Monday, April 16, 2012

Chemical entrepreneurship

From this week's C&EN, an article by Linda Wang on entrepreneurship in chemistry. I found the section on Andrew Boal the most interesting and relevant to mid-career chemists:
Chemist Andrew K. Boal took this route by joining MIOX, a small firm in Albuquerque, N.M., specializing in water treatment technologies, in 2008. “I’ve done everything from making sales calls to doing a presentation of our technology directly to a customer to doing trade shows where I talk to potential customers about the technology,” he says. These experiences were eye-opening. “There are so many things that go into developing a successful technology beyond just whether or not your chemistry works that simply hadn’t crossed my mind,” he says. 
Boal was previously a senior member of the technical staff and a postdoc at Sandia National Laboratories. “I didn’t really understand, before I came to MIOX, how a technology or a science or a discovery transitions from the laboratory to a product,” he says. “I can definitely say that I’ve gotten a better grip on some of the things it takes to be successful in the business world.” 
What’s more, his entire perspective on R&D has changed. “When you’re doing R&D as an academic, you’re thinking about what’s the coolest thing you could possibly do,” he says. “In the business world, you have to ask the question, ‘What can I do that gives the most value to somebody overall?’ ”
The article ends with a very nice list of different resources that ACS can bring to bear on helping members become chemical entrepreneurs. Also, a nice little ending comment from chemical engineering professor Eric J. Beckman on his small surgical adhesive company, Cohera Medical:
Ultimately, the hope is that these investments will also pay off in creating more jobs for chemists. For Beckman, that’s been his greatest source of pride. “I like the notion that thanks to something I did in the lab a long time ago, there are 30 people with jobs,” he says. 
That is something to be proud of.


  1. Conversely, Andrew Boal's comment brings up an excellent point about knowing what you don't know. When I helped found my company, the best thing I did was partner with an experienced CEO. Most PhD chemists simply do not have the background to be effective at raising capital and promoting business development.

  2. Do you think it is necessary to get a PhD to be seen as sufficiently qualified to launch a business in chemistry? Or a Masters degree would be enough?

  3. @Anon 0900: My current boss started an analytical company with an MS. Custom synthesis may be a different story.

  4. Sometimes I think that if we had an academic perspective of doing the things that create the most value, rather then cool or what can keep my funding. We wouldn't be just churning out mediocre papers and people. But I know there is a lot of politics surrounding this subject and people need to publish to get degree's. It just sucks that teams of students can't tackle hard problems and fail, and be rewarded for it. Instead it's easier just to tweak what already out there and spin it.

    The other things that is difficult for chemists is the large amount of overhead and capital expenditures required for many chemistry/scientific projects. It's hard to bootstrap a company without having a solid idea if it works or not. Academia is a great incubator, but I always find that they never do the front end work to see if the project make sense financially (e.g.) production costs, competitive advantage, and end use. For example I can make this material and it performs 2X as good as alternative, but it costs 20X as much and is hardly scalable. When I ask these questions I am always
    answered with well industry can make it scaleable. Most time maybe slight reductions come from volume, but it's really not worth it. There are exceptions within academia though!

    My piece of advice is ask Why first, then address the what and the how. The why needs to be answered fully and comprehensively. People shy away from this because takes a lot of work.