An Interview with Philip Wyatt
Figure 1 – Philip Wyatt.
Over the last 56 years, Wyatt Technology Corp. (WTC), including the adaptation of innovations from its progenitor, Science Spectrum, has earned a reputation for developing and marketing instruments for the physical characterization of particles, including size, mass, charge (zeta potential), conformation, and particle interactions such as proteins and nucleic acids. Along the way, Wyatt has made strategic acquisitions, notably for differential refractometers and dynamic light scattering. These acquisitions facilitated Wyatt’s ability to offer complete solutions, rather than just a few esoteric instruments. Its instruments are found in the labs of several Nobel Laureates, many of the foremost research foundations and corporations of the world, and in the production and research facilities of the leading pharmaceutical firms. Unique to Wyatt are its customer-training courses at the Light Scattering University (the other LSU), which provide new customers with the training essential for the maximum utilization of their products. The Master of Light Scattering diploma, originally proposed and designed by the great physical chemist, Bruno Zimm (in Latin!), is awarded to each such successful student.
I had a chance to ask Dr. Philip Wyatt, the founder (Figure 1), about how Wyatt got its start.
Q: As with humans, company births are often messy struggles, followed by years of “child problems.” How was it for Wyatt?
Figure 2 – First Science Spectrum exhibit booth.
A: It was very difficult, coming on the heels of Science Spectrum (Figure 2), an early venture capital financed firm that failed after just 13 years of existence. Despite tremendous instrumentation (it introduced the first analytical instrument containing a laser light source), we had our difficult times. The markets never materialized for the unique instruments developed. In addition, the 1970s brought a slowing down of the huge government-financed era of technical innovation and funding.
Q: What led to the founding of Science Spectrum?
A: It began about a year after I had started working at EG&G, where I had won an unusual contract from the army to develop a laser-based system to detect the presence of a biological threat. The primary focus at the time of EG&G was in the area of nuclear weapons testing, so biophysics activities were not a high priority. The army encouraged the startup of Science Spectrum with a then remarkable $25,000 contract.
Q: How did you transition Science Spectrum to Wyatt?
A: After those dozen years of struggling (including a failed attempt to take the company public), Science Spectrum just ran out of funds and could win no further government contracts (once a major source of its support). Many of my family and friends had donated additional funds to try and keep it operating, but it was too late. Then, at age 50, I found that despite what I thought were good credentials, I became unemployable.
Following the Science Spectrum bankruptcy, there remained a few small government contracts for which final reports had to be finished in order to recover a few thousand dollars that were critical for me, so I opened a small office at which I could complete these tasks under the name of Wyatt Technology Company.
Q: Funding is usually a major issue for a startup. How did you do it? And what would you do differently, looking back?
A: As might be expected, the only way I could get funding for the new quasi company was to increase the mortgage on my home. Family and friends had been burnt badly with the Science Spectrum ordeal and wanted to stay away from the new firm. Then, within a short period of about six months, two miracles occurred: The S.C. Johnson and Son Company in Racine, WI, asked if we could build for them a multi-angle light scattering (MALS) detector that they had read about following Science Spectrum’s last contract. That contract with the FDA had introduced the concept, but Johnson was certain the concept would work out for their hydrodynamic chromatography needs. It did, and let us begin the first commercialization of the concept, with a second sale about six months later to the Amoco Research labs in Tulsa, OK.
The second miracle was an award by the Department of Defense (based on a long-forgotten proposal by the now defunct Science Spectrum) to develop a system to determine if water samples were safe to drink. That support lasted about three years and allowed us to develop our first major MALS systems.
I was about to say that I would never try that again at that age. If one wants to start an entrepreneurial company, start young while there is still a chance of employment if you fail. (Oops! I just remembered that I decided to fund a new company about six months ago based on the analysis of aerosol particles that was an early WTC government-funded project. That’s still going on at my personal expense, but it is fun!)
Q: LSU has been a successful part of the Wyatt success story. How did it come about? How do you measure its success?
A: Wallace Coulter had given me the idea while I was at Science Spectrum. He showed me how to focus on our customers’ needs most effectively by making sure they learned well all the features and functions of the instruments they were buying. He emphasized, as well, making each customer feel [their] importance to the company by making sure that during their training they were treated like the kings they were with no expense spared. When they leave LSU, they know many of our staff, who are always there to serve them personally whenever they need help or advice. Once a WTC customer, few ever switch to another vendor. They remain in a great sense like family and return often to purchase new instruments as well as to make sure we are always aware of what they want and expect.
Q: I’ve attended several of the Light Scattering Colloquia; I’ve been impressed with the customer-centric philosophy displayed at these meetings. Others talk about this, but WTC seems to really live it. How did this evolve?
A: During the early evolution of our instruments and early sales activities, we communicated often with our customer base. Many of them were making some truly remarkable discoveries that we wanted to share with our other customers. Again, all part of the LSU “alumni group.” The concept of building a conference around such achievements and providing the basis for all of our customers to exchange these ideas and discoveries was based upon a very successful plan laid out many years earlier by a firm called Technicon. They were leaders in the introduction of automated systems for the clinical laboratory market and their biannual “conferences” were extremely successful, as were ours. This year, for example, we are expecting an excellent turnout with a Nobel Laureate as a key speaker.
Q: Recently WTC was listed as one of the 10 best places to work. This is a significant award. Can you add some color?
A: After our customers, there is nothing more important to our business than our employees. We do our best to encourage open communication with each and every one of our employees and try to provide benefits (and quarterly bonuses each quarter!) to make them feel a major part of the business. And, of course, we’re dog friendly, so employees feel very comfortable bringing their “best friends” to work whenever they want! We must be doing a lot right in this regard because, despite our rapid growth, our average employee has been here for almost six and a half years. Every new employee is welcomed by the whole company with a special lunch in her/his honor.
Q: Wyatt is a family business. Any suggestions to others about how to create an environment where all feel comfortable, with the opportunity for personal growth?
A: Obviously, we hope that our employees always feel part of the company. In addition to exceptional benefits (one, for example, is the company’s donation monthly to each employee’s 401k independent of any employee contribution) we encourage each to communicate (by e-mail) directly and in confidence with one of the officers of the company, telling them what they did last week, what they plan to do this week, and discussing any problems they may be experiencing within the company. In the early years of the company, we picked up an occasional manager who was out of touch with his subordinates. Thanks to the encouragement of confidential communications through this weekly report, we have very few problems with poor managers.
Q: We are running out of space. Any final advice that you can give young scientists seeking to satisfy their entrepreneurial ambitions?
A: I wrote a brief editorial for Chemical and Engineering News on the subject last October 13th entitled “An Entrepreneurial Fallacy” discussing some of the problems of this ambition. Were I to have expanded on it, I would have suggested that the would-be entrepreneur focus on a long-term business plan and never believe that she/he will get rich fast. Try to use your own (or friends or family) funds. The country needs greatly to rebuild its manufacturing base, so think about ideas that will result in such activities. Always recognize that most such ventures fail, so don’t be afraid to stop when the future looks very bleak for a very long time.
Robert Stevenson: Thank you for making time to talk with me today. I know that many of our subscribers will appreciate the vision and dedication that you and the extended Wyatt family have made in building WTC to a world-class business.
Philip Wyatt: It was our pleasure, Bob! Keep up writing those interesting articles for your magazine. They often inspire us all!
Robert L. Stevenson, Ph.D., is Editor, American Laboratory/Labcompare; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.