Nathaniel Banks is a trained architectural, landscape, and product designer, and is currently the CTO and co-founder for PolyGone Systems, Inc. PolyGone Systems is an environmental-tech company that specializes in removing microplastic contaminants from waterways. Nathaniel holds a Master’s degree in Architecture from Princeton University and a Bachelor’s degree is Architecture from Syracuse University. He is passionate about applying design and representational strategies as a means to broaden awareness and develop innovative solutions to pressing environmental challenges. His ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration with researchers in the fields of advanced chemistry, hydrological engineering, and environmental policy, has enabled him to design, fabricate, and pilot novel filtration technologies to address the emerging microplastics crisis.
Prior to studying at Princeton, Nathaniel enhanced his design skills, interning in some of the world’s top design practices, including Heatherwick Studio, Zaha Hadid Architects, and Grant Associates. He has won multiple international awards for his independent design projects including the 2016 BitTech Mod of the Year Award, the 2019 SkyHive Award,, and the 2021 TerraViva Living Museum Design Award. His work has also been exhibited in the IHA Gallery in Tokyo and the 2022 Shenzhen Biennale.
Under Nathaniel’s leadership, PolyGone Systems has won more than $2.5M major research and innovation awards from Princeton University, and New Jersey state and federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and NOAA. He has also helped the company to successfully raise their first venture capital investment.
What is your typical day, and how do you make it productive?
On a typical day I usually have a bunch of meetings from the beginning. Around 9:00 AM we start off with a whole bunch of different meetings with various different people we’re working with. We meet with people from municipal authorities, different government officials, and sometimes other researchers or collaborators we’re working with. We get those out of the way at the beginning and then usually around midday, we head out to the Princeton Innovation BioLabs facility and we either do experiments there or meet up with other team members from research and design in person. This way, we can concentrate on production in the afternoon without being interrupted by meetings.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Whenever we’re developing anything, it starts off from a concept. It really comes down to not just keeping that concept in your head and really taking it out and trying to develop it into something real. To do that, we employ a different set of techniques. I come from a design background, so I like to sketch out any of the ideas I developed in my head. Then from there we take it into a professional 3-D modeling software, such as Rhino and AutoCAD. Then we try to fabricate it and that involves scaling the idea from just something I develop myself into things that we have to work with collaborators to execute. When it comes to actually physically building it, it’s the longest process because that’s working with other team members and external fabricators in order to build this 3-D idea into something physical.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’d say AI development is exciting. That’s something that I think is really shifting how we work and how we interact with technology quite dramatically. Even in my own work, I found it very useful. For example, sometimes I’m struggling to come up with ideas, so I can use software like Mid Journey. Also, I like to use chatGPT to help refine some of the writing I’m developing and really can help streamline my workflow.
What is one habit that helps you be productive?
One habit that helps me be productive is wearing many hats. So not just being diligent in everything you do, but also having a wide variety of skill sets. If you’re focusing all of your attention on one thing, you can easily go into burnout and that ruins not only your productivity, but also your mental health. One day I’ll be struggling on a 3-D model, so I’ll focus instead on the experimentation. Sometimes I find a roadblock on the experimentation and I’ll focus instead on the PR for the company, trying to improve our outreach. So by swapping from task to task to task, subconsciously I can find solutions for the bits I’m having roadblocks in whilst working on something else.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Advice I would give my younger self is to probably work smarter, not harder necessarily. I think I ended up burning out quite a lot of my energy reserves when I was in my early stage at university from age 18 to 22. I was so focused on trying to produce as much as possible, but I was not really thinking about what was really necessary to produce. I think now in hindsight, I realize that a lot of the work I was doing wasn’t needed or wasn’t particularly useful to getting to the end result I really wanted. I would definitely say really spend a bit more time just figuring out what it is you want to achieve and what’s the fastest way to get there, rather than just trying to produce as much as you can to force your way to a solution.
Tell us something you believe almost nobody agrees with you.
This is unrelated to business, but I think British food is actually pretty nice.
What is the one thing you repeatedly do and recommend everyone else do?
