The thrill of separation sciences

At my last place of employment, a small private engineering services firm, we focused on three lines of business (LOBs) with analytical instrumentation, primarily mass spectrometry (MS), being the common link:  relocation, repair and maintenance services of MS (primarily in New England), sale of a novel technology used for ultra fast analysis known as LDTD (throughout North America), and sale of used and refurbished MS (on a worldwide basis).  I tried to understand mass spectrometry, the instrumentation, but I quickly learned that was not going to happen.  Besides, there were others in the company who did know the subject; I could use their knowledge when necessary.  There was so much else to do.

Aside from the bookkeeper, I was the only liberal arts person in a sea of highly technical professionals.  I had no chemistry, mathematics or engineering background.  I was hired for a number of reasons aside from being a self-starter and fiercely independent. I knew how to market new technology and professional services, develop proven processes and create effective programs, sales tools and marketing materials.  I understood how companies are structured, organized and work (though I didn’t know much at all about laboratories and the differences amongst them.). A unique set of research tools and techniques I had developed in recent years added to my appeal.

When I started there was no marketing or market segmentation nor process for creating demand or building brand identity.  I couldn’t tell the difference between a MALDI and a MALDI-TOF or a Q-Exactive and a QTRAP.  Not knowing the product  had always been my experience, yet every company I had worked for except one was wildly successful. Three of the four start-ups were either acquired or went public, increased their revenue every quarter of every year, year after year. Whether it was the world’s first electronic office-based software or the fastest most versatile 4 GL (language) or a scaleable virtual private network (VPN) or the smallest Automated External Defibrillator (AED).  Working with other marketing people, we created and publicized the drama in these products.  I studied how companies make decisions, how they evaluate technology and were persuaded to consider, evaluate, test new or disruptive technologies. When Cisco acquired start up Altiga Networks, it was understood that Cisco bought the firm because of  its people as much as the VPN technology.

I have the greatest respect for scientists, engineers, developers, chemists, physicists and programmers who create elegant algorithms, conduct scientific studies and design analytical instrumentation.   Reading the 1974 classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” made a lasting impression on me.  I know it’s important to not just be a user without understanding what’s going on under the hood.

That being said, I found a way to learn about the separation sciences by reading application stories and the discoveries revealed by using analytical instrumentation. I read CEN, published by American Chemistry Society (www.cen.acs.org) and American Laboratory.  It’s thrilling to learn how MS is used in real world research and real life labs to detect, measure, analyze and monitor diseases, drugs, tumors, and most everything encountered in our lives.

Mass Spec (MS) is an analytical technique and a classification of analytical instrumentation used for determining the elemental composition of samples, mass of particles and molecules, and the chemical structure of molecules. Some MS are big like a washing machine or rectangular in shape like a coffin. (Sorry to be morbid, but this is about the only thing I can think of that’s about the size of a typical LC-MS/MS.)

MS are used for disease screening, diagnosis of disease states (like endocrine disorders), monitor drug therapy, drug toxicity and poisoning.  Scientists use MS to discover new biomarkers like tumor markers, do newborn screening, determine the effects of pesticides on bees, the chemical structure of cosmetics, chemical runoff effect in our drinking water, and much, much more.  Despite their cost (easily $200,000 – $500,000 and more), cost reduction was one of the drivers, yet sample preparation, typically a laboratory-intensive and lab-intensive step, did not always result in cost savings.

(This is going to be a longer post than the others, so buckle in).

The Laser Diode Thermal Desorption (LDTD) is an innovative technology that when coupled with a LC-MS/MS on the front end, dramatically increases speed of analysis.  It is about the size of a small PC.  Instead of five or ten minutes analysis, it is achieved in less than 10 seconds. In some applications, analysis was less than a second! See Phytronix at http://www.phytronix.com.

But as any innovative disruptive technology, the adoption (or sales) process was very lengthy, and the pushback from the more established companies in the industry that had product already entrenched in the lab provided to be formidable.  It’s hard enough to hone the messaging and position an innovative technology solution in hopes of winning new business, but it’s equally hard to dislodge an established and satisfactory technology from it’s place in a lab. Think about it. Assays and protocols were established. Documentation and trained personnel were already in place.  FDA and industry associations support the existing technologies. Scientists are risk-aversive and often with good reason.  What do you do?

Lesson learned: never underestimate the value of an existing technology in a heavily regulated industry, even if a new technology appears to be better, smaller, less pricey, or more efficient.

When it came to selling refurbished MS (some being: liquid chromatography or LC, gas chromatography with MS, or GC/MS, or LC-MS/MS known as triple quads or just triples), inventory or supply was the biggest problem.  Instrumentation was expensive and if maintained properly could easily last ten or twelve years or more.  But given their versatility and the billions of dollars invested in developing new drugs, for example, the arch of innovation created more accurate, reliable, easier to use and speedy MS all the time.  As science changed, instrumentation changed (or vice versa).

While many sellers focus on firms that receive new funding to find new business, I developed a proprietary database of “distressed” labs that might be (and sometimes were) more willing than the “average” lab to sell its MS.  Often these were private companies, but there are techniques, resources, social media and databases that are accessible to peel back the onion to discover things about private companies.  I followed incidents like failed clinical trials, departures of key executives, changes in scientific focus, lawsuits, and much, much more.  Business research like this was a successful tool to prospect and qualify opportunities for Sales in a very profitable line of business.  I was fortunate to have a boss that supported this innovative approach to finding new opportunities.

Lessons learned in high tech over thirty years ago carried forward into life sciences, biotech, drug discovery and the medical laboratory industry today.  Increased automation and the changes in science will continue to evolve.  Will there be scientists courageous enough to adopt “the new” in pursuit of their sciences?   I miss reading CEN; I’ll have to look at is again soon at a library or online to more fully appreciate how sciences make sense of our world and advance it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

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