…It is always the leader’s fault. It is my fault. Did I not hire correctly? Did I not resource it properly? Did I not communicate it effectively? But ultimately, if there is an issue, it is your fault as the leader…
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Medendorp, Jr. PhD. Chief Executive Officer, UV Innovators (recently acquired by WellAir).
Nick is a seasoned CEO, technology, and product development leader with more than 125 US patents in medical devices, electronic materials, LED and lighting products. Nick was an executive at Cree Lighting as it grew from $36k to ~$1B. Nick has 24+ years of experience commercializing photonic technology. He earned his BS, MS, and PhD in Materials Engineering from Purdue University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My dad worked for General Electric (back in the Jack Welch days) and every three years, after getting a promotion, the company would want him to move to a different division to learn the whole business. So, we moved when I was three years old, six, nine, and again when I was 12 years old. I think those experiences prepared me for change. I was able to adapt very succinctly to a new environment, make new friends, and adapt to new schools.
But the one thing that really impacted me was when my dad was working for GE Lighting at the NELA Park headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio. I remember going there and seeing rooms full of light bulbs that were all mounted on these racks. And I asked my dad, “What are you doing here?” And he’d describe that this was reliability testing where GE Lighting had created different types of metal filaments and were examining their efficacy. And I asked him, “Why does our light bulb always go out every year?” And my dad said, “Well, we actually engineered obsolescence.” So, I learned that the business model was a replacement. My dad said, “Come here Nick, I will show you something.” And he showed me one of the kinds of original Edison bulbs, they had these carbon filaments, that was still going for 100 plus years. And that is where I learned the difference between technology development for learning versus product development in business.
There are technology solutions that can be used to make a long-life light bulb. But that was not the business model. The business model was to make it cost-effective and replaceable. So, my first real product development lesson was it had to be a solution set for the customer. Meaning, it had to be priced-right and had to have the right value proposition and performance. But it was also a business where you had to generate a profit.
When I first started working in LED lighting, my dad and I would talk about lighting specs like: correlated color temperature, lumens per watt, lux and foot candles. My mom would just roll her eyes! My dad always had dreams about doing something different with LED technology but to actually see us go develop and then commercialize it, was always fun to sit around the Thanksgiving table and talk about. It was a way for my dad and I to bond about things that he did many, many years ago. While my dad worked in general illumination, here I am a few decades later, digitizing the analog solution that they had back in the day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite Life Lesson Quote is “Give credit, take the blame.” Ultimately, we all try to be accepted, we all want to be recognized for our contribution. But as I moved from an individual contributor to a mid-level manager to a CEO, a lot of experiences changed me and forced me to recognize the responsibility of a leader. More often than not, when people take credit for your work, it is demoralizing on lots of different levels. But on the other hand, when a leader steps up and accepts the blame, when they probably aren’t directly to be blamed, it shows they are taking responsibility as the leader. It is incumbent on you to fix the issue so the organization can grow and mature. So, I believe in taking the blame, and giving credit because I think those are two things that often leaders do not do very well.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
A book that really made an impact on me is called “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen. It highlights exactly the business model problem that GE had. Where GE had this legacy business, factories that were twisting wires and blowing glass, and assembling light bulbs, and then a startup in North Carolina, in the early 2000’s started making LED components. These white LEDs eventually replaced the incandescent light bulb (where GE’s lighting business was back when my dad was there). And today, it is hard to find that incandescent light bulb. That GE business division was once the “shining star” and finally sold it off in 2019. That all said, this is what “The Innovator’s Dilemma” is all about. Where you have legacy businesses that either cannot see or are unwilling to see technology innovation leaps and bounds and become extinct. The book really forced me to always try to look around the corner to see what is coming and to be prepared to take our business and pivot. Leaders have to make decisions, sometimes based on partial information. But if you wait, or you are not willing to look to see what is coming, you are going to get crushed.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
I have worked in light-based technologies for over 24 years. I started working with tunable lasers for optical communication at a start-up, which then led me to LED (Light-Emitting Diode) technologies to make LED chips into components, which then can be made into modules and lighting systems. That really was my introduction into the lighting industry by starting at the light source and then all the way into the full lighting systems. At that time, it really was a dynamic shift from legacy analog products to new digital products. I had the opportunity to move throughout the Cree organization, from leading operations and supply chain teams to then product development and R&D organizations. When I was heading the R&D group for Cree Lighting that is where the effects that certain spectrums of light could have on biological entities, specifically, that our eyes absorb a certain wavelengths of light and it stimulates a biochemical reaction. A high blue content light suppresses melatonin, enhances serotonin and so, it kind of wakes you up. That is why we are told that sitting with your iPad or your computer while you are in bed at night will make it difficult to go to sleep because the blue light from the keyboard or from your screen will suppress the natural production of melatonin which is important to one’s sleep cycle.