I think the idea of wearing many hats and not focusing on purely one task every day is something I would recommend to others. Sometimes diversifying what your focuses are so that you can have breaks from specific tasks to avoid burnout is very helpful. Also in my opinion, it really improves your mental health. If something is going wrong in one area of your life, it’s not like your whole life’s falling apart. You have something else to focus on and really distract yourself in a sense whilst you sort that out.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
I feel overwhelmed quite often. At PolyGone we’re developing all kinds of technology. We have to develop our filter technology, develop cleaning support equipment and find new clients to test them. We need to build the tests at different scales and work with different clients and it’s always overwhelming. I think the way I cope with it is in baby steps. You have to acknowledge you can’t get everything done in one day, but I also think in my position I have the luxury that I can delegate work. That did not used to be the case, but now that we’re starting to expand our team I can offload some of the responsibilities to other people. However, I think that’s actually quite a hard thing to do because you’re very attached to everything you’re developing and trusting someone else to do that development is very hard. But it’s something I’ve found that has been really good for allowing me to cope with overwhelming work.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business or advance in your career?
I think self confidence has a really big impact. I think during my university training it was kind of the opposite. We were told that you know nothing and that you have to listen to your professors on everything because they’re the experts. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that sometimes you do have knowledge that other people don’t have or you have a different perspective that they may not appreciate, but actually can be quite useful. I think the moment I started to embrace it, I realized I had some good suggestions to make; so once I test those and prove it, that’s allowed me to pursue far higher goals in my career and actually has allowed me to build. It’s like positive feedback. When you have more confidence, you propose more ideas, and then if those go well, you get more confidence. So it’s nice feedback that I think is really helpful.
What is one failure in your career, how did you overcome it, and what lessons did you take away from it?
During my university studies with Yidian, the co-founder, the first bit of research we were doing, we were really discouraged. We were actually told by all of our advisors at Princeton that our idea was a waste of time to pursue. Since we are pursuing microplastic renewable technology and only had design backgrounds, they did not believe we had the expertise to pursue this. They told us to leave that to other people and to focus on your area. However, we were stubborn because we had a passion to address this issue. So what we did to cope with it was play to our strengths. We realized, we can design, we can fabricate, we can come up with solutions, we can develop ideas, but we need to have a scientific rigor to show that these ideas actually make sense. So we brought scientists on board to help advise us on how to develop and that encouraged us to really pursue an interdisciplinary foundation.
What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?
During my university years, I experimented with various food businesses and made a modular food stand that can be applicable for various foods. The one I tested out was with crumpets and we sold out immediately. We sold around 800 crumpets in an afternoon. So I think there’s a good market if anyone wants to start a food business oriented around crumpets, it could make a lot of money.
What is one piece of software that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
I would say Rhino. It is a 3D modeling software that is widely used by architects and product designers. It allows me to quickly visualize my concept and interpret that into an object and iterate different forms to find out the optimized option. This way, I can show my vision to the team and we use the digital model as the foundation of our prototyping process.
What is the best $100 you recently spent?
I got the ShopVac. It’s an industrial vacuum cleanup that was for a bit more than a hundred dollars, but it has changed my life. I feel like every vacuum cleaner generally for domestic use doesn’t function very well and always runs out of battery. With this vacuum, I can clean up everything from professional manufacturing to just a mess around the house, and it has saved me so much time. I’ve used it for almost two years straight and I’ve never had to replace the bag yet. Also it will let me know when the bag has reached capacity. It has great capacity, it never runs out of battery and it’s got more suction power than any regular vacuum. It’s amazing.
Do you have a favorite book or podcast from which you’ve received much value?
I really like the Lord of the Rings franchise. I think what’s interesting about it was the author’s approach and persistence in constructing his universe. It’s very methodical. It actually originated from him trying to develop his own fake language and then the story came out as a side project on that. I think the diligence and the effort put in is something that I really admire. When it comes to designing my own work, I like to think that we have to go through every single detail and work diligently in a similar way, but it’s not really too inspiring.
What’s a movie or series you recently enjoyed and why?
I really liked the new movie Oppenheimer. I thought it was a particularly interesting biopic and a very topical one as well.
– Never get fixated on just one task. Work on several different tasks a day to prevent burn out.
– Have confidence in your own ideas. Even when people are doubting you, do not let their doubt discourage you.
– Make sure you are surrounded by a team that you can trust with your ideas and a team that is able to execute your ideas.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.