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Impact Innovators in the Zinc Ecosystem: Steve Goldenberg, co-founder & CEO of Sterling Biomachines

steve goldenberg

Steve Goldenberg is a 2x founder, 3x CEO, angel investor and startup advisor. He is currently co-founder and CEO of Sterling Bio Machines, an early stage London based biotechnology startup building a new class of bioreactor. Steve founded Sterling in Zinc’s 5th Venture Builder, where he met his co-founder, CTO Akshaya Ahuja.

What did your career path look like prior to joining Zinc?

I have been an entrepreneur my whole life, it’s the only thing I know. I started my first company, Interfolio, when I was still in university back in 1999 in Washington DC. It was an education technology company that transformed how colleges and universities deliver on their academic and research missions. We created a whole new category of technology, scaled the business globally over two decades, and sold it to Elsevier in 2022. It was a hell of an experience.

After Interfolio I took on the CEO role of a purpose-driven outsourcing company. While leading some big transformation initiatives there, I realised I wanted to apply my experience and skills to the biggest challenge we currently face – the climate crisis. 

After connecting with one of the Zinc team in London, I was bristling with excitement. I flew back to the US filled with energy. An environment that brings together 70 talented people, all passionate about a common mission, ideating through lots of business ideas with potential co-founders and a route to funding felt perfect for me. I knew I wanted to fully immerse myself in whatever I committed to next, and Zinc was the ideal environment for me to do that. 

What motivated you to want to tackle the climate crisis?

My thesis was I wanted to work on a big, hard problem that had both huge impact potential and huge economic potential. I am motivated by the double bottom line of impact driven businesses, but I am also motivated by the financial side of big economic opportunities. What I like best is when the engine of economics drives the engine of impact and vice versa. I believe the climate crisis is the biggest challenge humans have ever faced. And I’m an optimist. I believe that as a species, society, and culture, we will eventually solve the core problems, find new ways to thrive, and get to the point of living sustainably.

It’s a real thrill to be part of tackling this huge challenge – to be producing new innovations, creating new jobs, and making some money along the way. I believe there are phenomenal economic and societal rewards for everybody involved. 

What excited you about the Zinc venture builder?

Initially it was the quality of the recruiting process and the Pre Founders Day. I was very excited about the exceptional quality of talent that Zinc was recruiting for the mission. The Pre Founders Day was great, like a flawless vision of how the full Zinc experience would be.

Secondly, it was the time and resources that Zinc provided to help us navigate the journey of starting a company – from the network of people, to the learning sessions, and the office space in central London. It was just an incredibly nurturing environment for creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation, and for relationships to blossom. It truly exceeded my expectations. Finally, something I only realised in retrospect, was just how outstanding Zinc’s Network is. The fellows and the investors that are a part of the Zinc network are by far the most valuable thing that Zinc offers. 

How have you used the Zinc network of fellows, advisors, experts and coaches?

I came to London with the intention of throwing myself 100% into the Zinc process, to say yes to everything. I met as many people as I could and attended as many networking events as possible. I learned a ton in a very short space of time. Within six months, I built a new network, in a different country, in a market I had never worked in before. My network is now very strong and Zinc was the turbocharger that facilitated that. 

What has surprised you most on your founder journey so far? 

Over the past 20+ years, I feel like I have developed hardy “body armour” for the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur. I have good tolerance for being able to ride the uncertainty, risk, pain, and mental anguish that can come with the journey. However, I still found the first month at Zinc much harder than I anticipated. Whilst I was confident with the strength of my entrepreneurial and business building muscles, I was diving into new problem spaces and technical challenges as a complete novice. I don’t think I was totally prepared for how it would feel to be learning about such big, complex topics from scratch in a very short space of time.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the quality of the programming in the Venture Builder. So much great content and so many opportunities for new connections. I was surprised by how quickly the Venture Builder flew by. Six months sounds like a long period of time, but it’s one of those experiences where the days are long and the weeks and months are very short. 

What are you most proud of on this journey so far?

I’m proud that I’ve delivered exactly what I came here to London to do. Two weeks after moving here I had major doubts. I was feeling overwhelmed and questioning whether I was capable of moving into a brand new sector in a new country. I remember thinking to myself: “what will it feel like to wake up in six months and have started a company that I’m super passionate about, that can have a huge impact, has been funded by Zinc, and is moving forward to grow and become everything it can be?” It was such a thrilling thought and I’d be so proud of myself. And now here we are! This journey has already changed me in profound, lasting, beautiful ways. 

