By KATHLEEN LAUFENBERG
MagLab scientist Jeffrey Whalen is a master chef — but you won’t find him cooking in an upscale restaurant. This 30-year-chemist cooks crystals: solid materials, such as quartz, salt and other minerals with atoms arranged in special patterns.
But Whalen doesn’t reproduce natural crystals; he brainstorms never-seen-before formulas for synthetic crystals. He whips them up and cooks them in ovens at the same fiery temperatures found in volcanoes. The result is crystals that both private companies and public universities might easily be persuaded to buy. But how does a chemist who wants to start his own business — but has no business experience — launch a new enterprise?
Enter the “Entrepreneurial University.” Thanks to a generous gift of more than $4 million two years ago, Florida State University now has programs that provide people like Whalen and his business partner, MagLab physicist Theo Siegrist, with the training and capital they need to open their own storefronts.
“I couldn’t have started my own business, and taken on this kind of risk, without the help of the MagLab, FSU and Leon County,” says Whalen, whose wife recently left her full-time job to have the couple’s first baby. “But because of all that help, it’s finally coming together. We’re finally ready to leave the nest. We were standing at the edge and looking down, so to speak, and saying, “We need to fly, but that’s really a big drop!’ Then we got that last seed-grant money from Leon County. Winning that was absolutely critical to finally getting the company out there.”
Now here’s his plan: He’s patenting his crystal growth technique and compositions through FSU and will market two new crystals this year. He wants to become a world-class competitor with companies in China and Russia that sell crystals similar to his. He hopes to give those companies a reason to shout, “Somebody tell me what’s going on in Tallahassee, Florida!”
It takes a village
Since last year, Whalen’s newly hatched company, Specialized Crystal Processing, has raised $45,000 in much-needed seed grants. On three occasions, Whalen stood in front of savvy business people — call them potential investors in his company — and quickly explained the potential demand for his crystals. Based on his “elevator-pitch” presentation, the FSU Foundation awarded him $15,000 last year, and the Leon County Research and Development Authority has given him two separate $15,000 grants — one last year, and the other in May.
“His business proposal is exactly what we want to see: research that’s developed here in Leon County being commercialized here,” says Kristin Dozier, a Leon County commissioner and chair of the R & D Authority’s Board of Governors. “We feel like that is so important, keeping companies where the research actually happens.”
That’s also why she and others had no problem seeing Whalen win the same seed grant two years in a row.
The much-needed grant money, Siegrist says, will help pay overhead expenses and buy production equipment, such as the special ovens needed to cook the crystals at the volcanic temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius (or 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit). He’s excited about future funding possibilities, too.
“There’s potential access to federal monies and state monies and corporate sponsorship,” Siegrist says. “For instance, there’s a Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research that matches funds up to $300,000. It’s way, way better now for a small business starting out than it was even five years ago.”
Whalen’s also taken advantage of the training FSU offers would-be entrepreneurs. He enrolled in a weeklong boot camp, hosted by the College of Business’s Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship, where he got basic training from those who have been in the trenches and successfully opened their own small firms.
“We want our researchers and others at the university to have ready access to the education and orientation they need to launch businesses,” FSU President Eric Barron says of the new programs. “Putting our faculty and students in a position to market products and services helps to make Florida State a major economic driver for the region, state and the nation.”
Without all that active support, the scientists say, the company might still be a dream.
“All last year, and even before that when the company was just a vision, the MagLab has always been our incubation site,” says Whalen. “My part-time employment here is probably the most key critical enabling factor in me getting this company moving forward. Without that, I don’t think I could have taken the risk, what with a new family and everything.”
Helping scientists like Whalen and Siegrist is part of the lab’s mission, says Director Greg Boebinger.
“Jeff is that rare breed of scientist who understands enough of the science to know what materials are interesting, and understands enough about the materials to grow the actual crystals, and understands enough about the technology and marketplace to know when he really has a good product,” Boebinger says. “We’re 100-percent committed to giving scientists like Jeff what they need to pursue their vision, and we have the institution, the expertise and the educational mission to do it.”
Previously, the lab helped MagLab engineer Tom Painter launch his own business — High Performance Magnetics — which processes semiconducting cable for Oak Ridge National Laboratory as part of the U.S. contribution to an international fusion experiment. Like Whalen, Painter continues to work part-time at the lab as his Leon County business grows.
In June, Whalen, Siegrist and their team of about a half-dozen undergraduates and graduate students set up shop in an industrial warehouse on the outskirts of Tallahassee. They share space with a rental business that stores bicycles in part of the same building as Whalen’s new crystal-cooking operation.
It’s an exciting and scary time.
“Managing the stress and anxiety that result from taking risk is very difficult,” Whalen allows. “You have to have determination, and you have to have faith that you know what you’re doing — but it’s harrowing! You don’t get any validation until you get to the end of road. It makes my hair feel like it’s falling out as I’m talking.”
The first crystal he plans to sell is a specially formulated type of europium oxide or EuO. It can be used in basic research and for a new kind of computer memory storage called spintronics. Spintronics uses the quantum properties of an electron’s spin to store memory.
“Spintronics is sort of a buzz word right now,” says Whalen. “It’s supposed to be the thing that will one day make our computers faster, smaller, better — and then maybe our computers will be able to cook us breakfast or something fancy like that.”
Universities are also interested in Whalen’s tiny, black EuO crystals. A batch of 100 of these shiny crystals — a typical order size — would fill a tablespoon. Part of Whalen’s business plan, however, is to figure out how to economically make the crystals bigger, which should increase the demand for them.
But no matter the size, there’s clearly a market for them.
“For some of the crystals we offer, our customers can’t go anywhere else; the only option is to have a friend who knows how to make them,” Whalen says. “And when you’re a physicist, if you’re doing experiments on crystals that have had no quality control, that brings into question the validity of the experimental results. So the faculty in physics who are faced with that challenge have one of two routes: either they have to recheck their crystals themselves before they do their measurements, or they have to try and get the infrastructure to actually make the crystals themselves. We want to offer this as a quick, reliable solution for people who need crystals.”
Whalen hopes to roll out another crystal for use in devices such as motion-sensitive cameras later in the year. Currently, Whalen says, Chinese and Russian companies have more or less locked down the international market on these types of crystals. Chinese investors purchased nearly all of the U.S. companies that once manufactured them.
“We want to offer a reliable, repeatable, properly characterized, quality-controlled crystal at a competitive price,” Whalen says.
So … a hi-tech, homegrown Tallahassee crystal company that steps into the ring with China and Russia?
“Why not?” says Whalen.
Why not, indeed.