Issue Date: March 31, 2014
Providing Resources To Help Start-Ups Succeed
Just a few years ago, Patrick Kearney found himself in a place that is painfully familiar to many chemists. When his position as a senior director of medicinal chemistry at a San Francisco Bay Area biotechnology company was eliminated in 2011, he entered a challenging job market feeling as though his career had stalled.
Eager to find another career path, Kearney made a decision to pursue a longtime dream of starting his own contract research organization (CRO). He was acting on a promising business idea that had come to him during one of his job interviews.
As he sought resources to help him take that leap of faith, Kearney learned about the American Chemical Society’s Entrepreneurial Initiative, a program to support ACS members who would like to pursue starting and operating their own businesses. At the time, it was a new two-year pilot program, and he wasted no time in applying to be a part of it.
Kearney’s application was successful, and he is now taking advantage of a renewed program. The ACS Board of Directors has approved a plan to “revamp and optimize” the Entrepreneurial Initiative for another two-year run, says David E. Harwell, assistant director of ACS industry member programs and coordinator for the initiative. The application period for the next group of participants, he adds, will open on April 2.
The program recognizes the tremendous hurdles involved in starting a business, Harwell adds. As would be expected, most of the companies involved in the program “have a long row to hoe and are struggling, but a few seem to be rocketing right through.”
Kearney is working toward being one of the success stories coming out of the ACS program. He founded HD Sciences, a Kansas City, Mo., medicinal chemistry CRO that aims to accelerate the identification and optimization of lead compounds for drug discovery. Next month, he is set to begin proof-of-concept research in the lab of his collaborator, Paul R. Hanson, a chemistry professor at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.
The Entrepreneurial Initiative program helped Kearney put together a clear business plan and tackle challenges such as conducting market research and identifying potential customers. In addition, he says, the program has helped him find some key contacts who “have advised me on how to transform a basic business idea into an actual company doing chemistry.”
The ACS Entrepreneurial Initiative will continue to carry out its original mission: to respond to the recommendations of the ACS Presidential Task Force on Innovation in the Chemical Enterprise report—“Innovation, Chemistry, and Jobs”—to provide entrepreneurs with resources “that should foster the creation of small companies from start-ups” (C&EN, July 30, 2012, page 57).
It aims to provide ACS members with an opportunity to explore an alternative career path and assist them with information that sharpens their business acumen and better enables them to commercialize ideas that encourage job growth, Harwell says.
ACS is now bolstering one of the two key parts of the original initiative: the Entrepreneurial Resources Center (ERC). The center continues to improve its offerings to cater to early-stage start-up companies, providing free access to resources—including ACS journals or SciFinder—tailored to their specific needs. The program is “a virtual accelerator, so most of our services are available online, by teleconference, or by Web conference,” Harwell says.
ERC has recently begun to assemble “tiger teams,” which are made up of a mix of experienced executives, chemical entrepreneurs, intellectual property attorneys, and other professionals who volunteer their time to challenge and advise the ERC program’s participants. Also, through ERC, participants will soon be able to partner with larger companies to develop prototypes and test product feasibility and scalability. The center also helps to introduce program participants to sources of private capital and potential commercial partners.
ACS will not continue the other key part of the initial program: the Entrepreneurial Training Program, which was aimed at those who were toying with the idea of starting a company. That program introduced aspiring entrepreneurs to business basics, including how to write a business plan or estimate a fledgling firm’s market potential. ACS is cutting the training program because these kinds of resources are now easier to access through programs such as the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program and burgeoning entrepreneurial programs within business schools across the U.S., Harwell explains.
Roughly half of the 200 ACS members who have applied to the ERC program have been accepted, and to date, more than 100 people have completed it. “We are ramping up our promotional efforts, so I hope that the number of applicants will increase,” says Harwell, who adds that the program can accommodate up to 50 qualified candidates at a time.
Completing the application involves outlining a feasible entrepreneurial plan that creates innovative new products and services and new jobs for U.S. chemical professionals. Those applicants with the strongest business plan receive priority in being accepted into the program, Harwell says. Twice per year, applications are reviewed by the ACS Entrepreneurial Advisory Board, which includes experienced entrepreneurs and ACS officers.
Next month, some ERC participants will tap into yet another resource by participating in a business pitch competition at the 2014 ACS Entrepreneurial Resources Center Showcase East.
