It is interesting how ones perception of opportunities in the world depend on your context. I have academic colleagues who are in nanotechnology, for instance. When I have spoken of the apparent dearth of entrepreneurialism in chemistry, the sincere feedback I get is that there are nanotech-related startups out there. You know, I don’t doubt this.

What I was unable to articulate to my friends was that we need people willing to start companies for the manufacture of starting materials and intermediates for less cutting edge applications. I’m afraid that the word “start-up” has come to mean “bleeding edge technology”.

Have you ever tried to source specialty silanes or halogenated hydrocarbons for instance? The choices of manufacturers in North America are very slim. There are companies in the USA and Canada who manufacture pharma related materials. But believe it or not, not everyone needs costly cGMP manufactured feedstocks. You can find suppliers of thousands of varieties of boronic acids, esters, and difluorides. But what if you want an alkyl chloride?  In my experience there has been a mass extinction of North American halogenators in the last 10 years.

In the previous 5 decades US taxpayers have heavily subsidized US industry by the establishment of a university research complex residing at many dozens of public and private universities. Several generations of faculty at these institutions have written and been awarded a large number of grants over the decades that have produced the scientific talent. Some of the graduates have been the children of those whose combined support via taxed income paid for the complex. Others, in the form of foreign undergraduates, graduate students, and post-docs have been invited to come to the US and take advantage of this rich resource.

I, for one, am in support of sharing the scientific knowledge that has been so expensive in time and money. But what we find is that over the decades, the unstoppable advance of civilization has come to apply the inventions of technology to increase industrial efficiency by reducing the need for labor. Thus, as technology has advanced, the man-hours needed for any given item of commerce has generally declined.

When you combine this natural consequence of invention with a cultural inclination to export industrial production, what you get is a post-industrial civilization that becomes unable to support its previous level of comfort.

The US has been exporting its industrial magic faster than it can adapt to deindustrialization.  Whereas in previous times whole cities have grown around manufacturing plants, today we have whole cities substantially abandoned and blighted (like parts of Detroit). Public corporation shareholders who have taken full advantage of the rich infrastructure of the USA have pulled up stakes and moved to Mexico or Asia.  This article in Forbes is telling.

The combination of automation plus outsourcing overseas with the absentee landlord management of public corporations has triggered a basic instability in our culture. No one really knows how this will play out.

This is what leads me to urge my colleagues out there to consider starting out on your own. It will be hellishly difficult and will consume 5-15 years of your life. I have been a part of several failed startups myself. It is really hard to do. But let me say this: Avoid starting with a one-act pony, and find a way to have something to sell right away.  Not all start-ups have to bring single item, new technology on stream. Find a niche selling high value added, low volume products. Don’t be intimidated by environmental complications and zoning. You have to put your head down and plow through it.  Showing up and some hard-headed persistance counts for a lot.