Founder and CEO, VentureLab

Cristal headshot copy

It was 2001 and Cristal Glangchai had just graduated with undergraduate degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Plan II Honors from UT Austin. She was working as a product development engineer at 3M. The job was fine. But, Cristal wanted to find work that was more meaningful.  

“I was making copper connectors, and in my spare time, reading articles in New Scientist about Dolly the cloned sheep and genetic engineering,” she says. “That’s what I found exciting.”

Glangchai started taking classes at Austin Community College in chemistry, biology, and anatomy and physiology. Around the same time 3M began laying off workers and accepting early retirements. Glangchai took that as her cue. She accepted a voluntary layoff and used the money to fund her graduate education, leaving behind the world of copper connectors in favor of “solving cancer,” at least that was the original idea.

As a graduate student, Glangchai worked with Drs. Krish Roy and Li Shi using a nanolithography tool to make biocompatible materials, specifically a hydrogel for targeted drug delivery to fight cancer.

In 2006, she took a technology commercialization course taught by Steven Nichols in mechanical engineering that shaped the rest of Glangchai’s graduate school experience and her career since.

Inspired by the course, she wanted to teach professors and students how to commercialize the exciting research happening in their labs. After getting her PhD, she worked as a postdoc and research scientist in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in Technology and Commercialization and Advanced Manufacturing. Simultaneously, she was running NanoTaxi, which was a company she developed to license her technology—she was trying to commercialize a drug delivery device for lung cancer therapy.

She was accepted into a group called Springboard, a women’s development program, and began applying for grants for her research. She found herself in a quandary where investors wanted her to show them more research before they would give her funding, but she needed money to do that research.

This led her to accepting a position as the Director of Entrepreneurship at San Antonio’s Trinity University, where she worked for three years, starting in 2010.

Glangchai has always been interested in getting women interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. She was one of only a few women in the rooms of 3M and at her investor pitches for NanoTaxi. The Entrepreneurship Program at Trinity University seemed like a great way to change that and attract more women into STEM.

“It was like pulling teeth,” Glangchai says. “I talked to women about why they were reluctant to participate, and it came down to confidence. Women said they didn’t want to be the only woman in an entrepreneurship program, and they felt intimidated.”

Glangchai realized that in order to get women in STEM, they would have to be interested at a younger age. So she did something bold and entrepreneurial. She took her college-level entrepreneurship curriculum and as an experiment taught it to her four young children—Glangchai is the mother of two daughters and two sons, who at that time were aged between 3 and 5.

And, they picked it up.

“Kids are like sponges, they’ll absorb anything if you tailor it toward them,” she says.

So Glangchai started working with K–12 educators to revamp her curriculum and gear it toward younger children.

In 2013, she opened VentureLab, a nonprofit that she initially started to attract young girls to STEM and entrepreneurship through summer programs. After overwhelming positive response, including coverage from The Today Show, she opened VentureLab to both boys and girls. Today the curriculum is included in after school programs, electives, and gifted and talented programs for all K-12 grade levels.

Glangchai looks at what's going on in the world and figures out methods to make learning about those challenges accessible for kids. Many of these trends tackle global engineering challenges.

VentureLab teaches kids everything from hydroponics and 3D printing to how to take a film to market. The programming includes arts as well as STEM, in fact, Glangchai has coined the acronym ESTEAM (Entrepreneurship, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) as the key areas to focus on.

What's next for Glangchai and VentureLab?

Within five years, she'd love it if 75 percent of high school students across the country have taken a VentureLab course, which she plans to accomplish by making commercialization classes available online.

Meaningful work, indeed.