Issue Date: August 20, 2012
Widely known for codeveloping the 12 principles of green chemistry, John C. Warner spent a decade in industry and another 10 years in academe before striking out as an entrepreneur.
After finishing his doctorate in organic chemistry at Princeton University, Warner worked as a researcher for Polaroid. His industry experience influenced his style when he moved to academe in 1997. He taught first at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, then founded the Center for Green Chemistry at UMass Lowell.
“I ran my research group much like the real world of industry works—not so much, ‘Let’s publish papers,’ but, ‘Let’s solve problems,’ ” Warner tells C&EN. “I had a lot of support from various companies as an academic. I took a great deal of satisfaction in placing my graduating students in the chemical industry. We were very, very relevant.”
While Warner was a professor at UMass Lowell, investment firm executive James Babcock sought his opinion on a new technology. “We were talking about something completely orthogonal to starting a company,” Warner says, laughing. But after that casual conversation, he continues, “a friendship started very quickly.” The two soon decided to create a business.
Launched in 2007, the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry focuses on helping companies become more sustainable. The institute studies intermolecular forces in materials and applies the knowledge to manufacturing processes, Warner explains. The goal is to come up with technologies that lead to better performance and are profoundly practical and cost-effective for clients, he says.
“Our business is intellectual property. We don’t do contract research. We do contract invention,” Warner says. The institute takes an idea, reduces it to tangible practice, and ensures that clients have “unequivocal and appropriate control” of that intellectual property within their industrial sector.
Clients pay a fee for the institute to come up with an invention. Once the institute achieves this end and clients are making money from using the invention, Warner explains, “they pay either a royalty or a success fee.”
Babcock, a Harvard Law School graduate who ran a global investment firm for 30 years, privately funded the institute’s start-up. He serves as chairman of the institute’s board of directors and helps manage the company.
Now, all the institute’s revenues come from clients and investors, Warner says. “We don’t receive any government grants or loans, no philanthropic support. This is all business,” he says.
“No two deals are the same. Having that flexibility is the key to entrepreneurship. If we have a one-size-fits-all model, it’s not going to work,” Warner says. “We work with big and small companies, with venture capital firms that actually start companies. Sometimes we’ll start a joint venture or a stand-alone company to realize a vision of our technology. It’s fun.”
The institute takes a conservative approach to expanding. “We don’t hire a bunch of people then hope we can get business to support them. We grow as the business opportunities grow,” Warner notes. The institute currently employs 35 people.
In the five years since the institute’s founding, Warner says, “some things have worked, some things haven’t.” The business survives because it has the agility to respond to market needs at any given time.
Agility, Warner continues, is not unique to entrepreneurs. “When I was a professor, I adapted to the needs of my students and the classes I was teaching. Many people in the sciences have that skill.”
In addition to adapting to the market, being a successful entrepreneur takes passion, Warner points out. “You’ve got to be doing what it is that your passion drives you to do. Surround yourself with excellent people to help you do that,” he counsels.
The institute is fortunate in this regard—it receives many applicants for its openings, Warner says. “We have the luxury of handpicking very special people. It’s a joy to be surrounded by good people.”
Having family invested in the entrepreneur’s passion helps too. When he and Babcock launched the institute, Warner and his wife, Amy Cannon, simultaneously founded a nonprofit organization called Beyond Benign. It focuses on green chemistry education for scientists, educators, and citizens. Warner serves as its president. Its executive director is Cannon, the first graduate of the UMass Boston green chemistry Ph.D. program that Warner founded. Cannon is a former UMass Lowell assistant professor.
Beyond Benign and the institute share a building in Wilmington, Mass.
Starting and running a company, especially one that spans the disciplines of biology, physics, chemistry, and materials science, involves a lot of work, Warner readily acknowledges.
“It can be intellectually taxing,” he says. “You just have to eat your Wheaties and take your vitamins and hang on for the ride.”
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