Q&A with Matt Hull

Matt Hull

President + Founder, NanoSafe

NanoEarth Entrepreneurial, IP, & Business Director, Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (VTSuN)

Matt is the president of NanoSafe, a company he founded as a PhD student at Virginia Tech while exploring applications of nanotechnology to solve global sustainability challenges.

In this wide-ranging interview Matt discusses his current work, his paths not taken, and how both innovation and basic science influence his current work and new opportunities, from artificial intelligence to long-term CO2 sequestration. Looking to the future, he also shares his thoughts on inspiring the next generation of scientists and technologies.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

. . .

Tell us about your work. Why is it important, who will it impact?

At my core, I’m an interface guy. I work at the intersection of academia, industry, and several disciplines. Right now, I have dual roles in academia — at Virginia Tech — and business — with my company NanoSafe.

At Virginia Tech, I work at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS), which invests in high-risk/high-reward interdisciplinary research. I also research and teach with a specific emphasis on converging technologies, human health/safety, environmental sustainability, and innovation/entrepreneurship.

At NanoSafe — a company I started as a PhD student at Virginia Tech in 2007 — we work to mitigate the environmental health and safety risks of nanotechnology while simultaneously exploring applications of nanotechnology to solve global sustainability challenges.

I chose to focus on these subject areas because the rapid pace at which new technologies are introduced to society brings with it both unknown risks and remarkable opportunities to solve problems. How we assess and manage those risks is extremely important, and so is our ability to harness those technologies to solve problems and create economic opportunities.

Right now, I’m working on quite a few exciting and important projects. At Virginia Tech, I’m working with student entrepreneurs to help them take innovative ideas from the lab to the market. I’m also working on an EU-funded effort called NanoFabNet that aims to create an international hub for sustainable nanotechnology. At NanoSafe, we’re using nano expertise to develop better sensors for at-home detection of lead in drinking water, to develop/test improvised PPE solutions for use during the COVID-19 pandemic, and, more largely, to better understand the risks of emerging technologies on consumers and in the home.

Despite the fact many don’t understand nanotechnology, our work has broad and non-selective impact. The student entrepreneurs I work with come from all walks of life. NanoSafe’s lead sensor was designed with communities like those in Flint, Michigan in mind. A frontline medical worker is using PPE I designed as a backup in case their regular supply chains are overwhelmed.

What is your “path not taken”? What were you choosing between? Where would you be if you went the other direction when you got to that fork in the road?

For me, there are many paths not taken but several come to mind. I’ve had opportunities to pursue graduate studies in Ireland and the UK. I was recommended to apply for a prestigious Fulbright scholar opportunity in Australia. An offer was made to buy my company, NanoSafe. These were all amazing opportunities and I declined each one of them in favor of other paths that “felt” right at the time.

What I’ve found is that there are ultimately many paths and many variations of success. I agonize way less over the path taken (or not) and more about how I’m doing on the path I’ve taken. Am I walking it with purpose? Can I sleep peacefully at night? Can I sustain the important personal relationships in my life while I’m on this path? Am I happy with where this path is leading and is it time to find the next one?

What is your superpower?

My superpower is probably my ability to convert my own ignorance into something positive. Some of the greatest successes in my career came about serendipitously, because I didn’t know the “correct” way of going about something. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but I’ve been pretty good at finding the silver linings. I figure things out; I make connections and cobble together resources; I persist until I find a way forward. Most importantly, I’m driven by the belief that no matter the challenge, things will work out alright in the end. It may sound naïve, but it works for me.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an area I’m looking forward to understanding better, both on its own and how it can be applied to nanotechnology. Recently I attended a virtual workshop on AI organized by my friend — Professor Sambit Bhattacharya at Fayetteville State University — that I hope to apply to my work.

In the universe of scientific inquiry and discovery, what looming breakthroughs are you most eagerly anticipating?

For me, it’s not so much about what that next breakthrough is, rather it’s about how we go about seeking it.

I’m most eagerly anticipating breakthroughs related to how we communicate and engage with one another, particularly those who don’t look like us or believe the same things as us. How do we communicate the complexities and importance of science to the general public? How do we help engage them in the “process” of scientific inquiry without patronizing them or threatening things they hold dear, such as important social and spiritual beliefs? How do we improve the diversity of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs — not just underrepresented groups and minorities, but those with more conservative views as well? Without this connectedness, our scientific institutions will wither.

If we get the “how” right around scientific inquiry and discovery, then we’ll see more breakthroughs and adoption of the science we need to solve our most intractable problems. Without it, we’ll never make it.

With all that being said, I’d love to see a scalable solution for long-term CO2 sequestration soon!

Talk to us about the importance of fundamental research to your field. What should we be doing to accelerate development in this domain?

I naturally gravitate towards applied research, but I’ve always appreciated that you can’t enjoy the applied stuff without recognizing first the importance of the fundamental work that enables it. Without a doubt we “stand on the shoulders of giants”. Working in an interdisciplinary environment like I do, you get to see the fruits of all sorts of innovations that were enabled by decades of fundamental research. The applications of much of that work didn’t become clear until much later. If it’s easy for scientists to lose sight of this, then it’s even easier for the general public to do so. We need scientists working at both ends of the spectrum (basic to applied) and all points in between.