What have been some of your biggest challenges on this journey so far?

On a personal level, relocating to London without my family has been incredibly hard. I moved over from the US solo initially as we didn’t want to pull our son out of school if this was only going to be a temporary thing. I think I underestimated how disruptive the distance would be and we’ve had to work really hard to adapt to it. That said, I love London. I love living here. The Zinc Accelerate program has been exceptional as well, and the more traction we’re making with Sterling, the more likely it is we’ll be in the UK permanently.

I’m a big believer in making moves that your heart feels are the right decisions, and this has been one of those decisions. I believe entrepreneurship requires heart, because you really can’t just intellectualise your way through it. It’s just too hard for logic alone, there’s just too much uncertainty. 

What keeps you motivated through the really hard days?

For me it’s about visualisation and obsession with the outcome we’re aiming for. This was what motivated me at Interfolio, I was obsessed with building a new category of technology that hadn’t existed previously. The more I learn about bioreactors, and the enormity of the opportunity for disruption, the more I believe in the transformative impact that our business will have on the world. I have a living, breathing, visceral vision of the future we’re building in my mind. I’m totally obsessed with it, and manifesting that vision is constantly motivating me to keep going.

The second thing that keeps me moving forward in tough times is having such a great business partner. I feel so lucky to have Akshaya by my side. We have clicked incredibly well. I think the most important characteristic of a founding relationship is trust. I trust him completely and he trusts me. We’re very different but understand each other. We pull each other up when needed. And our dedication and obsession with our vision and what we’re building is totally aligned.

How do you look after your mental and physical well being?

Dedicating time to doing hobbies like photography, the gym or meditating is a top priority for me. They are directly related to my success as an entrepreneur and as a leader. I’m very aware of how tightly connected feeling good physically is with operating at the top of my game mentally.

Like with my chosen profession, I don’t do anything by halves, and spend a lot of time at the CrossFit gym! If I’m feeling good physically it makes me a better business partner, life partner and a happier, more open and friendly person generally. A big part of this is also about creating routine and structure. If I have a routine with my physical activity, it’s much easier for me to have a healthy and productive work routine too. 

What are you currently excited about?

We’ve recently started working on a project with a partner that is being funded by a grant that we won from the UK Government. Over the next five months we’ll start to see real, tangible results to validate our product vision. It’s great to be working with a partner organisation that’s so aligned in terms of expertise and infrastructure. We’ve started prototyping, and seeing the physical kit that will ultimately become our first product is, without exception, the most exciting work that I’ve ever done. It’s so fun building. Making things from nothing that are useful to people and that they’ll pay for, is what motivates me to be an entrepreneur. And doing it with physical products is even more exciting. It’s really thrilling to see our ideas finally becoming a reality.

I’m so excited by the early interest and traction that we have from investors. And that gives me confidence that we’ll be able to raise the money that we need to make our ambitious vision a reality. And Zinc deserves a lot of credit for this because many of the investor relationships I have built have come through their network and introductions they have made. 

The third thing is yet to come. My favourite part of being a leader is about building a team and creating an environment where people love what they do and are empowered to do incredible work. Right now it’s just the two of us and I’m excited for the growth journey we’re about to go on. 

Who or what inspired you on this journey?

Rather than one specific person, I’m very inspired by hardware designers that have built products that enable transformative experiences. Products that have entirely disrupted a category, that are a delight to use and, in retrospect, we can’t live without. The iPhone, the Dyson vacuum cleaner and the Nest thermostat all come to mind. 

Finally, what advice would you give to someone considering joining the next Zinc mission?

Commit fully, don’t hold back. Give it everything you’ve got. Show up to everything. Meet everyone. Not everyone will come out of Zinc with a business partner and a world-changing product idea, and that is totally okay. If you immerse yourself fully into the process there are unlimited other new exciting opportunities that will open up to you. My second piece of advice is that Zinc isn’t running a programme for you. They are creating a platform, an environment, the conditions for success – and it is your job to be proactive and make the most of that opportunity!

Do you want to start a mission-led business of your own? Applications for our new venture builder focussed on improving the health of people and the planet are open, find out more and apply today here.

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