Lehigh Nanotech: Making It Big by Thinking (Very) Small
Some people make it big by thinking small. Take Harch Gill, for example-his track record of molding small companies into successful moneymakers speaks for itself. Today, the self-described serial entrepreneur is thinking smaller than ever as CEO of a freshly minted nanotechnology company, Lehigh Nanotech.
Lehigh Nanotech is a startup company that manufactures nanoparticles for use in soil and groundwater cleanup. The company, built upon technology first developed several years ago by Lehigh University professor Wei-xian Zhang, left the gate faster than many new ventures: It was formed in April 2006, moved into the Bethlehem-based Ben Franklin Business Incubator in June and began selling product in August.
The Life of the Serial Entrepreneur
“I enjoy taking an idea and creating a business out of it,” says Gill, whose previous ventures include PARS Environmental, a market-leading environmental consulting firm in Robbinsville, New Jersey. Before PARS, Gill was the CEO of Envirogen, an environmental biotech firm in Princeton, New Jersey, that became publicly traded on NASDAQ.
“I work primarily with ideas in the formative stage,” says Gill, who is now putting his entrepreneurial and business acumen to work in Pennsylvania. “In a short time I’m able to determine if an idea has commercial merit. If it does, I’ll orchestrate taking it to the next level-give it some legs and move on to the next challenge.”
Throughout his career, Gill has sought out challenges with significant upside potential, including Marduk Holdings, an HVAC company he led from a single business with $1.2 million in sales to a five-company enterprise valued at more than $75 million. His active involvement in a venture is typically five to seven years. Gill also puts his money where his mouth is, having provided the seed capital for most of his last six ventures.
Little Things Inspire Big Thinking
Professor Zhang’s early testing of his environmental cleanup nanoparticles gained tremendous exposure and acceptance among scholars and industry. To Gill, this is a strong start but represents just the tip of the iceberg. Once the company has confidence in its manufacturing process, Gill will lead expansion into other markets and industries, including the medical field-which he estimates to be an $80 billion market.
“Take nanosilver, for example,” he says. “It exhibits unique properties in killing bacteria, which is especially helpful when treating critical burn victims. Nanoparticles can also be used to deliver disease-fighting drugs to infected parts of the body. Our base technology has many, many applications.”
Gill knew of Zhang’s reputation as a preeminent researcher in the field of nanotechnology. Once Gill learned of the professor’s breakthrough in nanoparticles, he contacted Zhang, and together they began discussions with Glenn Doell, a technology transfer officer at Lehigh University. Doell then introduced Gill to Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP).
A Partner in the Process
Lehigh Nanotech has received $150,000 from BFTP so far, funds that will enable the fledgling company to build a marketing department and develop a strategy to expand the business in other areas. But Gill says BFTP assistance goes far beyond funding.
“They offer a whole host of other programs. Manufacturing is not my strong suit, and I will rely on BFTP’s resources and networks in this area to help us realize the company’s full potential.”
Gill cites the benefits of being in the Ben Franklin Business Incubator as a key advantage to the fledgling company. In addition, having been down the startup path before, Gill knows the challenges that lie ahead and believes working with BFTP at this early stage gives Lehigh Nanotech a leg up when it comes to raising needed capital down the road.
“BFTP has a very rigorous approval process before taking a company into its portfolio-something which I will have to go through when I want to raise serious money down the road,” he says. “Having gone through this already with BFTP gives us the future endorsement that we’ll need.”
Two Different Kinds of Knowledge
Over the years, both Gill and Ben Franklin have come to the same conclusion: The technical person behind a great product idea often does not have the business experience needed to commercialize it. “They’re focused on developing and improving the technology, and rightly so,” says Gill. “High-tech startups need someone else to actually lead the company-someone with a strong business-building background.”
Gill emphasizes his point. “Having a great new technology does not guarantee commercial success,” he says. “The greatest technology in the world still needs management, marketing and business knowledge to make it commercially viable. Lehigh Nanotech has an incredible upside potential. Starting out here in the incubator will give us a great head start.”
Keynotes December, 2006
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