Nurturing Success

The journey from innovative idea to economic success can be long and difficult. At Purdue, however, two chemical engineering professors are nurturing and encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit at the student and faculty levels.

Sangtae Kim, the Donald W. Fedderson Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering, introduces his students to real-world entrepreneurial applications and works as an advisor to many startup companies. Joseph Pekny, director of Purdue’s e-Enterprise Center and professor of Chemical Engineering, has first-hand experience with a startup and now works in a supporting role with faculty to move research from the lab to the marketplace. The two men share a zest for commercializing research and helping Purdue take a lead role in entrepreneurship.

Kim and Pekny have been kindred spirits since first meeting at Princeton University in the early 1980s. Pekny was an undergraduate student; Kim was his teaching assistant in a fluid mechanics class. After receiving his doctorate in 1983, Kim took a post at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in 1989 he attempted to recruit Pekny, who came to Purdue instead the following year. The two friends stayed in touch over the years until 2003, when Kim joined Pekny at Purdue.

Pekny and Kim are committed to igniting young enterprising minds and passing their enthusiasm on to motivated students who may take jobs in startups or form their own companies. For Kim this occurs in the classroom and is manifested in advisory roles for numerous startups. For Pekny the torch is passed through work with the e-Enterprise Center.

From Bright Ideas to Funding Challenges
Kim loves the dynamics of a startup. “They’re agile, quick, everyone has multiple roles, there’s no bureaucracy, and there’s clear accountability for both good and bad decisions,” he says.

Among the companies he’s seen grow is Alien Technology, which uses a fluid mechanics process to make radio frequency identification (RFID) tags for inventory tracking. The California company, founded in 1994, employs 250 workers and is one of the industry leaders. “I started with them when they were a university-based project. I was on the founding team,” Kim says. “That’s the closest I ever came to being an entrepreneur myself.”

The RFIDs that Kim works with are an emerging technology with great entrepreneurial potential. He believes they could transform manufacturing by providing more choices to buyers. One way to do this is by using RFIDs during parts productions to label and track components. Companies will be able to deliver custom-manufactured items, such as automobiles, to end-users in as little as a week. Advising Alien Technology gives Kim the chance to foster important technology in industries like retail, consumer goods, manufacturing, defense, transportation and logistics.

Kim also advises Indigo Biosystems, a software and information management company spun off in 2004 from Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis. Now employing 10, Indigo recently landed a $1.6M 21st Century grant from the state of Indiana to further develop its data management product. Kim serves on its board and upholds its mission “to revolutionize the way scientists share, manage and analyze data to create value for patients, customers, shareholders and employees.”

Kim’s advisory experience extends to software management and technology licensing, proving that an innovative spirit can find work in any field. He aids both California-based IO Informatics, which creates software to manage complex data, and MagSense Life Sciences, a new company housed in the Purdue Research Park in West Lafayette that licenses molecular separation technology from Purdue.

Funding is a challenge for startups in any discipline, so Kim helps companies raise money by serving on advisory boards. Venture Investors, a venture capital firm in Wisconsin, benefits from Kim’s experience. The company maintains a $125M fund for early-stage companies that have spun out of Midwestern universities. 

“There’s a gap between research products coming out of the university and what is needed in the commercial world,” he says. “So university researchers or recent graduates have to raise venture capital and do key work themselves. Big companies are working with startups, not university research people.”

Kim’s enthusiasm for the entrepreneurial world easily spreads to the classroom, where he challenges graduate students with real-world scenarios. This spring, students in Kim’s CHE621 Transport Phenomena II course simulated a big company that was analyzing the possible acquisition of a small company. Courses like this prepare students for entrepreneurship in the real world. While Kim is especially interested in helping the U.S. manufacturing world, Pekny focuses his assistance internally on the university community.

Supporting Success
As the director of the e-Enterprise Center, Pekny cultivates inter- and multidisciplinary research opportunities and assists faculty in their efforts to commercialize work. As a researcher, he focuses on what might be termed “efficiency” for several industries. It includes systems analysis, supply chain management, planning and scheduling systems, pharmaceutical pipeline management, decision models in healthcare engineering, and real-time decision systems. As a teacher, he spreads the word on the benefits of entrepreneurship.

In the classroom, Pekny gives his chemical engineering process design students a new problem each year, chosen from real industry challenges that he has learned about through his work with startups. It’s extremely helpful in the classroom, he says. “If you pay attention to startup companies, it gives you tremendous advantage in teaching. It gives you case studies, contacts, insights into what’s hot and what’s not, and corporate trends. It keeps you very, very current so you can say, ‘This is why I’m teaching you this.’ ‘Here’s how you’ll use it.’ ‘Here’s how it will help you in your career.’ And learning isn’t dry anymore.”

For those who choose the path to startups, Pekny plays a supporting role as director of the e-Enterprise Center. The center, he says, is patterned after industry. It employs a pipeline business model to help researchers launch new businesses. “We’re fast-moving and as customer-service-oriented as possible,” he says.

The center facilitates research and discovery and specializes in providing proposal, project and technical support to small startup companies. “We look for opportunities for growing interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary research at Purdue. We also draw together ideas and groups of faculty.” That’s the first step, he says. “The next phase is the nurturing part, where a team sets criteria for moving the ideas along. We look for strong leadership, potential for funding from outside, a team from many departments, and some evidence of a track record.”

Once research has been given a positive evaluation as a potentially successful venture, the e-Enterprise Center more fully invests in taking the idea to market. “We assign a project manager to help the team look for funding, invite outside guests and companies to come in, and help broker scientific meetings with the endpoint being an application for outside funding,” Pekny explains. “Our job is streamlining the process and making it as customer-friendly as possible. We’ve had more than 80 projects in the pipeline since we did some advance work in 2001 and then opened in Discovery Park in 2002.”

Pekny has learned a fair amount about startups through his association with Advanced Process Combinatorics, a Purdue Research Park company that he co-founded in 1993. APC develops and markets planning, scheduling and management software under the watchful eye of Pekny. “I’m their scientific advisor, their Special Forces unit, and they advise me on practical applications,” he says. “I have a bird’s-eye view of APC, and I’ve learned a lot about the commercial world by watching them.”

Growing a business and realizing success is never a sure thing; he knows this from experience. “Only a small portion grows to Fortune 500 companies.” Many, such as APC, pursue alternative paths to success. “The planned route for most university companies is to grow to a certain size and then get bought out for their market, customer base, and intellectual property.”

Whatever the route to commercialization, with support from academic researchers like Kim and Pekny, Purdue Chemical Engineering is leading the charge to join scientific research with avenues for commercialization, all with great potential to benefit industry and society.

- Kathy Mayer