I still get my ‘oohs and ahhs’ when people learn I did a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry at Northwestern University in Illinois, USA. The truth is, starting a business was at least 100 times harder. I’ll try to minimise the science jargon, but the scientist in me has a way of bubbling up. As they say, you can take the girl out of Kansas…
It was halfway through my graduate programme when I realised I could solve a problem I’d been thinking about for some time, ever since my aunt turned wine away at a Christmas party when I was 12. ‘Can’t have wine because of the sulphites, doctor said so,’ she announced. None of us knew at the time what sulphites were. This was only a few years after they became federally regulated in the USA as a food additive, where their use as a preservative was banned entirely on meat and produce following 13 deaths linked to the chemicals.
Now, I wasn’t drinking wine yet at 12, but when I hit graduate school that changed. One night I noticed the ‘contains sulphites’ label on my box of Chardonnay (I hadn’t yet graduated to bottles), and I thought of my aunt. Sulphites remain an essential part of winemaking and they’re what keeps wine from turning to vinegar. It struck me that night that if sulphites are added as a preservative, then their job was over the moment I twisted the tap on that box of wine. If I could then remove these chemicals, shouldn’t I? Would my aunt be able to drink wine again? This was a problem of chemistry, and I knew I could solve it. It took me 18 months to develop the polymer resin that we use in our products today. That was the easy part.
The hardest part initially was committing to a path few academics consider, even in the Shark Tank era of glamourised entrepreneurship. I had all the freedom to pursue my laboratory research, which focused on epigenetic enzymatic signalling, basically, how your environment can change the expression of your genes. It was fascinating work at the frontier of the field. I think this is what keeps most grad students going along the track from student, to post-doc, to professor. Freedom in academia is, after all, an enticing prospect. But freedom for me always meant owning a business. Resolving to do just that was exceptionally hard. There was no longer a roadmap to follow.
A mixed reception
When I started pitching the idea of a consumer product that would allow wine drinkers to remove sulphites, I was met with a combination of intrigue and scepticism. Nobody doubted the science, but they certainly doubted me! I remember one potential investor saying, ‘yeah, but you’re the scientist. Call me when you’ve partnered with an MBA.’ We now have a few MBAs on the team, but I was never keen to call him back. There’s a practicality to business that’s universal, and I knew that. You have to prioritise, focus, and just get things done. There isn’t time to over-analyse or endlessly research. I had to leave those things in the lab. Still, investors weren’t throwing money at me.
I got my first real start when I won $5,000 from the University’s business pitch competition. I used that money to file my first patents. More importantly, it gave me the confidence and the credibility to ask for help, and to actually get real help in return. It’s the latter that too often gets ignored. I found tremendous support in Northwestern’s Farley Centre for Entrepreneurship.
Through their network I connected with all of my initial investors who collectively contributed roughly $500,000 to get Üllo started. My team grew from one to three, and we launched a Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaign to help move into production and to finally validate the idea that wine purification is something people care about and are willing to spend money on. Exactly two years after I won that $5,000 check, we had made $5 million in revenue – three orders of magnitude for those counting. Üllo has now made wine more accessible and enjoyable to people all over the world, including my aunt.
Like most entrepreneurs (I hope), I attribute Üllo’s success to our team members who each bring something unique, not found in the others. Establishing a team like this involves some introspection; I had to really examine my own weaknesses to make sure I could find others capable of covering them. The result is a team built much more slowly than what’s in vogue I suspect in Silicon Valley. Or maybe we just do things differently in Chicago. Regardless, our team is, without question, the foundation of our growth. For me, they’re the ones who make the monumental difficulty of business creation both possible and whole lot of fun and we’re thrilled that we can now reach an international audience following the UK launch of the product. The wine helps us all a bit too.
James Kornacki is founder of Üllo.