To enable disruptive technologies for various markets, including Defense, Aerospace, Biomedical, Automotive, Communications, and Consumer Electronics, Steve Wilcenski leads his team to develop technologies and products on the micro and nanoscale.
As the Co–founder and CEO of BNNano, Steve helps develop new nanomaterial technologies with his innovative and collaborative approach.
CIO LOOK caught up with Steve in our endeavor to find “The 10 Most Inspiring CEOs to Watch, 2021.” We talked with him to gain insights into his passion for advanced materials, and the disruptive product development that is driving a transformative wave.
Below are the highlights of the interview.
Brief our audience about your journey as a business leader until your current position at BNNano. What challenges you had to overcome to reach where you are today?
My journey began after I graduated from NCSU with my bachelor’s degree in Materials Science and Engineering. I had always had a need to learn and found myself with so many more questions following graduation than when I began. Such questions fueled my interest in other technologies and fields.
Throughout the first half of my career, I was an engineer who made things. I have helped usher in new technologies that impact daily life, made devices that left the solar system, helped explore Mars, and even made devices that have been implanted in human bodies. I am very proud of what I have been able to accomplish on my own and as part of teams.
But I have also failed and made a lot of mistakes. That combination of wins and losses prepared me to lead my first team. I wanted to lead, and found with my background and experiences, it felt like a natural progression. I led teams in Operations, Engineering, R&D, Sales, and Marketing before ultimately being selected to lead that company.
During this time, I began to feel pulled by the desire to branch off and start something of my own. It took a few years to find the right idea, plan, and team, but once this aligned, I took the leap and started BNNano with my business partner Jason Taylor. We have been off and running ever since.
Tell us something more about your company and its mission and vision.
BNNano is located in Burlington, NC. Our company manufactures nanomaterials and products that contain nanomaterials.
We make a specific type of Boron Nitride Nanotube called the NanoBarb™. When added to other materials, the NanoBarb™ improves the material’s properties and performance. For example, when added to aluminum, we can double the strength; when NanoBarbs™ are added to 3D printing materials, they print faster while also becoming stronger and more durable. We can make plastics become heatsinks and enable new technologies to clean water, just to name a few.
As the only company in the world with a commercially viable manufacturing process for Boron Nitride Nanotubes, we at BNNano are working to develop novel products that will leverage this super material.
At BNNano, we believe that through cutting-edge materials science and innovation, we can transform, revitalize, and revolutionize industrial commodity materials. Our goal is to bring value back to materials like aluminum and polyester that have been relegated to commodity status. We are striving to bring manufacturing jobs and industries back to the United States.
Our goal is to make everyday materials extraordinary by producing new materials that will enable next-generation technologies and products that only recently seemed impossible. We are working to make aluminum a super material, evolving additive manufacturing to support the production of 3D printed parts, and are even developing technologies to help clean the world’s freshwater supply.
Enlighten us on how you have made an impact in nanotechnology through your expertise in the market?
We are not classically educated nor typical nano-scientists. We got involved in nanotechnology because we had been disappointed by the state of nanotechnology in our prior careers. As process engineers tasked with making products out of the latest and greatest materials and technologies, we were exposed to weaknesses in nanomaterials. Often the development of these nanomaterials was driven by a science first perspective rather than an engineering first approach.
Our expertise in understanding how to make and use materials gave us a unique perspective. Our focus was the development of nanomaterials that could be easily used and set out to solve the common problems that plague nanomaterials. This novel approach resulted in a new type of Boron Nitride Nanotube that we call the NanoBarb™. It is easier to use, performs better, and has a low enough cost to be incorporated into applications and markets that traditionally could not use nanotechnologies.
Describe in detail the values and the work culture that drives your organization.
At BNNano, it is our people that make the difference. We are a small, scientifically minded organization with unique technologies and products at the forefront of nanoscience.
The relationships within the company, with our partners and customers, are the key to our success. As a team, we work together, celebrate successes, recover from failures, and grow.
Our company culture prioritizes needs over wants. When possible, we put the needs of our customers and partners first. We locate our operations in small towns and communities where jobs matter and partner with organizations that believe in giving back to communities through training and education.
Undeniably, technology is playing a significant role in almost every sector. How are you leveraging technological advancements to make your solutions resourceful?
Our NanoBarbs™ and products enhance and complement other technologies, industries, and applications. Examples include aerospace to biomedical, textiles to metals, space to marine, and electronics to water purification. Which in turn helps speed advancements and continue to push that evolution along. We are helping make things lighter, stronger, more durable, and safer while developing more efficient processes and products.
Our nanomaterials compliment industries and applications far and wide.
Where do you envision yourself to be in the long run and what are your future goals for BNNano?
As one of the founders of BNNano and the current CEO, I believe we are just getting started. Every day we interact with people who share our excitement and vision for nanotechnology. While I plan to continue promoting our company and products, I also hope to advocate for the wider application of nanotechnology and plan to take a leading role in educating the public about the current and future potential for nanotechnology.
What would be your advice to emerging leaders?
Be open and honest in your communication and treat everyone with the same respect, courtesy, and excitement. People understand you may not be able to give all the details all the time, but they value leaders who always take the time to communicate with their teams.
Complex concepts or ideas should be explained in such a way that everyone can see the benefits. Do not use your technology, expertise, or position as a shield to keep people out or to bring people in.
Remember that success may be determined not by the individuals you first meet but by the networks and contacts you build. We have been introduced to a number of customers and partners through our initial contacts.