Engineers who buy, fix, sell used scientific equipment find global demand
CHAMPAIGN – This is the kind of stuff you don't find at garage sales.
Want a protocol emulator? Just $550. How about a polarization scrambler? It can be yours for only $1,850. And every home needs a controlled ferroresonant rectifier, doesn't it?
No, this is the stuff of corporate and academic research labs – optical, scientific and electrical measurement and testing equipment of many makes and models.
But the equipment doesn't come cheap. Original manufacturers command steep prices for devices fresh off the "showroom" floor.
That's where Artisan Scientific comes in. The Champaign-based company offers used scientific equipment at cut-rate prices. Its technicians look over and test the equipment and determine what, if any, repairs are needed. The business supplies support and service, as well as a warranty.
The business was the idea of electrical engineers David Markun and Tim Miller, who happen to be brothers-in-law. Miller, who graduated from the University of Illinois, worked in a UI biochemistry lab after graduation and recognized the demand for quality, used equipment at a reasonable price.
They started the business a few years ago in Markun's apartment, moved to a 2,500-square-foot space in Urbana's Lincoln Commerce Centre in late 2003, and graduated to a 10,000-square-foot space in Champaign's Apollo industrial subdivision last year.
Most of their business comes over the Internet, from customers nationwide and around the globe. According to Markun, Artisan Scientific's customers include Lucent, Caterpillar and Ford Motor Co., as well as researchers at Berkeley, Sandia National Laboratories and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Orders have been shipped as far away as India, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and Australia. The two estimate that 20 percent to 25 percent of their business comes from overseas.
Miller and Markun said they didn't expect to go into business for themselves after graduation.
"We're a couple of engineers. We're not business people or marketers," Miller said.
Nevertheless, they've been able to build their business a step at a time – first, while working other jobs and, later, when they decided to devote full time to the firm.
"We don't grow the business on loans. We do it on profits," Miller said.
"We didn't even pay ourselves for the first few years," Markun added.
To help protect equipment during shipping, Artisan Scientific invested in a system that blows foam around the equipment. The system uses two liquid chemicals that, when blended together, expand and solidify to surround the product.
The company has also invested in a powder-coat paint system that can cover scratches and in an elevated forklift system that helps handle equipment stored high in the warehouse.
The business has grown to the point that it employs five people full time and one part time.
For the most part, Miller tends to the hardware side of the business, while Markun, who once worked as a research programmer in a UI vice chancellor's office, tends to the software side.
The partners, both 32, of Champaign said they've checked enough equipment to know which manufacturers make a good product and which pieces of equipment are built properly.
At least one local researcher has benefited from Artisan Scientific's business. Tony Crofts, a UI professor of biochemistry and biophysics, said he was able to get a stop-flow apparatus, a light-scattering apparatus and a printer for poster-sized projects through the firm.
Crofts said Miller was in charge of building equipment for his lab for several years.
"We've been rather lucky because of Tim's association with the lab," Crofts said. "Shortly after he left, when the biotech economy went crashing down, a lot of useful equipment came onto the market cheap. He was on the lookout for equipment useful to the lab and let us know when it was available. We got some nice equipment at a very low cost."
Markun and Miller attended Joliet Catholic High School before going to college. Miller went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University before transferring to the University of Illinois. Markun went to the Milwaukee School of Engineering and worked for Johnson Controls in Milwaukee before coming to Champaign-Urbana.
Ivi Miller – Tim's wife and David's sister – also plays a role in the business. She's a full-time nurse, but she comes in one day a week to make purchases for the business and stock the fridge in the employee lounge. She also gets credit for decorating the office with furniture and artwork.
And where did Artisan Scientific get the furnishings? From the secondhand market, of course. Many of the desks were acquired from a company that was downsizing, Markun said.