After Cree Lighting, I was working in the medical industry developing phototherapeutic technology for treating dermatological conditions, where you can take specific wavelengths of light and activate biochemical reactions in the body. We found very specific wavelengths of light where we could stimulate the production of nitric oxide which is a natural, signaling molecule inside the body. This enhanced vasodilation (increased blood flow), reduced inflammation and helped increase the immune response to pathogens in or on the skin. We also found that we could eliminate pathogens by shining a blue light onto human skin where it would not cause any damage to the epidermis, but could kill pathogens like MRSA, pseudomonas and other infectious pathogens. That really started me down the path of alternatives to antibiotic and chemical disinfectants that could kill these pathogens. It was the catalyst to get together with my UV Innovators’ partners today and talk about how we could utilize a chemical-free technology to help reduce the pathogen load in a hospital to reduce hospital acquired infections (HAIs) — which is a $45B annual problem. That is what I was doing prior to the pandemic — looking at how to harness light to create new chemical-free solutions to help the healthcare industry eliminate deadly pathogens.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
Once the pandemic hit in March of 2020, I met with my partners at UV Innovators and our Board of Directors and talked about our technology we were developing for hospitals. The question was raised “can our technology kill this virus? Can you kill COVID?” We then rapidly, in a 60-day period, built prototypes and started to line up third-party testing to see if we could kill the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus. We determined that our technology was effective in killing the COVID-19 virus on surfaces — in just one second of exposure.
At that point in early June 2020, we had a device ready to go as the world was just learning about the impact of what this virus could do. As we started having shutdowns here in the United States, we made a turn and said, “Okay, the hospitals will always care about these dangerous and deadline pathogens, but right now the world needs a COVID virus killer.” So that’s what we created. But it had to meet the needs of businesses and schools as well as hospitals.
You’ve heard the anecdote “fast, inexpensive and good . . . pick two.” We felt that our innovation had to meet all the criteria to make an impact. It has to be effective. It has to be fast. And it has to be affordable. It’s a tall order to meet all of those criteria in a single product — and then add “easy to use” and “safe to be used around people” to that list.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
The “aha moment” was when I saw a demonstration of what a cough or a sneeze will do in terms of the aerosolized particles. Because at this point, in the pandemic, there was a lot of confusion about how the virus was getting transmitted. My partners and I really spent some time to understand aerosol versus surface spreading. Is there a difference when you cough and sneeze? Depending on the size of the particles determines how long they stay up in the air. The medium particles can travel a certain distance, and the large particles actually fall right in front of you up to about two feet away. So, we recognized at that point that surfaces matter and decided to focus on efforts on surface disinfection. That’s when NuvaWave™ was born. NuvaWave is the first Instant UV device proven to disinfect surfaces against deadly pathogens in one second with its targeted UV light and portable, handheld design.
How are things going with this new initiative?
We have gone through all the product testing for NuvaWave, product registration, NuvaWave is an EPA-registered product, has third-party validation its effectiveness — not only for efficacy against SARS-CoV-2 but for many other deadly pathogens that are transmitted on surfaces like Pseudomonas, MRSA, E. coli and Salmonella. I look at this as a kind of another 9/11 moment for all of us. Did this pandemic change the trajectory of not only the United States but of the world? Are we going to treat outbreaks differently moving forward? The WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated publicly that this will not be the last pandemic, and epidemics are a fact of life now. One of the interesting things is we had no flu outbreak this year. And why is that? Did COVID-19 kill the flu? No. Washing your hands, covering your face when you are sick, routinely cleaning high-touch surfaces and disinfecting the air mitigated it. We can manage and get rid of these viruses.