To be held at Nova Biomedical in Waltham, Mass., on April 9, the event will host founders of 22 companies who have been selected to pitch their business plans to investors and potential commercial partners. The winner will receive a $10,000 cash prize. Only the evening reception is open to those not preselected to participate in the event, which is being sponsored by ACS, the ACS Division of Small Chemical Businesses, the ACS Northeastern Section, and the ACS Chemical Innovation & Entrepreneurship Council, a grassroots coalition of ACS organizations advocating for business development and innovation in the chemical enterprise.
ERC showcase events are a valuable resource for entrepreneurs, says Scott Thacher, chief executive officer of Orphagen Pharmaceuticals and president of the San Diego Entrepreneurs Exchange, who helped to organize ERC’s first showcase event in California in late 2012. The showcase provides an opportunity for new business owners “to be cross-questioned on their pitch, get advice and feedback, learn about strategies adopted by other start-ups, and increase their exposure to investors.”
Later this year, chemical business owners may also benefit from participating in the ACS Entrepreneurial Summit, which the Entrepreneurial Initiative is sponsoring for a second time. The two-day event will take place at ACS headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13 and 14. The summit will provide “information about the latest strategies to grow chemical start-ups through investments or licensing arrangements with larger innovators,” according to Kenneth J. Polk, ERC administrator.
The summit will feature guest speakers and roundtable discussions that will allow aspiring entrepreneurs to interact with experts and ask questions specific to their enterprise. Participants will also have the option to make poster presentations highlighting their ideas, services, and business plans, and they’ll be able to meet privately with potential investors.
The summit is open to all ACS members, but ERC members get the first crack at registration, which will be capped at 150 participants, Harwell says.
Participating in last year’s summit was a major turning point for the founders of Molecular Targets, an Orange County, Calif., firm developing highly sensitive nanochips for use in portable sensors. The sensors will be able to detect chemical and biological compounds in biological, environmental, and agricultural samples, the company says.
Molecular Targets’ founders tapped the expertise of Polk and other members of the ACS Entrepreneurial Initiative staff. The team helped them refine their business pitch and work toward their goal of applying their nanochips—which they have produced and validated in the lab—to specific customer applications, one of Molecular Targets’ founders says.
At the summit, Molecular Targets’ founders were able to connect with potential investors in the Pittsburgh area. The firm’s business intelligence indicates that local energy companies involved in hydraulic fracturing might be interested in applying its technology. In addition, the company has talked with officials from the Port of Pittsburgh, which may want to use the technology to monitor contaminants in local rivers.
Although being involved in ERC-sponsored events has been a boon to some ACS members, others have derived the most value from different resources within the program’s offerings.
Beth D. Bosley, a specialty and fine chemicals veteran who founded Boron Specialties—which develops, manufactures, and trades in chemicals, materials, and applications that leverage the unique properties of boron—four years ago, says the greatest perk of her ERC participation may have been the six months of free SciFinder access provided through the program. A chemistry research information tool, SciFinder provides scientists access to Chemical Abstracts Service’s collection of chemical substance, reaction, and literature information. It also delivers information on experimental procedures, chemical suppliers, and regulatory practices.
The SciFinder access “enabled us to do literature searches to compare our processes and products to others on the market, or simply get the right chemical abstract number for a compound, something that we would have to pay to do otherwise,” says Bosley, who was part of the inaugural ERC class. “The access to SciFinder is incredibly valuable for small companies like ours that are both cash-strapped and dependent on innovation to grow.”
Bosley also continues to go back to Polk to get advice or ask for a referral to one of the many contacts in his network. “So, even when you have finished the program, you are never completely cut off,” she says.
Those in the ERC program as well as all ACS members can access myriad other resources through the Chemical Entrepreneurs section of the ACS Network—a free online social networking site for ACS members and student affiliates. This section, which is sponsored by the Entrepreneurial Initiative, provides entrepreneurs with a central location from which they can browse for news, find key professional service providers, get training, or access other tools that can help to advance their start-ups.
For many chemical scientists aspiring to launch their own enterprise, the ACS Entrepreneurial Initiative has been a lifeline. “My experience with the program has been fantastic,” Kearney says. “I didn’t know how to go about starting a business, but the ERC got me thinking creatively about how to move forward and helped me take those first steps.”
For more information and to register for events or apply to the ERC program, go to the Entrepreneurial Initiative website (www.acs.org/ei).
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society