Ms Grace Chew said people asked her why she wanted to slog it out and not just get married and enjoy life. But she believed in the company's product, and last year Hydroemission won an award for innovation. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
COMING from a family of entrepreneurs, it was always Ms Grace Chew's dream to start her own business.
But when she quit her job as a researcher in a multinational company to start nanotechnology-based firm Hydroemission, it was her family that voiced the strongest resistance.
'They knew how hard running your own business could be, so out of concern, they did not want me to go through the same... But they were always there for me if I needed advice,' said the younger of two daughters.
Hydroemission has developed environmentally friendly products used in pest control, sanitation and agriculture, for example.
In the early days many others, aside from her family, dismissed her ambitions because of her gender, recalled Ms Chew. 'They would ask me why I wanted to slog it out... I could always just find someone to marry, and enjoy life,' she said.
But these disparaging comments did not deter Ms Chew, 34, even though the early years were extremely tough. There were almost zero profits, while she clocked 12-hour days nearly all the time.
She was also running a one-man show as her business partner, now husband, Mr Paolo Nalin, had a full-time job.
'There will be moments when you start to wonder if all the sacrifice, sweat and tears are worth it. There is a thin line between perseverance and being stubborn. I kept asking myself if I was being stubborn and if I was refusing to face up to reality that my business just does not cut it,' she said.
But Ms Chew and Mr Nalin believed in the products, based on a biodegradable polymer matrix that they developed.
They were convinced that with their innovation, they would be able to lower the cost of this traditionally expensive technology used mainly in pharmaceutical products. It could then be used in many other ways, such as time-release ambient scents, various environmental applications and to control indoor air quality.
Hydroemission developed a new structure and formulation for the matrix, making it capable of withstanding more dynamic external conditions - and thus having more diverse applications - in their modest office space just off Balestier Road. They also do their manufacturing there.
Some of its products are used in air-conditioners, with scents embedded in a biodegradable matrix that slowly releases the aroma before completely disintegrating without leaving any wrappers.
One client is the National Environment Agency, which uses the company's products to control mosquito breeding by killing larvae in stagnant pools.
Last year, the company won the Award for Best Innovation at Emerging Enterprises 2011, an award jointly organised by TheBusiness Times and OCBC Bank that recognises young start-ups.
Although the company is based in Singapore, it has a large customer base overseas, and the international market makes up about 65 per cent of its sales revenue.
Hydroemission has clients in Japan, India, Hong Kong, Europe and the United States.
Ms Chew said that based on the order book, the company will be able to reach a minimum of $2million in revenue this year.
Despite her success, being a woman can be a disadvantage in the business world, as some clients from different cultures will not 'talk business' with her.
'They treat me very kindly and politely, but when it comes to discussing the deal, they have totalk to a man,' she said.
But she added with a laugh, referring to her Italian husband and business partner: 'I don't think it is discrimination. It is just different mindsets. Sometimes, some of our clients don't like to talk to ang moh (Caucasians), then I can do the job.'