Published December 17. 2013 4:00AM
New London - Bioscience innovators and supporters gathered Monday at the Garde Arts Center to hear how a cutting-edge chemical engineering company incubated in Groton took explosive new ideas and turned them into a fast-growing business.
Jerry Salan, chief executive of Essex-based Nalas Engineering, told about 50 people seated in the Garde's lobby that Connecticut has been a great partner in helping launch his business, which develops explosive materials, synthetic chemicals and pharmaceuticals for both the Department of Defense and private clients.
Salan's speech was arranged by Bioscience Clubhouse, a statewide group devoted to making connections in Connecticut's scientific community, and was meant to inspire local entrepreneurs thinking about starting their own businesses as well as offering networking opportunities to local scientists, including those laid off in the past few years by Pfizer Inc.
"Connecticut has a lot of financial assistance tools out there," Salan said. "Connecticut is one of the best states to start a new company."
Salan's appearance, attended by state Sen. Andrew Maynard and state Rep. Betsy Ritter with a welcoming speech by Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, was the first Bioscience Clubhouse presentation outside of New Haven and drew a diverse crowd from as far away as Orange and Farmington. The event, which brought out both Susan Froshauer and Paul Pescatello, the current and former chief executives of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, was supported by CURE and other organizations.
"I think it's fantastic," said another attendee, Jean Schaefer of East Lyme, a former Pfizer scientist who helped form the SECT Entrepreneur Network and Emerging Business Council. "I've been waiting years for CURE to come here."
Salan, a former Pfizer scientist himself, walked away from a stable job at the company's Groton labs to start his own one-man firm that is a transposition of his last name. Three years later, he is closing in on 20 employees, thanks partly to more than $700,000 in state grants and loans.
But Salan said his two years of residence at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point's Technology Incubation Program proved a key to jump starting his business. The TIP program, then directed by Mary Anne Rooke, helped point Salan to the business and legal expertise he was lacking, Salan said.
"It's not easy," he said. "It's always a struggle keeping your company running."
But now, Salan said, he is turning away business - something that may make him look crazy in today's economy, but which he believes keeps the company manageable and well focused.
Salan often gets asked if his engineering firm would take on a specific job, and he has a rule of thumb on how to answer these queries.
"If it takes more than a second to think about it you don't do it," he said.
Another rule of thumb, Salan said, is that cash is king. That's why he is more inclined to lease space and equipment than to buy it.
"Keep as much of your cash as possible," he said.
Connecticut has been spreading cash around to help emerging companies throughout the state. A map showing the concentration of support shows only a smattering of those companies are from southeastern Connecticut. Salan said that in total $475 million in state funding has gone to more than 1,100 companies - and he hopes more will wind up in this region to create a network of small businesses that create and retain jobs.
Scientists said they hope Salan's appearance and others like it help provide momentum for scientists considering taking a risk on a start-up. Salan's first contract, to develop a new torpedo fuel, came out of work that he did initially as a sidelight to his Pfizer employment but that became so all-encompassing that he had to form his own company.
Now, said Salan, his work is split about 50-50 between Department of Defense contracts and private business deals. His latest work has been with cocrystals, which he believes will increase the efficiency of drug development, and resonant acoustic mixing technology, which prevents the grinding of materials that makes dealing with explosives so dangerous.
Usha Pillai of Ledyard, a former Pfizer scientist developing a model plan for emerging bioscience businesses in the region that was funded by the General Assembly, said the first few Bioscience Clubhouse events were held in New Haven - a hot spot for CURE meetings as well - but the group thought reaching out to other parts of the state, including Farmington, would help encourage more scientific connection.
"We thought, 'If we can do this in New Haven, why can't we do this more broadly?'" Pillai said. "We needed to build a community."