Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Karen Sorber delivers more than 35 years of experience in building and leading private and federal organizations. She has delivered leading studies and assessments in policy, management, and the technical aspects of federal acquisition. Karen recently announced that her company raised a $3M seed round, led by The Pearl Fund and CIT Gap Funds, with participation from CAV Angels. The raise is a major win for female-led cleantech companies, and for startups in Southwest Virginia.
Q: What inspired you to found Micronic Technologies and what were the main challenges you faced?
After a humanitarian visit to Peru in 2007 and witnessing young children living without water—and seeing the impact on their lives and their health—I came away committed that one day I would do something to help people in Peru and other water-deprived areas around the world. That next year, whether by chance, karma, or design, I reconnected with my now-husband, Kelly Rock, who previously held 21 patents in automotive, medical, and water technologies. I shared with Kelly my idea of providing water to these water-deprived areas. He had an idea about cleaning water, and so a start-up company, Micronic Technologies, was launched, determined to make a lasting impact on the world. Ten years and $6.5M in funding later we are ready to commercialize a disruptive new technology that can treat wastewater from practically any source.
Challenges faced were far and wide and the lessons I have learned and some yet to learn will be chronicled in a book I hope to write in the years ahead. Accessing capital was our number 1 challenge. Now with this seed money, we hope to create the sales to move to the next level.
Q: Did you start the venture alone?
My husband and I started the company at our kitchen table in 2008. Our initial founding capital included me and another investor, who subsequently re-invested several times.
Q: What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
Our initial founding capital included me and another investor, who subsequently re-invested several times. This was followed by a Friends and Family raise, leading to convertible notes over the last few years. Angel and Venture Capital financing seemed impossibly difficult, so we sought out federal and state funding, resulting in several million in grants.
As we move into the market place we are slated for the Environmental Protection Agency to test and evaluate our pre-production unit under a cooperative R&D agreement; finalize our first sale in the cheese processing industry; engage strategic partners for piloting our technology, and solidify channel relationships currently in the making for the cheese industry and municipal landfill leachate treatment. All leading to market validation and sales.
Q: Do you think luck played a role in your success?
After almost 13 years of a 24x7x365 work schedule, networking at every opportunity, traveling the country, participating in at least six accelerators, relocating my family and business from Northern Virginia to Southwestern Virginia - Luck? No, I think not.
Q: What are your goals for the future?
Over the next 12-18 months, our goals are to secure much-needed resources in management, marketing, and sales; successfully deploy our unit to EPA for test and evaluation; close sales in our target markets; improve system efficiency; conduct scalability modeling to address customer high volume needs, and prepare for Series A financing at a much higher valuation.
Q: If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
To be perfectly honest, if I had to do it all over again, I might very well have not done it. I thought originally, we would be able to sell the technology in a couple of years… wow was I wrong! With half of my 401K now in the business, I am committed to the end! If I knew then what I know now, my very first step would be to enter a reputable accelerator program to sort out all of the unknown areas of commercialization of an industrial technology business.
Q: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Donna Price Henry, Ph.D., Chancellor of UVA-Wise, who took a chance on Micronic in 2014 and supported our relocation to SWVA, and sponsored us for a major R&D grant with the Tobacco Commission. Her steadfast leadership and support assured our success on that grant that led to a follow on. In one sense, she saved the company from our then ‘valley of death.’
Q: What are your favorite books?
- Who Moved my Cheese? - Spencer Johnson… that guided me through major life and career changes
- Shelly’s Heart - Maureen O’Neill Hooker…that taught me empathy in a way nothing else ever could
- Women Lead the Way – Linda Tarr-Whelan… that opened my eyes to the research validating women-led organizations perform better on all manner of performance measures; the need for successful women to step up their game in mentorship; and sadly, we have not come as far as one would have thought.
Q: What's your advice for female founders who are just starting out?
Network till the cows come home! You must show up, and show up again, and create mutually beneficial alliances to assist each other. In time, the right mentors will show up and you will be ready for them.