Thursday, May 14, 2015

Starting a small chemistry-related business, by Luke

Credit: Alameda Labs
Today, I'm letting Luke tell his story of starting a small chemistry-based business. I think you'll enjoy it:
Hi Chemjobber readers! Several months ago I quit my bench chemistry position without a new role lined up (a bit of free career advice: probably don’t do this) and decided I wanted apply my chemistry skills outside of the lab. So, in January, I started a small business designing and manufacturing custom, stainless steel-based Schlenk lines as Alameda Labs. I haven’t quite replaced my income from working full time, but I’ve done managed to sell a couple of lines. Total revenue: a not shabby $20k. 
I’ve learned a lot in the short time I’ve been doing this and CJ has graciously given me the space to talk about my experience and give advice to people interested in going down a similar route. 
My Story 
Being unemployed sucks. I quit a bachelor’s level research position at a material science startup and instead of looking for a similar position, I decided to start interviewing for data science roles based on the software and math skills I’d developed at work. After a couple of months of interviews but no offers, I started to worry that I had made a horrible mistake by quitting and trying to change industries. 
Apart from anxiety, being unemployed also gives you a lot of downtime. After doing my daily due diligence on the job search, I still had 4 - 6 hours of free time. I obviously had the time to try new things, so on New Years I pulled the trigger on an idea I’d been noodling on for a couple of months. 
At the material science startup, I’d partnered with a chemical engineer colleague to develop a couple of stainless Schlenk lines to develop some pilot scale process chemistries. I realized that the stainless concept could be valuable to others when we noticed one of the staff research scientists had shifted all of his synthesis over to the stainless lines from a traditional glass line. The chemistry our scientist was doing required an hour-long dissociation/distillation step and he realized that on the stainless line he was able to cut that step down to minutes because of the more reliable and stronger vacuum it could achieve. 
I made a single page website describing what I intended to sell and started emailing people that I knew. Two weeks later, no nobody’s greater surprise than mine, I got a call from a postdoc at a R1 University who wanted to a quote for a line. 
All in all, I think the skills that make me good at entrepreneurship are the same things that made me successful at chemistry. Chiefly, I like to try new things and I’m resourceful. Starting out, I didn’t know how to make landing pages or set up Adwords campaigns, nor create Purchase Orders or engineering drawings. But between asking people in my network for help (to whom I am indebted and incredibly grateful for) and Google, I’ve managed to make it work. I’ve also found that if you can manage the highs and lows of doing research, you’ll find sales is really similar (I celebrated my first sale with an f-bomb and a couple of Tiger Woods fist pumps).  
Thanks again to CJ for allowing me the space to write about my project. If you have any questions about what I’m doing or want feedback on any ideas of yours, feel free to email me directly at luke at alamedalabs.net. I’ll also try to show up in the comments.
Thanks to Luke for his great story! Readers, any questions?

21 comments:

  1. good story. so you took something you guys developed at a company, left, and then started selling it on your own? I was under the impression that anything you developed while working somewhere was considered the company's IP and that you could not take it and market it on your own. can you elaborate on this? thanks

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    1. The Aqueous LayerMay 14, 2015 at 10:40 AM

      I was thinking the same thing.

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    3. Look, anon301a, I can't have that on this blog.

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  2. Yeah, I'd be quite worried about them finding out about this. Most companies don't take kindly to former employees making money on technology they developed while at the company...

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  3. Luke here. The primary reason I know that I know I’m not heading towards legal trouble is that my ex-company knows what I’m doing and is supportive. They’re focused on their nanomaterial business and aren’t really concerned about Schlenk lines.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I also don’t think I’m infringing on of their IP. The company didn’t own any patents around Schlenk lines, because we obviously didn’t invent those, and the systems we’re building now are fairly different that the prototype we built.

    I think the overall situation is analogous to “ex-Domino's employee starts take-out delivery business”.

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  4. Nice to know that your former employer is supportive. Hopefully, you have this on paper....

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    1. it would be still better to write to the CEO of your previous employer, a friendly informal note by e-mail (that you archive afterwards) saying "Hi, as you know I started my company and I am making these manifolds and I would like to re-confirm it is fine with you, that you don't have any objections" See what his reply is.

      I can imagine the following scenario: Few years from now, your business is profitable and your former employer is experiencing "cash flow difficulties", and their new management decides to send you a nice letter accusing you of stealing their proprietary designs, and insisting you must license it from them and pay such amount of money or they file a court for injunction to stop you selling their design and they will have you prosecuted the on industrial espionage federal statues...

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  5. How are you maintaining a positive pressure in the line? Is that a check valve I see in the photo? If so, what's its rating?

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    1. Good eye! That line has a 4 bar (fixed pressure) check valve, so it can maintain a positive pressure of 4 bar over atm. The customer for that line uses it to seal inorganic nanomaterials in quartz tubes under low argon pressure to do some kind of high energy spectroscopy, so over-pressuring the line isn't really a concern of his. The check valve is mainly a safety device to prevent blowing up the line if the regulator on the inert gas tank fails. We did make him some neat KF-16 to ultra-torr fitting adapters that I'm proud of.

      For other lines, where people want to blow inert gas over a reaction solution, we've used 1/3 bar check valves to act as a bubbler replacement.

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    2. In a previous life (aka grad school), I was using a column of mercury to build up the necessary pressure to do what I needed. It was simple and effective, and we never had any problems with LOPC. I'm in industry now, and there's no chance I'll get to use a column of mercury. Now, a Swagelok'd stainless steel manifold with a proper check valve is something I can get behind.

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  6. Lots of comments about IP ownership on here. Unless it is core IP of the company and listed on a "trade secret" list, don't worry about it. This is especially true if there is some substantial change from what was done at the previous company. For example "hey I used a glass Schlenk Line at work. I have an idea for a better schlenk line!". Companies are started this way all the time. My 2 cents.

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  7. Neat story, I wonder how often this happens in the chemistry space. There has to be a ton of litte "I've got a better widget" things. Do you think this would work for custom glassware?

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  8. Love this story; something to smile about early in the morning. I wish I had reason to buy one. Thanks CJ for posting this and best of luck to you Luke!

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  9. Yes, great story and good on you Luke! I've just taken the plunge and started a small company of my own - it's a leap of faith that's for sure. Wishing you all the very best

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  10. Great story. Best wishes.

    If doesn't work out, move to Hollywood and I'm sure you can get bit parts playing Christian Slater's son.

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    2. Not to worry, I'm sure Christian gets the ladies. This bodes well for you.

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    3. LOL, Christian Slater for the win!
      Good on Luke for starting his own biz.

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  11. Dear Mr. Luke,

    Greetings and congrats to you.
    Myself, Sudharsan, a doctorate in inorganic nanochemistry from chennai, India. With reference to chemjobbers, I would like to have a help from you. I wish to start a small chemistry/science related business, can you please suggest me some ideas?

    Thanks
    Dr. S. Sudharsan
    9976334288

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