with multinational corporations who are evaluating Mito for market applications in transportation, marine, and CAS systems worth over $100 billion.
“You never really know where to look [for funding] as a startup, because you’re not really sure in the beginning whether it’s just an idea, but that is a mental challenge you have to get over,” says Keith. “Then, you can start talking to people that are knowledgeable and connected, and that’s where we found the quick and available mentorships, and routes for funding.”
The company’s first cash infusions came from pitch competitions. Mito has placed second in Rice University’s Business Plan Competition, Baylor New Venture competition, Oregon New Venture Championship, and others, and this summer, Mito won the Startup of the Year Female Founders pitch.
Meanwhile, Mito also secured grants from organizations like VentureWell, and in 2019, it received $1.1 million for product development funding from the Small Business Innovation Research grant program (SBIR) and the State of Oklahoma through the Oklahoma Center for Advanced Science and Technology (OCAST) program.
This flow of funding opportunities allowed the company to grow slowly, without much help from the large institutions. But in 2019, Mito was approached by Techstars to enroll in its accelerator program. “That was very instrumental,” says Keith. “All of these little networks that we’d been a part of up until that point got us where we were, but Techstars’ network really exploded our growth.”
Since graduating from the accelerator, Mito’s pipeline has grown about 500%, and the team benefited from mentors and investors with the knowledge and experience they needed. “We learned how to be company owners and entrepreneurs — there’s a difference, and you have to be fostered in both,” Keith says. “We were able to scale our product and get additional data that was very important for piloting.”
The company is still very much pre-revenue, but Keith’s emphasis on fundraising has secured its post-pandemic standing. “Our company is a science and material company, so in times of constriction in the economy, we are very lucky to see that we are still able to get sales contracts and move forward.”
“It’s a long cycle time, and there’s a lot of R&D, but you have to be scrappy and look for funding through competitions, grants, private equity, and more — none of that is a waste of your time,” says Keith. “It’s important to strategize, and in materials, you can never lose sight of your customers. This graphene-based technology may be at 80%, but it’s 100% going to solve my customer’s problem. And that’s what you need to move forward with. Don’t be afraid to seize every opportunity.”
Startup of the Year is a global network and competition that supports startup founders.