Friday, June 10, 2011

What is the minimum amount of equipment needed to run a chemistry business?

In the entrepreneurship thread, the discussion turned to how to set up a small business performing chemistry:
Anon060720110900a: The idea that anyone other than tenured professors with a LOT of clout can just go off and found a science/chemistry based startup is TOTAL bunk. Of course, you can find the one or two cases in which it happened (google Halcyon Molecular). But seriously, the Zuckerberg model of "start the company from your dorm room" works great for software, but once you realize that you need fume hoods, AFMs, TEM's, compliance with federal/state/municipal hazard laws, etc, the model falls apart real quick. 
Anon060820111000a: I hear such space exists in the Silicon Valley with all the permits to do chemistry, and landlord offers proper waste disposal in the rent which is about $5000 per month. They don’t provide chemicals, glassware or Scifinder access. Better have a client list with orders or a big bankroll.
What's the smallest amount of glassware, etc that you need to set up a lab? My list would consist of:
  • A hood
  • A small set of glassware
  • A heating mantle
  • Temperature probe (or thermometer)
  • Flash column
  • TLC plates
  • Rotovap
  • Access to an HPLC and/or an NMR
  • SciFinder access (or a nearby university)
  • A laptop (combination lab notebook and lab radio)
I think that's about all I would need, but I'm going to guess that I've just listed off about $10,000 worth of equipment. 

The operating overhead for chemistry is just really high -- that hurts small business formation and I'm not sure what to do with it. Readers, what say you? What's the smallest amount of equipment you need? 


  1. Why bother with the hood? There's plenty of lovely, fresh air in the great outdoors? One of those garden gazebos set up in a car park somewhere should do fine to keep the rain off....not that there's much of that in South California

  2. Don't forget access to the literature ... that's the biggest killer.

  3. You also forgot most of the consumables: gloves, syringes, needles, solvents...

  4. IMO you just started with the main basics yet its often not having the small miscellaneous items that inhibit progress the most. Without common stuff like stir bars & plates/mixers, stoppers, scoops/spatulas, weigh boats, paper towels, tubing and other essentials most the other items have limited utility. I have been involved in several initial lab sets ups where budget went to big ticket items but forgot to cover the everyday common/disposal items that perhaps not expensive individually but does add up collectively. I can be most annoying unless you have access to other labs to "borrow" from until can get stocked.

  5. Last time I checked, I think a full SciFinder license itself was almost $10K. You can get tiered plans (part time, once a day, something like that), but the cheapest I saw was about $3500.

    And of course, local government and all their regulations wouldn't let you off scot-free either.

  6. 8:33 is spot on: It is the consumables like gloves, solvents (especially acetone), dry ice, silica gel, TLC plates and HPLC columns, nitrogen, single use plastic-ware like syringes, paper towels, and the real killer, chemicals - need a gram must buy 100gms. There will be no chemical zoo down the hall to pinch a dash of this or that gas or super expensive platinum chiral catalysis or even some common chemical starting material or drying agent like anhydrous sodium sulfate.

    This becomes all the more problematical if you are making substantial quantities of materials. You will need larger expensive equipment and glassware. Plus when you order such things as big round bottom flasks, heating mantles and rotovaps they are delivered with a DEA agent in tow. So you better have a good justification for these things. This equipment is much sought after by the Breaking Bad crowd who, of course, represent the model for very successful entrepreneurial garage chemistry. Suppliers are required to report such orders to the DEA.

    Now for the good news: The pharma/biotech research infrastructure has been so decimated with so many laboratories deconstructed, that lab ware recyclers are awash in lab equipment which can be purchased at a nice discount. I would go shopping at those sites first for my lab set-up equipment.

    Good luck in pursuing this fantasy. I am eagerly looking forward to reading happy-face, inspiring reports from the field in C&E News!

  7. Unstable IsotopeJune 10, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    Yes, of course you need access to solvents and you need to be able to clean your glassware. Again, it depends on the type of chemistry you're doing. The pressure-rated glass kettles can be quite expensive and thinks like mechanical stirrers, motors, etc. can set you back a lot.

