Lead with “Why,” and Other Pitch Tips from Our Technology Program Manager

Get to Know Damon Diehl, PhD

Damon DiehlFor startups that go through the Luminate accelerator, Damon Diehl becomes a fast friend. He speaks optics, knows what makes a strong business case, and connects our teams with the supply-chain resources they need — a rare blend of technical expert, savvy storyteller, and man about town.

Prior to his role as Luminate’s Technology Program Manager, Damon’s career included time as the chief scientist at ASE Optics (before its acquisition by Rochester Precision Optics); and a stint in the technology-centric marketing company, Launch Team. He started a grant-writing business and was at the helm of the Optical Systems Technology program at Monroe Community College (MCC) during its “reboot” in 2012.

Here’s a closer look at Damon’s path to Luminate, and his insights for tech startups.

What sparked your interest in optics?

[DD] I made holograms for a physics project in high school. My first hologram was a pair of dice. I went on to study high-energy physics and mathematics at the University of Chicago, and then I applied to the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics for my graduate degree.

True story: I didn’t get into The Institute of Optics on my first try. That was crushing. Later, The Institute contacted me to say I had an incomplete application. They had not received my GRE scores (an exam required by graduate schools) in time because the testing company lost my test results! I reapplied to The Institute and joined the next year. Moral: Don’t take rejection personally.

How did you get involved with MCC’s Optical Systems Technology (OST) program?

Damon Diehl teaching holography at MCC
Damon teaching holography to middle schoolers at MCC’s Summer Sizzler.

[DD] Because of my work with optical manufacturing companies, I had a strong understanding of how much we need optical technicians in the area, and OST is critical to our industry. The program was in crisis and needed somebody to head up the program. I sent out an email that ended up getting forwarded around the region until, ironically, someone sent it to me, and I realized I was in a good position to take the job. I closed up my little grant-writing business and served as director of OST for two years while we “rebooted” the program. When I started, there were barely six students taking classes piecemeal because there was no full-time faculty. In less than a year we were running day and evening sections of every freshman class because they were over-enrolled!

Why was there such an enormous increase in the program?

[DD] There were three parts: the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster (RRPC), MCC, and a new high school optics program spearheaded by Paul Conrow at East High School. RRPC and MCC won a $500,000 grant from the Corning Foundation to put into the program, and James Sydor, a graduate of the program who recognized its value, donated $250,000. With money, industry support, and an influx of students, we were primed for success. What I did was I held all of that together and ran with it.

Today the program is run by Alexis Vogt, PhD. The shortage of optics technicians is a global problem, and she’s developing ways to replicate the program across the country, which is great because MCC cannot produce enough optical technicians for the rest of the world!

What is your advice to someone looking to get into a career in optics?

[DD] I’m a bad example because I knew exactly what I wanted to do from high school, but I know that’s not typically the case. My advice is to follow your curiosity. I was blown away by the quality of education at MCC, and I strongly believe that everybody should attend a community college before picking a major at a university. At a community college, you can afford to try out a few different areas and discover yourself. You can’t do that at a university anymore! People think that starting at a community college will slow you down, but it’s the opposite; in fact, it makes it easier to get into university. So if you’re looking to get into a highly competitive optics program like the one at the U of R, start at MCC.

Another thing: You do not need to go to university to start a career in optics! You can come in as a technician and then follow an entire career track to become a master artisan in the field, or change gears to become an engineer or a scientist. Some companies, like Optimax, will pay for your continuing education based on where you want to take your career.

From your time coaching startups here at Luminate, what are your tips for a strong business pitch?

[DD] The number one thing to keep in mind is to explain to your audience why they should care. That is true in any presentation, pitch or otherwise. Get there right away. What happens with most tech people is they start with their science, then the problem they can solve with their science, and wrap with, “This is how much money we need.” When you’re talking to investors, what they care about is how investing in you will make money for them. Make sure you nail down your value proposition first thing.

To solve the “why” problem, I recommend that you create a bad guy. This is particularly helpful when you have a technically dense topic. For example, Double Helix Optics delivers super-resolution 3D images. It has enormous implications across all of medicine, but people kept getting confused by the technology and not focusing on the amazing capabilities. Working with Leslie Kimerling [Double Helix Co-Founder and CEO], we landed on using Alzheimer’s as a specific bad guy that people would immediately relate to. In her final Luminate Demo Day pitch, Leslie showed how imaging technology has changed slowly over time — fuzzy photo of a cell, then less fuzzy photo, and then she showed what Double Helix’s technology could do: a three-dimensional color image of such high resolution that you can see the individual Alzheimer’s plaques on a neuron. It blew people away, but in order to get there, she needed to illustrate a big bad problem they were addressing. She won $1 million from Luminate, so I guess it worked.

Damon Diehl pitch coaching
Damon works with Dr. André Arsenault of Opalux, a cohort 2 startup, on his pitch before Demo Day 2019.

What are some mistakes startups should avoid in a room full of investors?

[DD] Never get in an argument! No matter what anybody says to you while you’re giving a pitch, it is not the time to protect your ego. Even if you’re mad, you can’t show it. If you feel like you’re getting picked on during a pitch, it’s OK. Investors know their market better than you do. You want them to tell you why you’re wrong. If they’re pushing you on why you made the assumptions you have, just be honest. Share what you know, admit what you don’t. They’re going to know if you’re faking it.

Also, don’t go into a room cold. Research the investors before you pitch so that you can make sure you focus on what they care about.

What tips can you share from your experience writing technical papers and teaching grant-writing classes? 

[DD] Michael Alley wrote two books that changed my life: The Craft of Scientific Writing, and The Craft of Scientific Presentations. Read his books if you want to do technical writing or improve your slide decks. The format Michael Alley uses for presentations is called Assertion – Evidence, where there’s a sentence at the top of the slide and an image or graph underneath that supports it. It’s similar in writing. People think it should be “fact, fact, fact, conclusion,” but that’s backwards. Start with the most important part and then support it.

What do you do when you’re not helping startups at Luminate? 

[DD] I’m currently writing a book on grant writing. Other than that, a skill that turned out to be remarkably easy for me is crocheting, which actually started as a math thing. You can make very complicated mathematical shapes with crochet, and I wanted to make hyperbolic surfaces. Since I can adjust the angle of a lens with nanometer precision, sticking a piece of yarn through a hole was not particularly challenging. At some point I realized that a spherical surface is a hat, so I started making hats, which then turned into knitting hats. Because knit hats are better than crocheted hats.