A great example of this in environmental nanotechnology is the basic science underlying electron microscopy that really enables us to do what we do — not just in environmental nanoscience, but in virtually every aspect of nano-enabled research (e.g., cancer treatment, sustainable energy, advanced materials). We rely heavily on electron microscopes as tools to help us visualize engineered nanomaterials in complex environmental systems. The basic science underpinning the electron microscope is truly remarkable, and yet it’s so easy to forget that when using these tools (and others like them) to solve applied problems.

The funny thing about basic research is that we don’t necessarily need to accelerate it. Rather, we need to protect it against the notion that it should bear the same near(er) term payoffs that applied research often does. There’s always pressure to measure the ROI of a research project over a particular period of time (perhaps 2–3 years). Unfortunately, short time frames don’t lend themselves to measuring accurately the returns on investments in fundamental research or costly research infrastructure (like the Large Hadron Collider). These programs can take decades to bear fruit and even then, their successes may not look like what you expect or be easily communicated in 180 characters to the general public. We have to understand that the payoffs of some investments may not even occur during our lifetimes. As researchers and supporters of research, we naturally gravitate to the shiny new toy, the cool tech trend that promises a revolution. But during a time when new tech is introduced with increasing regularity, we have to continue to seek and nurture those fundamental programs who might not grab the headlines, but whose breakthroughs lie just beyond the application horizon.

What do you wish the average person knew about science?

That they can join in. Science and academia are more accessible than most might think. One of the greatest drivers of innovative research can be a person’s unique backstory — the things they’ve encountered throughout their lives that give them a truly unique perspective and way of looking at, and studying, the world. “Average” people have contributed some pretty amazing science.

If you have/were to have children, how would you try to ignite their passion for science and technology? Do you remember what did it for you?
  • Take them to a creek (and let em play in it)
  • Leave copies of Popular Science in the bathroom
  • Teach them how to change the oil or fix an engine (and do so patiently)
  • Listen to their ideas and encourage them (even when you’re tired or frustrated and really don’t feel like it)
  • I benefited from all of the above
Tell us 3 books you read recently that might surprise us.

Not sure that these books will surprise you, but here’s a mix of what I’ve been reading (sorry, I added a couple of bonus books)…

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (by Susan Cain)
  • Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (by David Epstein)
  • Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies (by Andrew Maynard)
  • Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (by JD Vance)
  • Dark Matter (by Blake Crouch)
Can you describe the scientific community in a Haiku?

Something subtle seen
A mystery as to why
Truth is found at last

Neil Degrasse Tyson famously shamed James Cameron at a dinner party for using the “wrong sky” in the driftwood scene in Titanic. What film have you seen that best represents science, the scientific process, or the underlying scientific truths of a given issue?

My first reaction was to say Medicine Man (1992 with Sean Connery), but it’s primarily due to the main character’s frustration over discovering (and then losing) a cure for cancer. That aspect of the movie happens over and over again in science. Not every scientist is working on a cure for cancer, but they’re all trying to answer a burning question or solve a critical problem. You “think” you have it figured out a hundred different times, only to realize that the next data set takes you in a different direction. Eventually, the data lead you to a conclusion, but it’s seldom what you expected and, typically, it’s not a Hollywood ending.

But films are so fraught with drama and quick resolutions that a “wrong sky” is the least of my concerns. I’d have to say that the drama unfolding on the evening news of late represents these elements far better than any movie can. You have burning questions about mask efficacy, social distancing, and surface cleanliness. You have heroes and villains (and it’s a real “choose-your-own adventure” film because the audience decides which is which). Meanwhile, you have anticipation building over the promise of a vaccine — will we have one soon? And, if so, will people actually trust the science behind it? But, wait, this is all happening so fast — perhaps the scientists cut corners; perhaps they tossed the scientific method aside in pursuit of quick fixes and fame; or did they?

Perhaps the biggest plot twist of all, though, is the irony that so many choose to berate the very science and technology that has allowed them to worry more about where they’re going on vacation this summer than the global pandemic that’s raging all around them. Yep, science is ill-suited for 1.5 hour films; it’s a miniseries at best.

The world seems to have a love/hate relationship with technology today. What opinion do you hold about technology’s role in modern life that most people would disagree with?

That we do so little to prepare society (particularly children) for the introduction of new technologies. The span between cool new tech and widespread social adoption is frighteningly short (for many things — not all). I think there are social consequences that we realize far too late.

What old-school technology (and we’re using “technology” loosely here) do you wish you could bring back? (Or maybe you never let go of it?)

I loved playing name-that-tune with MIDI files in college in the late 90’s. My daughter has discovered vinyl and the 80’s, so we’re remembering how fun records were. Saturday morning cartoons without phones or any other distraction.

During the pandemic I’ve loved watching the neighborhood kids rediscover the bicycles they left outside (I suppose Fortnite just didn’t cut it anymore). Not fancy bikes, but the old pieced together ones with bald rear tires from skidding in the road. Reminds me of 80’s movies like the Goonies and ET where a shoddy bike could take you just about anywhere. I suppose the internet and Netflix can do that now, but it’s just not the same.

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