Prof. CJ Kim's Start-Up Experience - Core Microsolutions
February 22, 2012
(Excerpted from UCLA Invents)
Just as there is no simple formula for innovation and discovery, there is no single road map that charts the successful journey from laboratory to marketplace. For some researchers, the route is short and straightforward. For others, however, it is long and circuitous, with plenty of detours and construction zones along the way.
In the university setting, where federal grants are the lifeblood of so many research projects, aspiring entrepreneurs often turn first to federal SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) and STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) grants to fund their commercialization efforts. Combined with personal funds and a bit of sweat equity, these grants allow faculty members to “bootstrap” their business, building from the ground up while retaining control over their own destiny. These grants are also attractive because they represent nondiluting equity.
“It’s money that comes in, but nobody is asking for a piece of the company,” notes Kathryn Atchison, vice provost, Intellectual Property and Industry Relations. “The federal government doesn’t say, we’ll give you this SBIR but in return we want some equity from your company. So it’s almost like having access to free money.”
Chang-Jin “CJ” Kim took advantage of SBIR grants when he and an associate founded Core Microsolutions in 2002.
|Water and other fluids, if broken down into small enough droplets, can be moved with the application of electrical signals. Consuming little power and requiring no pumps or valves, this microfluidic technology is attractive to many applications, ranging from biochemical analyzers to optical displays.|
The notion of moving water and other fluids around without the use of pumps, pipes, valves and other familiar components might seem unimaginable to most of us. But if the fluids are broken down into small enough droplets—on the order of 1 millimeter in diameter—they can be moved or manipulated with the application of electrical signals.
Having discovered that this was possible in 1997, Kim, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, has spent much of the last decade developing new technologies based on the phenomenon.
In 2002, Kim and one of his graduate students, Peter-Patrick de Guzman, applied for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant and used the money to found Core Microsolutions. They planned first to develop a line of optical switches based on Kim’s technology. These switches, intended for use in fiber-optic systems, used water droplets to replace the mirrors and mechanical assemblies that are ordinarily used to direct light pulses to their destination. Kim planned to use the revenue generated through the sale of these switches to finance the development of biomedical instruments.
“In the long run, I thought biomedical applications should be the major focus of the company,” Kim recalls. “But at that time, optical applications were abundant, and optical applications were much easier to design and bring to market. So my strategy was to start the company with optical applications first, because the market was there.”
But then the dot-com bust hit, and the market for optical switches collapsed. With the SBIR grant in hand and the company already formed, however, Kim had no choice but to move forward without the income stream he had anticipated. Fortunately, he and his associates were successful in obtaining a succession of SBIR grants. The grant money, supplemented with personal funds, allowed the two researchers to “bootstrap” the company and sustain it while they developed the biomedical applications that had originally motivated them to found the company.
In 2009, the founders sold the company to North Carolina-based Advanced Liquid Logic. Kim looks back on the experience with mixed feelings.
“Having a company is exciting,” he says. “It’s all about taking the technology you have envisioned and developed, and eventually seeing it become a product. That’s exciting. But as faculty members we may be very good at doing research, but we have never learned how to do business. There are a lot of human relationships involved, and human relationships are the source of the most frustration. I learned that people can be very different when there’s money involved.”
Still, Kim’s groundbreaking research continues to attract the attention of colleagues and entrepreneurs from around the world, and he fully expects to start another company in one or two years. The lessons he learned at Core Microsystems, he believes, will serve him well as he contemplates the opportunities ahead.