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Biological Chemistry

Chemical Entrepreneurs

by Rudy M. Baum
August 20, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 34

This week’s cover story, Going Commercial,” is C&EN’s celebration of chemical entrepreneurs—creative scientists who decided that one of their ideas could be turned into a successful product and went about making that happen.

The genesis of “Going Commercial” was comments by C&EN Advisory Board members, especially Harvard University chemistry professor George M. Whitesides, that C&EN should put more effort into showcasing entrepreneurial success stories. Additionally, when C&EN’s senior team was creating the 2012 editorial calendar in mid-2011, we were well aware that ACS was putting the finishing touches on a major report from the Presidential Task Force on Innovation in the Chemical Enterprise.

The task force report, “Innovation, Chemistry, and Jobs,” was released last August during the ACS fall national meeting in Denver. At a press conference in Denver, ACS Past-President Joseph S. Francisco observed that the task force had focused on “job growth through entrepreneurial activity and creation of small businesses.”

Given that background, it seemed natural for us to schedule a special feature on entrepreneurs in 2012.

The feature begins with an introductory essay by Assistant Managing Editor Susan Morrissey on the personal and professional challenges chemical entrepreneurs face and some of the resources that exist to help them in establishing a company, finding funding, and marketing their product. The heart of the feature is profiles of 14 entrepreneurs in 13 vignettes that follow Morrissey’s essay. Thirteen C&EN editors and reporters interviewed the entrepreneurs and some of their colleagues and wrote the vignettes. Morrissey and Senior Editor Melody Bomgardner coordinated their efforts and edited the vignettes.

We selected the entrepreneurs for their diversity. They range from serial entrepreneurs like Glenn D. Prestwich, who has started seven companies during his career, to graduate student Christopher E. Wilmer, who, with partner Omar K. Farha, has raised more than $1 million presenting a business plan for commercializing metal-organic frameworks at business competitions. Most of the products these entrepreneurs have brought or are bringing to market are the result of serious science and are designed to meet the needs of fellow scientists or society; Jun Axup’s Biochemies DNA molecule plush dolls are pretty much just for fun.

Some of the profiled entrepreneurs, like Theodore Goodson III, didn’t have any intention of starting a company and weren’t entirely eager to do so, but their science and sometimes their coworkers compelled them to act. Others, like Michael Lefenfeld—who founded a company based on sensor technology he developed, sold the company, and used the funds to start another entrepreneurial company—seem to have been born to be entrepreneurs. Some of the entrepreneurs have never allowed their business interests to take them completely away from their academic labs, while others gladly traded a lab coat for a business suit.

As different as they are, these entrepreneurs do share a number of characteristics. They all come across as optimists, confident that their ideas and their businesses can make a difference in the world. Matthew P. DeLisa, founder of Glycobia, for example, is described by legendary entrepreneur Robert S. Langer as “an extremely bright young scientist and engineer, who has such a passion for turning his discoveries into products that can help people.” They are all also willing to take risks. They are all willing to operate outside of their comfort zones.

One thing that I found interesting, and it’s somewhat ironic given this week’s cover, is that most of our entrepreneurs aren’t the boss of their companies; they recognize that other people are better qualified for that role. Prestwich, for example, told C&EN, “I like to get these companies going, but I don’t like to run things.”

No one is saying that being an entrepreneur is for everyone, nor that entrepreneurs are the answer to all that ails the chemistry enterprise in the U.S. today. There’s no question, though, that these innovative chemists are having an impact.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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