    In my opinion, I'd think you'd need $100,000 at least for a start up depending on what kind of equipment you need to buy. If you have access to academic laboratories, for example, you could probably save quite a bit of money.

    I wonder why academic laboratories don't rent their services to budding start-ups. It seems like a win-win to me.

  8. I would add, some mechanism for waste disposal. This is probably easier in some areas than others, depending on the local laws and infrastructure. The hood space is probably the biggest stumbling block, especially if you aren't in one of the cities that are biotech savvy. I worked at a biotech in the Atlanta area, and while it was great in some ways (you could pay chemists less and they were still better off because of the low cost of living), it was really difficult to find lab space with ventilated hoods. The company where I worked had to build its own labs - and then promptly went out of business. You can get a lot of the other stuff used (or if you have the contacts, snag it from a big pharma company that is throwing it out).

  9. I'm curious where everyone thinks their chemical waste, expired compounds and everything they flush up the hood or down the drain is going to go in a garage or basement (or even a rented space) setup. Your institution or company currently handles all of the fees, disposals and permitting required for that, and they stay current on it - so that you don't even need to know it's happening, or what the costs really are. These are both startup and ongoing operational costs that you won't be able to skirt safely.

  10. @ Unstable Isotope:

    When I was in grad school in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina, I remember our NMR lab had a three-tiered rate system. Best rate on NMR time went to chemistry students. 2nd best rate went to other members of the university. Anyone else who wanted to use the NMR could, but had to pay the top rate for NMR time.

    I have no idea how often it was utilized, but I know it happened at least once during my time in grad school.

  11. Depends on what you want to do in your chemistry business.

    Set-up for a product development lab could be extremely cheap:

    -vented balance enclosure
    -2 heat plates & mechanical stirrers
    -pH meter

    consumables get costly though:
    -containers for products
    -weigh boats

    Chemicals are often similar across products therefore you could save with bulk purchases.

    Clinical trials is where the big bucks are spent though...

  12. Profitability is hard to come by even for the bigger players:

  13. If the start up package for an assistant organic professor is in the $100-250K range, that has to be close to the minimum for starting a small/one-man shop as well. Hoods and instruments as big one-time expenditures, rents, ongoing costs for off-site analysis/NMR access, literature, and don't forget a salary for yourself for the first year or two.

  14. Why don't you guys write to C & E N to inform Joe Francisco that his prognosis is not realistic?

  15. @Fenton
    I did not see Joe Francisco once allude to synthetic chemistry. He mentioned fast development of commerical products, partnerships, and a global perspective. Synthetic chemistry innovation, unfortunately, is not always critical to the bigger picture of 'chemical innovation'.

  16. If you want to change the outlook for synthetic chemistry you need to go to your legistators. Increased regulation requirements combined with new price controls in the pharma industry have substainally changed the synthetic chemisty industry. The laws and policies are stacked against profitable new synthetic molecule innovation.

  17. thought your degree was worthless before? Training in many fields (especially scientific) is about to be free thanks to all the 'hope and change'. Perhaps the only field more over supplied is manufacturing... So let's train up some more people! Wages will be equal to those in China in no time at all:

  18. you forgot a kitchen - it is a small thing but it really helps the company to provide coffee and sandwiches for people working late

  19. I think fume hoods are $100K +, though may be cheaper new. Not sure what installation cost would be.

  20. You've forgotten the gases! If you're going to do organic chemistry you will need a cylinder of argon and, preferably, a cylinder of hydrogen for hydrogenations. Remember you will also need the appropriate regulators, which aren't cheap.

    @bhooooooya: with all the closures currently, second-hand fume cupboards can now be picked up for pennies on the dollar.

  21. I'm thinking used or pre-owned equipment can certainly cut costs... anyone work with a vendor that they like?

  22. @12:23--
    Just watch the nearest pharma research site which has just shut down. Good way to get lab space at pennies on the dollar too!

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