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Park Scholar Connections Propel Silicon Valley-Based Startup

Park Scholars point to their peers – similarly ambitious and hard working individuals – among the most influential aspects of the Park experience. Synergies between scholars are at the core of campus-based initiatives like Service Raleigh, Triangle Youth Leadership Services, and the Krispy Kreme Challenge, but they also extend well beyond graduation. While Greg Mulholland ’07 and Jordan O’Mara ‘07 initially followed disparate paths after NC State, now they’re drawing upon one another’s strengths to build a potentially revolutionary startup company.

Greg Mulholland '07

Greg Mulholland ’07

Mulholland studied electrical and computer engineering at NC State and went on to earn a MPhil degree in materials science from the University of Cambridge. While pursuing his MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Mulholland and classmate Bryce Meredig, a fellow materials scientist, discovered a common interest.

“His background was in computational materials,” Mulholland said of Meredig. “More specifically, using the massive amount of data generated by computational simulation in a productive way by building machine learning/artificial intelligence algorithms on that data. When he started telling me about his work and I shared the fact that as an experimentalist I generated an absurd amount of data, we very quickly came to the conclusion that there might be something really cool in joining forces.”

Soon came a successful proof of concept and guidance from a professional seed stage investor, and Citrine Informatics was born. Citrine uses a big-data analytics platform and advanced computer learning to make companies’ materials research, development, and manufacturing more efficient.

Materials play a critical role in problem solving. Whether a company develops smart phones, solar panels, or airplanes, it spends an enormous amount of time and money determining which materials will achieve the desired results and which are likely to cause issues. That’s where Citrine steps in: its software compiles existing materials data from many sources – academic literature, public databases, a company’s own proprietary research – and helps its clients pinpoint much more quickly the materials best qualified to solve the problem at hand under various sets of circumstances. Citrine’s software-centered approach is a significant departure from the ways in which most companies tackle research and development.

In early 2014, Mulholland and his Citrine co-founder attended the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS) Conference incitrine-sidebar San Diego to give a talk about the exciting work they were doing. Present for their talk was Ben Gaddy ‘07 – Mulholland’s friend, former roommate, and fellow Park Scholar and Krispy Kreme Challenge co-founder. Gaddy, an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy, blogs about manufacturing, competitiveness, and clean energy.

Impressed by what he heard at the conference, Gaddy returned to his then-home in Raleigh and shared with Jordan O’Mara the paradigm-shifting approach Mulholland and the Citrine team were undertaking. O’Mara, who was nearing his ninth year as a software engineer at Red Hat, was curious to learn more.

When the Park classmates reconnected at Gaddy’s wedding a few months later, Mulholland asked O’Mara whether he’d be willing to work with Citrine on a consulting basis. Citrine was in need of mature development capabilities, and O’Mara possessed a robust skill set. While the startup hadn’t raised money yet, its founders had received a small seed grant from Stanford’s TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy from which they could pay O’Mara. He agreed.

Mulholland attributes O’Mara’s willingness to join the Citrine team to both Gaddy’s ringing endorsement, and the mutual trust they’d established by working together on many occasions in the past.

Jordan O'Mara '07

Jordan O’Mara ’07

“I became increasingly convinced that they were really onto something with their business model,” O’Mara said of Citrine. “Everything came together at the perfect time.”

Now, Citrine is keeping O’Mara, Mulholland, and the rest of its small-but-growing team extremely busy and wearing many hats.

“We are cautiously hiring to preserve our runway,” said O’Mara, who joined Citrine full-time earlier this year. “Consequently, I am performing all of the engineering tasks. Every day I design software and infrastructure, implement the architecture I design, quality-assure the implementation, and ensure that it operates reliably. I also spend time recruiting and planning. As we grow, we’ll hire people to take over these responsibilities.”

Mulholland acknowledged that starting a business – especially one that’s doing something very different from what’s been done before – is difficult, taking a toll on one’s time and resources. Despite the challenges, though, he doesn’t regret launching Citrine.

“The people around me are honest, brilliant, hardworking, and tough,” said Mulholland, who was recently named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in the energy category. “We never let each other take shortcuts. We push each other to excellence. But at the end of a hard week, I always look back and think about what we have done. I am fortunate that my friends and colleagues help me make better decisions every day and push me to be my best self, even when I think I can’t do it. Having people believe in me and challenge me at the same time is incredibly motivational.”

Greg Mulholland '07 (left) and Jordan O'Mara '07 (center) with the Citrine Informatics team

Greg Mulholland ’07 (left) and Jordan O’Mara ’07 (center) with the Citrine Informatics team

Reflecting on his undergraduate experience at NC State, Mulholland highlighted the significance of good mentorship. He still turns to several of his former professors and administrators to vet ideas and make connections in government and sales. O’Mara concurred.

“After my junior year, I had a number of internship opportunities lined up and was waffling on a decision,” recalled O’Mara. “I was particularly close with my Park Faculty Mentor – I ended up working in a lab for him – so I sought his advice. Knowing my personality and the software industry, he urged me to take the internship at Red Hat. I took his advice very seriously, and in retrospect it was exactly the right move at the time. Most likely, I wouldn’t be working at Citrine right now if I had made a different choice.”

Mulholland, who has served as a member of the Park Alumni Society’s Voting Board for four years, also emphasized the importance of stepping beyond one’s comfort zone.

“When I entered NC State, I was an engineer’s engineer,” he said. “I had little use for reading literature or discussing politics. I wanted to learn to make things – and make things I did. But through my Park classmates, and in part thanks to our Park Faculty Scholar Sandy Kessler, I also started to explore literature, politics, cultures, and many other ideas. The Park community pushed me to do that. It has enabled me to ask harder questions and understand new perspectives.”

posted 2015.06.30