On Sundays, staff writer Paul Wood spotlights a high-tech difference maker. This week, Bill Boulanger, 63, the founder of Obiter Research, which manufactures complex chemical compounds for industries such as pharmaceuticals.
How did you get started?
I earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois, then worked at several companies before I went to a start-up called Albany Molecular Research Inc. They had just gotten the patent for Allegra and they gave me a piece of the company. I did well, and I thought why work for somebody else?
So you retired at 48.
And I've never worked harder. That's the problem with working for yourself: if it's the weekend, you can't say you're not coming in. Recently Chad, my younger brother, became CEO. He has the business savvy. I can focus on what I do well.
When did Obiter start?
I founded the company in 2001. We only started in this building (in the Apollo Industrial Park) in 2008. We were at first on the south campus, basically in a Quonset hut. They had opened up the new incubator; we were one of the first tenants. But you only get to stay in the incubator so long.
What's the simplest way to explain what your company does?
We make chemicals; we make hard-to-make chemicals, in small to medium amounts. We embrace the difficult and provide high quality chemistry. These are extremely valuable chemicals; a typical value of something we put out is between $2,000 and $3,000 a kilogram. The reason it's so expensive is the difficulty of making it. We use very expensive equipment like a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer. This particular one is cooled with liquid helium.
When did you start to make a profit?
We've had years when we were doing very well, and other years when we were making no profit at all. The original model of the company wasn't to create a profit; it was more along the lines of a toy, and a teaching tool for students. So breaking even was a happy result. As you get bigger, you have to be more serious. For the first couple of years, we lost money, then the next six we made money, then there was the big lull in the economy.
So the company has changed over the years.
We got up to a high of 32 people. During the lean years, I supported the company; I have no salary. The company pays for my health insurance.
And now you're growing again?
We are hiring now, up to about 14 people. We're making a profit: it's a matter of efficiency, how much money you make per employee. The more products you have, the much more efficient you can become. We will have five more products in the pipeline than the three we have now.
You've got a huge building.
It's 20,000 square feet, almost to the inch.
You've found several supply efficiencies, like geothermal heating.
We're really be in a bad way if we didn't have all these efficiencies that were designed in at the start. We recirculate our water; also, we have our own well. For things like the kitchen, we use city water. We have laminar flow hoods that are safer and save energy.
Some of these chemicals are precursors for pharmaceuticals; are they dangerous?
None of those materials are dangerous. They're not toxic; that was by design. We use our research as a marketing tool. People come to us, and they say they need this and they need that, and we say, how long do you need it? After that starts the conversation, we pick and choose the ones that have legs. We develop a way to make the chemical and a quality control system. But it takes about two years to bring a product from conversation to delivery.
Has success brought you any problems?
We have more demand from our customers than we have capacity and manpower. We specialize in things that are extremely difficult. Our customers have already been disappointed by other companies — by the time they come to us, they have a really intractable problem.
Do you have trouble finding expert workers?
We do a phone interview, then a site interview, then we stand them up for three hours, just like a final exam. We ask, how would you do this, how would you do that? You either know it or you don't. We get rid of about 85 percent of people who might otherwise have been hired. We need to be on-time and under budget. You go two, three extra weeks, you've lost money big time. The better the quality of the people, the more efficient.
You have a machine shop for your instruments?
I have an Amish-built shed for that on my property. It's got everything you could need for a machinist, a very large high-precision lathe, and milling equipment. I even have a forklift out there, because I build the next generation of equipment, and some of it's now beyond what I can move around.
And do you make other things?
I've made some violins, and now some experimental ones. I've made one cello. I should say that I have no musical talent. Anything I've ever wanted over the years, I've built.
Telescopes, shortwave radios, RC airplanes, printing presses ....
Where do you see yourself going in the future?
We may expand into other lines and other sites. At some point, I will probably have to reduce my presence here because this is hard work. I'm choosing really competent lieutenants who may step in to do more of the management. I'll always have a finger in it because this is what I love doing.
What's a project you're looking forward to?
We are interested very much in a college of pharmacy's compound, where they're looking to get an amount large enough to do a clinical trial. It's remarkable in that it helps with addiction, a single dose. There's already another drug with severe side effects. This variation on that has none of the side-effects. The material is languishing right now until we can make more of it. We have the only way to make it; we're looking for a partner in this.
Social media? I don't have time in my life for that, except email.
Book or Kindle? I've never used a Kindle or e-book. I'm a bibliophile.
What are you reading right now? I just got done with the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Also, I'm reading a history of Wales.
Wearable electronics? The magnetic field in here destroys anything like that, even the magnetic strips in our credit cards.