Starting a laboratory technology business

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Authored by: J. Richard Sportsman, Ph.D., Ascent Biosciences Corporation


LabAutopedia brings you the real-time, real-life account of starting a laboratory technology business.  The company now is Vinmetrica, but at the beginning of this blog it was about Ascent Biosciences, the goal of which was to provide research laboratories with research reagents for life science research.  Click on the "Watch" tab to be notified when changes are made to this page. 

The LabAutopedia editors
March 2009

Hi everyone. I'm Rich Sportsman, former CEO of Ascent Biosciences, and now president of Sportsman consulting, DBA Vinmetrica (more on this later). I'm pleased to continue this blog on my experience of starting a business, a literary endeavor that began over a year and a half ago.

Below is the original writing about Ascent that I began in March of 2009:

"Ascent Biosciences is presently located in Irvine, CA, right under the approach pattern to John Wayne Airport. We have about 1200 SF of space in an industrial park complex. Not bad really, with a Starbucks and food court just down the street. Our mission is ... well, wait; I'm getting ahead of myself.
First let me say a few words about me, per Steve's request (more about him later). I'm the former Vice President of Reagent and Assay Research and Development at Molecular Devices Corporation (MDC), "now a part of MDS Analytical Technologies, Inc." which I am, as of July 4, 2008, no longer a part of. That's about 13 months after MDS Inc. bought MDC. To be perfectly frank, I had hoped to last a little longer after the acquisition, for various personal reasons, but I was not overly dismayed when, last June, my boss called me in to a "special meeting" featuring a surprise appearance of our HR director (a charming lady from the parent company). I'm sure you know the rest.
So there I was - for the first time in my life, laid off - but as I said, not overly dismayed, as I had a severance package that would tide me over a bit. I wasn't too sure what I would do, but I knew precipitous action was futile (Craig's List is not exactly replete with ads for a VP of reagents). And even my wife was urging me to take some time off and enjoy things a bit. ( It helps that she works in the health care industry and has benefits, not to mention immense patience). I did dutifully attend the orientation session at the outplacement service provided me by my former employer. About 15 people were in the room, almost all of them in real estate, construction, or mortgage/ finance. I didn't go back.
About a month later, I started a consulting business; I'm still doing it a bit at a time (, with 4 clients. However, I had always flirted wth the notion of starting a business. A startup! A captain of industry!

OK, more to come...

Sorry it took me so long to get back, but this Autopedia interface does not jibe with my expectations, and my last (rather lengthy, alas!) entry seems to have disappeared into the digital ether. But the good news is that our website is now up ( and you can get a look at what we’re up to.
A long time colleague of mine, Nick Cairns, had run a small research organic chemistry lab (Combinix) in the Bay area for about 10 years, most recently located in Mountain View not far from my work and home in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto. From time to time we had collaborated on small projects involving fluorescent molecules; he knows the chemistry of this area well. One day in August I stopped by and we got to talking about our futures. He was winding down some grants and contract work and things were slow. He suggested we put together his chemistry and my bioanalytical background and go after some niche markets in the reagent business. He would be President, CSO and I would be CEO. That was pretty much how it started that very day; we agreed to go forward. I came up with the name Ascent Bioanalytics, but Nick preferred “BioSciences”, and so it became.
Now, I had some reservations about this. Chiefly, I was in the process of disentangling myself from the Bay Area. My wife lives in San Diego and I had been commuting back and forth weekly for the last 3 years.
This was getting old (another reason why I was not overly dismayed at my dismissal last June). My two sons and ex-wife still lived in Palo Alto but the boys were now both over 18 and the old custody drama was finally over. So I was ready to head south for good; originally this was to have been after June ‘09 when my youngest finished high school, but now it was moved up. Naturally there was also the fear of the unknown to contend with, my will to industrial glory notwithstanding. That fear was tempered by the simple fact that, there’s not a lot else to do, and well, there’s always the possibility of handing the CEO job off at a later date.
Bit by bit, the stars just seemed to be aligned for us. Nick’s wife took a job at Allergan in Irvine, so now Nick was planning to move his operation south by the end of 2008. Irvine is just an hour’s drive north of Encinitas, where I would now be living full time. It turned out that Combinix had a phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant that qualified it for the Commercialization Assistance Program (CAP) offered by NIH to select SBIR awardees. NIH anticipated that their awardees may have great ideas and inventions, but lack the means and skills to bring their work to market. We switched the participation to be on behalf of Ascent, and as the newly minted CEO, I attended a workshop in October down in LA. Here I learned that CAP would provide access to advisors and other experts. Through them we hooked up with Wilmer Hale in Palo Alto, who performed the legal aspects of our incorporation. This had the advantage that they would delay billing for their hours until our first funding event. In addition I got some good practical advice from the program’s staff, as well as some encouragement, which always comes in handy.
It still took 3 months to get the incorporation done. There was quite a whirlwind of change all at once. I moved out of my rental in Palo Alto.
My boys could live at ex-wife's apartment for the remainder of the school year, but that was going to be dicey - she was terminally ill with cancer. (She passed away Christmas Eve). So I was up and back to the Bay area for several times yet, and a trip to Chicago for the funeral. Nick and his family moved down to Irvine, and Combinix/Ascent moved into the current location.

Next: SBIRs; and the elusive deal"


OK that was as far as I got about Ascent.  I did intend to keep working on the blog, but perhaps it's just as well that I didn't because, as you have surely guessed by now, Ascent is no longer in business.  Or to be exact, I am no longer a part of it, whether it is still in business in some sense or not (I doubt it).  So a very brief summary of the 9 months of Ascent's existence from March 2009 could look like this: We attempted to get SBIR and private funding, we developed a couple of products in an attempt to bootstrap operations, we attempted to put together distribution deals for these products, and admittedly, progress was slow.  Then Nick informed me that he had to move back to the Bay Area.  Since his lab was going with him, that in effect meant that Ascent was going with him.  So we parted ways and I turned to focus on my consulting business.

So now it's January of 2010.  I had some future consulting business that would require me to have a small lab.  I talked to an old friend of mine who had  a plumbing contracting business in nearby Carlsbad, thinking he might know of a some commercial rentals that would be suitable.  Phil said, " yeah, how about right here?"  As it happened his business was slow due to he recession and he had surplus space. 

more to come....

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