When I first began synthesizing green, biodegradable surfactants for my PhD at the University of Arizona, I would never have guessed that it would evolve into patented technology or that I would be standing at the door of my first venture, GlycoSurf. While I am still not yet through that door, I have been fortunate in getting further than most companies do in their attempt to commercialize technology that was conceived and optimized in a university. The following rules and lessons I have learned since becoming an entrepreneur may not apply to everyone’s venture. Afterall, no two journies are the same and no startup follows the same rules as the next. However, if you are trying to start a venture from a university laboratory, many of the university rules are the same. Because I am still a young entrepreneur, my experiences revolve around the initial steps of forming a company; therefore, I will focus and expand on some of the challenges I have faced so far.
RULE #1: Love what you do
Being a fairly normal organic chemist, I gave up everything to my research project – including mental sanity, sleep, eating, and a social life, in order to see the project succeed and progress. If you are in the same boat, this no doubt leaves you with the uncontrollable urge to discuss your research with every friend, relative, and stranger that comes within earshot. I used to be a “normal” organic chemist, professing my undying love for my project, exaggerating every detail of the synthesis and workup just to see the awe in my listener’s eyes; explaining the use of solvents and chemicals as if you would drop dead in their very presence (I have absolutely no idea why this is “cool”, but it is to most organic chemists and to the people that listen to their stories). Then one day, my status as “normal” organic chemist changed forever.
I once had someone tell me, “Just because it is a name reaction, does not make it right.” As many organic chemists know, there are some dangers – and costs – associated with doing organic synthesis. I do not think I am alone in finding it a bit hypocritical to synthesize “green” compounds with very “ungreen” processes. Once I took a step back to compare my methods with my end product, it truly bothered me that, in order to make a biodegradable and non-toxic surfactant, I had to use hazardous reagents and solvents. For instance, my original practices – traditional practices that are routinely taught to students like me – accumulated enough solvent and reagent waste to fill a three-gallon bucket in less than a week. I found this very disconcerting, not so much for my own personal safety (my parents are the only ones who care about that), but for the preservation of the environment. So, I did away with using those reagents and solvents. As I sought to make my synthesis “greener”, I not only lowered the hazards, steps, and cost of the reactions, but also found that I had a patentable and potentially feasible technology for commercialization. The main consequence of this discovery was that there were no more exciting and dangerous stories to keep my family and friends interested for very long. So, for proprietary reasons, all I can tell people who ask me what I do is: “I make non-toxic, biodegradable surfactants, by environmentally-friendly processes, for use in personal care, medical, agricultural, and bioremediation applications”.
While that single sentence is sure to bore my Thanksgiving guests into a pre-turkey coma, I, personally, find my research exciting and inspiring. Knowing full well that the journey taken to form a startup is long and difficult, my business partners and I, founders of this business, had to be sure we loved what we did. We must continue loving it, even as we drag it kicking and screaming through the red tape of
university and state legality. For us as founders, it was a no-brainer. We honestly feel obligated to take our technology to the market in order to better our community – be it locally or worldwide – and the environment.
RULE #2: If you really believe in it, MAKE it happen
I will never forget the time I met an entrepreneur who struggled with challenges similar to those I am currently facing. He shook my hand and asked me, “So you want to start a chemical company?” Naturally I answered “yes”. He replied, “You must be insane.” If he had not been as successful as he is in his current company, I would have believed him. However, I have come to understand his point fully. Without the appropriate amount of insanity, there would be no motivation to pursue something as daunting as starting a chemical company and no passion to ride it out to the end (even if it never picks up speed or leaves the ground).
One of the hardest things to deal with is the possibility that your invention not only lacks the breeze to lift your company off the ground, but does not have the wings to get it going. I think it is universally accepted that it is better to know this sooner rather than later (this probably applies to life in general). The quickest way to determine feasibility is to research the market and answer questions like: What are customers buying now? What are they paying for it? Why should they buy from you? It is best to know whether your technology is feasible or not before you spend too much money only to see it fail in three months.
Regardless of the answers you get to these questions, the key is acceptance -- acceptance that your technology is or is not commercially feasible. I cannot imagine anything worse for an up-and-coming entrepreneur than the denial she/he has regarding her/his own technology. If you truly believe that the technology works and can be successful in the marketplace, then never falter and never doubt that. If it is never going to leave the hangar, let it go. There is no harm in accepting the truth. Either way, there comes a certain sense of reality; if successful, you have a lot of work to do, or if not, there is some grieving and healing to be done. But, if you know it is going to work, grab hold of it and take it to the sky.
To be continued...
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