In the 12 years since he earned a Ph.D. for research involving electrically conductive polymers, Patrick McCarthy has gone from being a bench chemist and consumer of scientific products and services to an entrepreneur focused on satisfying researchers’ needs.
As president and chief executive officer of Pittsburgh-based ATRP Solutions, McCarthy, 41, is focused on commercializing atom transfer radical polymerization (ATRP), a copper-mediated technology for producing uniform chain polymers that could be used in the cosmetics, detergents, paints, and biocompatible materials markets. In his first job in 2000 as a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, he was designing artificial muscle prototypes for the National Aeronautics & Space Administration.
“My education and early R&D work gave me a deep understanding of scientists as consumers,” says McCarthy, who got his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Rhode Island. But as a staff chemist and project manager at chromatography instrument maker Dionex, where he worked until 2006 after a short stint at Los Alamos, he became interested in business.
At Dionex, now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific, he helped develop and then commercialize research products. In one case, he led a team that took a new chromatography column designed to analyze monoclonal antibodies from conception to commercialization. He was also involved in scouting for new technology to license for the instrument firm.
While McCarthy was still at Dionex, he met Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, a professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, at a Gordon Research Conference. McCarthy and Matyjaszewski, who received a 2009 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for developing ATRP, started a relationship at the conference that ultimately led McCarthy to leave Dionex in California and join Matyjaszewski in Pittsburgh to start up ATRP Solutions.
When McCarthy met Matyjaszewski, ATRP was a rapidly emerging technology. By 2006, Wojciech Jakubowski, a member of Matyjaszewski’s research group, developed techniques that significantly lowered production costs and also made ATRP more environmentally friendly. Jakubowski’s advances opened a business opportunity not just for Matyjaszewski and his group but also for McCarthy to get in on the ground floor of an exciting new field.
ATRP technology, McCarthy says, allows a chemist to “draft plans for a polymer just as an architect drafts plans for a building.” Using a tool chest of monomers including acrylates, methacrylates, acrylamides, and acrylonitriles, chemists can design multifunctional polymers with performance superior to specialty polymers now available, he says.
The first years of ATRP Solutions were slow. Unlike software firms, which can churn out and launch a new program in a year, “it takes a significantly longer time” to focus, plan and conduct research, and protect intellectual property at a chemistry-based start-up, he says. McCarthy took advantage of this time to enhance his business skills by earning an M.B.A. in 2008 from Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business.
The firm, now with a staff of seven and about 15 contract workers, developed a catalog of ATRP polymers and reagents that distributor Sigma-Aldrich now sells. ATRP Solutions has also undertaken a number of contract research efforts with clients. Both are revenue generators, but McCarthy is not prepared to say what those revenues are now. Along with an undisclosed partner, the firm also plans to introduce an ATRP rheology modifier for the cosmetics market in the next year.
Funding and advice came from angel investors, and also from the National Science Foundation under the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)program. Innovation Works, a state of Pennsylvania venture capital investment program, and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, an investment agency supported by the state government and nonprofit groups, also came through with funds. To date, the firm has raised a few million dollars, McCarthy says.
Year founded: 2006
Products: Atom transfer radical polymerization development services, reagents, and specialty polymers
Number of employees: Seven
Source of start-up funds: Angel investors, venture capitalists, government grants
Profiled founder’s current role in company: President and CEO
Advice: Don’t be shy. Get out and talk to people who have done this before. Build a support network.
Raising that money meant talking to a great many people and not just potential investors. Important too was finding mentors McCarthy could turn to for advice. They include an alumnus from one of the colleges he attended, two of his former professors, and a business associate he met through a professional network.
“To be successful,” McCarthy says, “you need to find mentors who have done what you want to do.” And, he adds, “don’t be afraid to develop strong relationships with them.”