Female Founders @ Fraunhofer: Monika Lelonek, Founder of Smart Membranes


For far too long, company founding was a typical male domain. According to the Female Founders Monitor 2018 of the Bundesverband Deutsche Startups though, female founders are catching up quickly and statistically at least as successful as their male counterparts. In our Female Founders series, we present Fraunhofer entrepreneurship pioneers, who will show how female scientists can become successful business leaders.

Monika Lelonek (left) and Dr Petra Göring (right)

Today we're speaking to Monika Lelonek, one of the two founders of SmartMembranes GmbH - a spin-off once founded by the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Mechanics IWM, and now the world's leading company for porous materials with defined, adjustable structural properties.

Monika, what inspired you to found SmartMembranes? Who are your role models?

I didn't and don't have any particular role models. I simply never wanted take a boring, systematic path, but do something different instead, to realize myself and to do what I feel like doing - what suits me.

As the founder of SmartMembranes, you know the challenges women face in more male-dominated technology industries. What challenges did you have to master in this context?

I never had to experience any difficulties myself, just because I am a woman in this field. On the contrary, it is more likely to be respected when a woman founds a business in this industry.

But especially in an international environment, in the context of intercultural differences, it is necessary to develop a sense of tact for when "women" have to assert themselves and when "women" should sometimes withdraw. It's about the company and the business, there's no room for personal vanities.

What was the biggest challenge for SmartMembranes so far and how did you manage the situation?

Of course you are dependent on the market and the customers; we had years, when sales were very bad and the company wasn't doing well, those are always the hardest situations, because you are not only responsible for yourself, but also for the jobs of the employees; to turn the tide again and save the company certainly came with hard decisions and many sleepless nights.

Female founders are catching up quickly. Their share of all start-ups in Germany, currently stands at 14.6%. What kind of opportunities do you see in this?

Perhaps this encourages other women to found businesses. People always talk about equal opportunities and less discrimination; but I believe that discrimination only ends when the question of gender no longer arises; basically it doesn't matter whether it is a woman or a man who’s founding a company, we all have the same opportunities. Anyone with an idea has every possible opportunity nowadays. I know many women who do not want to start because their family and children are more important to them and should not suffer from compromises. It is simply a conscious decision by strong women to choose family first, which I find quite understandable. Because for every founder, whether male or female, as well as for employees in higher management positions, the family always has to make compromises.

What advice or experience would you like to give to other founders or people interested in founding a company in the field of technology?

Never give up! Basically, everything always turns out differently than you expect and takes longer than you once planned in your business plan; there will always be difficult situations where you don't see a way out, but somehow there are always possibilities, you just have to stay on track and not give up. In addition, you have to find a balance in your private life and organize yourself in such a way that you find time for it. You will always leave unfinished business, once you go home, but this will always be the case, and staying at work for even longer won’t make a difference. So just leave it lying around a little more.  

SmartMembranes, founded on 20.07.2009 by Dr. Petra Göring and Monika Lelonek in Halle (Saale), is the world's leading manufacturer of nano- and macroporous high-order membranes and templates made of aluminium oxide and silicon with defined adjustable membrane properties and structural parameters. The company not only produces materials according to customer specifications, but also develops new processes and products for its core business.

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