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ADVENTURES ON THE JOB

Couple's Blend of Talents Results in More Than Food for Thought

Entrepreneurs: A lawyer and a biochemist join forces to start a firm to develop better methods of testing ingredients.

June 23, 1997|ROBERT BEAMESDERFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What would make rational people leave established careers to start a business selling something that nobody else even makes?

For Ginny Gordon and Ben Root, it was a spirit of adventure and the chance to control their own destinies.

To Gordon, the venture was a natural extension of 15 years spent developing new products for small medical and biochemical testing companies. To Root, it meant leaving the only job he'd had--25 years at one of the biggest law firms on the West Coast and a partnership to boot.

"The decision was much more dramatic for him than me." says Gordon.

Root's practice had shifted from labor negotiations--which he could lead to win-win conclusions--to litigating wrongful-termination lawsuits.

"I didn't find that nearly as stimulating," he says.

Like many professionals whose careers have shifted, he was left wondering, "Is this it?"

In the midst of this soul searching, Root became acquainted with clients in the food industry who were looking for better and faster methods of testing the ingredients used in food processing. Quicker results would mean safer products and less waste.

He asked Gordon, his favorite biochemist and later his wife, if it were scientifically feasible to get accurate results more quickly than the typical three to four days.

As it happened, a fellow scientist of Gordon's also thought the food industry might be interested in more modern testing methods.

"It looked like there was a real need." Gordon says.

Root took some leave from Latham & Watkins. Gordon and her colleague rounded up two more scientists, and toward the end of 1995 they embarked on the groundwork necessary for outlining a concept, testing, patent filing and conducting experiments.

But even with science and timing on their side, they knew they were approaching a tough, slow-to-change market.

"The food industry is a necessarily conservative one." Root says.

Looking for guidance, he contacted Fergus Clydesdale, head of the food science department at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Clydesdale and Root had worked together a number of years earlier when Root was handling a case for a large food industry client.

Clydesdale looked at what Root and the four scientists had, liked what he saw and brought together fellow food specialists to whom Root, Gordon and the others would present their work.

"They were very enthusiastic," Gordon says. "[The scientists reaction] was really exciting and everything we could have hoped it would be."

Clydesdale and his colleagues became the fledgling company's scientific advisory board, a group that Root and Gordon say was instrumental in helping them develop a plan to approach the food industry and make critical decisions about where to focus early efforts.

They named their new Tustin-based company Safety Associates Inc., with Gordon as chairman and Root as president.

Even with the expert guidance, the start-up process has been full of anxious moments, Gordon says. "I'm sure we've both had some sleepless nights, but you've really got to believe that [problems] aren't insurmountable."

Root admits that he's never been completely comfortable with the decision to break away from an established career in pursuit of a new one, and recalls that "The first steps into the marketplace were nerve-racking."

However, the positive response of scientists and potential customers has been exhilarating, he says. After the initial meetings with potential users, Root recalls, "I wanted to do cartwheels."

His enthusiasm for science in general and the ability to bring his legal and negotiating skills to bear has kept him going through the tough part: raising money.

"You spend most of your time trying to get financing to get to the [next] point," he says.

The firm has taken a graduated approach.

"We've tried to work with very limited amounts of money and specific milestones. . . . We defined short-term scientific and business goals, and I got out and looked for the financing for that."

The strategy, Root says, was to avoid giving the impression that they were a group of scientists looking for a handout to play in the lab.

Root and Gordon say that their progress has been achieved by staying committed to their desire to make a contribution with their product.

"It was critical that [that goal] never got lost in the financing." Gordon says.

The couple is enthusiastic about the future. With a working prototype in the lab and collaborations with five food companies, they hope to have the first beta site up and running by the fall and begin commercial operations by early 1998.

"With any small company," Gordon says, "you go through a series of highs and lows. For us, there are a lot of challenges: funding and ongoing funding; balancing the business and the science. So we've had the highs and lows.

"We're a long way down the road, and we have a long way to go."

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