Chemical Attraction: Griffin Analytical
How do you take a high-tech prototype developed in a university lab and build a successful company around it? What are the steps? If experience is a teacher, we can take the story of Garth Patterson and his company, Griffin Analytical Technologies, as a rough blueprint.
In 2001, Patterson was enrolled at Purdue University, working toward his PhD in analytical chemistry with a specialization in mass spectrometry (a method of identifying the chemical makeup of a substance by means of the separation of gaseous ions according to their differing mass and charge). Purdue researchers, Patterson among them, were developing a prototype of an improved mass spectrometer that was smaller, cheaper, and better than the existing systems. By using cylinders as the chemical analyzer, the device was made easy to miniaturize, thereby taking up less lab space, costing less, and making the device more sensitive and more accurate.
With the market for chemical detection instrumentation estimated at $1-1.5 billion—and growing, due to homeland security concerns—Patterson knew there was an opportunity. To take advantage of it, he and a colleague, Dennis Barket, enrolled in Purdue’s Innovation Realization Lab, whose main task, according to Patterson, is “linking technology students with MBAs to affect a hands-on learning experience for both sides.” Two graduate MBAs joined Patterson and Barket, and then two advisors from analytical chemistry and business came on board—and suddenly the E-Team was formed.
Success followed. The team won NCIIA Advanced E-Team funding to continue developing a prototype, wrote a business plan, and won three of the four major business plan competitions they entered, earning $35,000 in funding. The team was successful in the competitions because, Patterson said, “Firstly, our product and our business idea were robust. Secondly, the plan itself was thorough and thoughtful. Everyone intends to be thoughtful, but we put a lot of effort into backing up our claims and putting as much legitimate research into it as we could get.”
More money came in: the team was awarded funding from the Purdue Research Foundation’s Trask Fund; they completed one Phase I SBIR contract with the Army and started an EPA Phase I SBIR contract; they acquired private funding, and negotiated an exclusive license from Purdue for the mass spectrometry technology.
In November 2001, Patterson and Barket defended their PhDs, and later that month they incorporated, calling the company Griffin Analytical Technologies. Their work had just begun.
Making the company work
First the E-Team changed: they lost the MBAs, Enrique Vazquez and Jeff Scott. “Enrique and Jeff didn’t come along with us for personal reasons—primarily geographic,” said Patterson. “Neither of them was from the Midwest. Had we started the company on the west coast I think things would’ve been different, but Dennis and I wanted to stay in Purdue, as the university has one of the world’s best analytical chemistry departments.”
Hiring decisions suddenly came to the forefront. Who would they go after now? “One of the hardest parts of going from an E-Team to a company, said Patterson, “was knowing what resources we needed to bring in early on—do we need an engineer first? A finance person? It was hard to know what resources to use where, and when.”
Patterson and Barket decided to hire two chemists from Purdue, people they knew and got along with. But then the company was too “chemist-heavy,” and they still needed technical work done before they could have a sellable product. “We needed to get past the remaining technical hurdles,” said Patterson, “so the next thing we decided to do was concentrate our efforts on the technology, and put together a product development team: electrical engineers, software developers, mechanical engineers, manufacturing specialists, etc. The instrument we were developing is relatively complex; we knew we needed people who had insight into all those aspects of design.”
Then there was the matter of deciding who would be president. In the case of Griffin, this wasn’t a hard decision: it would be Dennis Barket, with Patterson taking on the title of VP of Research and Development. Why Barket and not Patterson? Back when they were students, the two enrolled in an intensive, two-week mini-MBA for science and technology PhDs, called Applied Management Principles (AMP), at Purdue’s business school. According to Patterson, “Coming out of the program Dennis had a pretty good understanding of the vocabulary involved in business and leadership: he gravitated toward it. And I certainly had an understanding of the technology because it’s based on my PhD research, so making Dennis president and myself vice president of R&D came about naturally.”
Steps toward success
They must have gotten something right, as the good news kept rolling in: they won a Phase II SBIR contract from the Army; their innovative technology was featured in several prominent science journals; they won a Phase III contract from the Marines, and in late 2003 they closed on a round of funding that brought in $2.4 million.
What’s the key to Griffin’s future? According to Patterson, communication. “There’s more work than could possibly be done. What we’re doing is working as a group, communicating effectively, identifying what to work on, what’s most important. It’s absolutely necessary to be on the same page with everyone so that we can divide and conquer, focus on the goals, simply so that we can get through the sheer mass of work and end up producing quality work, a quality product. That’s our aim.”