Our initiative is going well. We were acquired by WellAir in February, where we now have world-leading air disinfection technology with our world-leading surface disinfection technology. We can now offer the full solution ecosystem to our customers. But we recognize that tomorrow is a new day, and there are pathogens that are lurking in the shadows, and we have tools that are now available to put it in the hands of those that are trying to keep us safe.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful for my wife, Molly, for supporting me in getting me to where I am today. From the beginning, Molly has been not only my biggest champion, but my greatest sounding board. This even started as I was finishing up my Ph.D. and we were first married. Molly got me a book on how to write a resume, it was called “Knock ’Em Dead.” To this day, when I have a big event going on, Molly will text or call me and say, “Knock ’Em Dead.” And that is just like our little link back to the fact that we have come a long way together. But also, that Molly has a start-up mindset like me. She is fierce and willing to take risks. Molly has always encouraged me to go for it, not live in fear, just show up every day and do your best. And if your best is not good enough, then that is a lesson that you can learn and improve upon.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
About a year ago, one of our employees’ sons was diagnosed with COVID-19. He had been traveling and came home to stay with his mom as he was feeling really bad. We gave our employee a NuvaWave and said, “If your son is going to stay in your two-bedroom apartment with you, we cannot have you get sick too.” So, she followed the protocols, wore her mask, used the NuvaWave at home and never got COVID-19, even though she was in close living quarters with her son. We felt great that because our technology works, our employee was safe as she was caretaking for her son. That was awesome.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
It is always the leader’s fault. It is my fault. Did I not hire correctly? Did I not resource it properly? Did I not communicate it effectively? But ultimately, if there is an issue, it is your fault as the leader. Early on in my career, I was probably pointing fault at somebody else because I did not want to get in trouble. And then, it kind of hit me along the way. When somebody said to me, “Look, if you do not fire that individual because you know it is the right thing to do based on all of these issues, everyone else around you now realize you are the problem.” So suddenly, I realized that that bad employee was not the problem. I was the problem. And so that kind of rocked my world. No one ever thinks about saying, “I am so glad I waited to fire that toxic person,” right? So, yes, at the end of the day, it is always the leader’s fault.
A distracted boss lacks respect. I have been there. We all have been sitting there talking to your boss, and the phone rings and they answer it. Or they answer a text message, or they are on email. And I am sitting here thinking to myself, “Why I am wasting your time? And you are wasting my time.” And so, I always said, when I got into that other chair, that I would never do that. Because ultimately, it is very disrespectful if I start answering the phone, while you are talking to me about something that is important to you as an employee.
A loyal base can be blinding. If you have so many foot soldiers that are always saluting you, you could be led down a path that is detrimental. For the company, and for you personally, you need to have a constructive dialogue. What happens if everyone is saying yes, all the time? I like to have a constructive dialogue because ultimately, you will get better. As they say, iron sharpens iron, right? You want to surround yourself with strong intelligent people who create solutions and can state their opinions. And then ultimately, your job as the leader is to make the final decision.
No job is beneath you. I learned early on that I will never ask someone to do something I would not do myself. I had start-ups where, after hours, I was cleaning the facility. No one knew it. Except one time where someone came back to the office because they forgot something and saw me scrubbing the bathroom. She joined me and together, we got the facility cleaned. The point is if you feel something is beneath you, you will never respect others on the team.
Who cares what others think? If you are stuck trying to impress everyone, it is a fool’s errand, you will always be chasing, you will be on this treadmill all the time. So really what I try to do is give 100 percent. I give my best effort and if my best effort is not good enough, that is okay. There are probably other talented people out there that could step in and do it better. But if I give it 100 percent, I know that I will deliver value for my organization. So, you’ve got to stop caring what people think because in the grand scheme of life, it does not really matter.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
Sometimes I just turn off all the news and all the distraction. The other part is, I try to clear my head through some sort of physical separation, such as walking or even getting some quiet time. But it is really the realization for me, when I find myself getting kind of amped-up, I take a step back and say, “Why? What is it?” Because there are only four things in this world that I can control. Those are my words, my thoughts, my actions, and my emotions. I cannot control anything else. I have a limited amount of time and a limited amount of bandwidth and energy. So, I want to apply it to things that matter to me and that I can help impact and change.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I want people to focus on health before wealth. I think there are so many leaders that are on this treadmill, trying to figure out the next transaction. How do I go from making x to 2x to 10x to 100x? And if you are not healthy, it does not matter how much money you have, you cannot buy that back. So, take the time and the effort to invest in your health, just like you would invest in your stock portfolio or your knowledge. Health before wealth.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
There are so many different ones. But one that really intrigues me is Elon Musk. He is successfully running multiple companies, with lots of different technologies that are very entrepreneurial, industry-breaking. And I just want to know, how does he do that? Elon must have very strong leadership teams at each of his companies in order to go execute the vision. How does he stay on the top of that?
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!