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Prepared for August 30, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All
Life in the Fast Lane
Chris Robinson does not think of himself as an
"I’m not the person who watches someone having a problem and
someone to solve it. But if you have an idea for a product, I will
turn it into reality for you," says Robinson. His new company,
Isthmus LLC, helps develop products or custom equipment —
or laboratory-based equipment — for clients ranging from start-ups
to Fortune 500s.
The name isthmus refers to a piece of land, such as Panama, that
two major land bodies. "We link ideas to manufacturing and
to markets, so our logo is a bridge," he says. "We took the
top bar of the T and turned it into a suspension bridge, and it
the innovative bridge to solutions."
Robinson has an exhibit in the U.S. 1 Technology Showcase at the Doral
Forrestal on Thursday, August 31, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. "I am
involved with companies doing combinatorial chemistry, and another
extension from that is the genome. I want to get up to date with what
is happening in the industry. And it gives me a chance to make more
contacts in the area," he says.
"My father always wanted for one of his boys to have his own
and become a millionaire. I’m half there," says Robinson. Born
in northeast London, where his father was a supervisor in a heat
plant, he helped his father, stripping things down and putting them
back together. "My father like to `play’ with things and was
a frustrated engineer," says Robinson. He remembers building steam
traction engines and four-foot-long remote control boats with diesel
or gas engines.
"I loved working with metal and decided I would go into
I left school and took a toolmakers’ apprenticeship," he says.
After graduating from Hartford Technical College in 1981, he went
into machine design and worked in a variety of industries, ranging
from food manufacture and pharmaceuticals to aerospace and steel
He did a four-year stint with the big pharma Glaxo,
then signed on with PA Technologies in Cambridge, England, and was
sent to the Princeton office in 1991 for a short term project that
turned into three years. One of his accomplishments was to develop
a surgical instrument for Ethicon, a Johnson & Johnson company. In
1994 he joined Philip Blyskal at PreSource Technologies, which does
highly engineered product development, particularly in plastics and
injection molding. Last January Robinson started his own firm to do
product development, from toys to aerospace to medical devices.
Robinson is counting on his wife, Lynn, whom he met at Glaxo, to help
get the company going. "She has been business manager for several
start up firms and helped to take them from one-man bands into
companies," he says. Though there are two non-family employees,
the company is, at the present, based in the couple’s home. They have
two sons, ages 3 1/2 and 6 1/2.
Running his own business is a new challenge, but Robinson says that
he has had plenty of experience working in an entrepreneurial style
at PA Technologies, known for its team-based structure. And he helped
build his side of the business at PreSource Technologies.
What’s hard, as all consultants know, is to set aside time for sales
when you are buried in current work. "No matter what size project,
it is feast or famine. I would much rather be working on the
Similar companies to his are Polygenesis (for whom he has consulted,
see story on page 46) and Pennsylvania-based Edge Product Development.
"We take the idea or ideas and turn them into concepts: These
are the mechanisms for the motions you require, this is the size of
the box it will go into, this is the interface with the human being
with all the buttons in the right place and in the right color and
visible from all angles."
"What makes us slightly different," says Robinson, "is
that we take projects from concept to manufacture but we outsource
the manufacture. We understand the process and the idea, we come up
with machine concepts, go into a detailed computer design phase, and
manage the manufacture of individual parts and the assembly of that
machine. What comes out of the design phase is usually a number of
prototypes — something that looks like and works like the
Taking the time to "play" to find the very best solution is
a luxury he can’t enjoy, he says. "Because I am selling my time,
I don’t play around. I use the experience I have to find the solution
that will work." He charges by the hour, and his projects can
run from two to eight months and cost anywhere from $15,000 to around
"Product development is success driven," he says. "You
come up with a number of concepts, and even if one might be slightly
better — but will have too much risk — we won’t choose that
one. We must choose the one with the biggest potential for success.
"Whether the product is a success or gets to market is totally
out of our hands," he warns. "We have developed successful
products for companies that didn’t have the sales force to sell them,
or made bad business decisions." That’s where his experience can
He asks his clients whether they have the resources to take the
product to market "Products do not sell themselves. Maybe your
competition has an inferior product but if they sell it harder and
sell it right, people will buy it," he says. For examples, he
cites the choice of VHS over the Betamax videotape standard and the
IBM computer over the Macintosh. "There is more to it than just
developing the good product."
When asked whether America is the land of opportunity for
he says he thinks it would indeed be harder to be an entrepreneur
in England. "In the American culture, everyone wants to be an
entrepreneur, and the financial system is set up for people to try
it, and if it doesn’t work people say, `At least you gave it a try
and you probably learned a lot from that.’"
Though the English banking system may have changed since he came to
America 10 years ago, he remembers that it was not set up for
certainly not for consultants. If you have a fantastic product the
banks and the venture capitalists can see where they will make money.
For consultants, they can’t. So if you foul, that is the view, `He
As it happened, the funding for Isthmus came from family sources,
"but I think I could have gone through the banks," he says.
Does being British help his marketing efforts? "If nothing else,
the accent sticks in peoples’ minds," Robinson says.
— Barbara Fox
Road, Lawrenceville 08648. Chris Robinson. 609-620-1000; fax,
I‘ve always been a gadget guy," says Henry J. Wieck,
president of Polygenesis. "In college, a professor saw that, and
asked me to fabricate equipment for a project he was doing for the
Atomic Energy Commission." That was the point when Wieck’s
major turned into a product development career. His four-year-old
firm, Polygenesis Corporation, can rapidly build prototypes in a
of technologies, from mechanical design to software and electronics.
Wieck and Chris Robinson, who just founded Isthmus LLC (see story
above), share some similar experiences — both are alumni of PA
Technologies, the British-based technology consulting firm, and both
were the sons of inventors and gadgeteers. Wieck will have a table
at the U.S. 1 Technology Showcase on Thursday, August 31, from 11
a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Doral Forrestal. On display will be one of his
firm’s first products, MedManager.
"For people with Parkinson’s disease, it helps them take
at the right time and give the physician feedback," Wieck
Parkinson’s medication, if taken too often, can be almost toxic.
you open the wrong bin, it will scold you. It will ask if you have
experienced nausea. All that information is swept back to the pharmacy
service, which can program the device remotely. It sits in a cradle
at night and dials up."
MedManager was inspired by an investment banker who had the disease
and put together funding for Polypharm. That Michigan-based company
commissioned Polygenesis to do the development for payments of stock
and cash. The product is in the middle of clinical trials, will
cost a few hundred dollars, and can be marketed as a package along
with medication. In addition to being used for patients with other
diseases where medication timing is critical — for AIDS therapy,
for instance, it could be used for any clinical trials to monitor
Wieck went to Brooklyn College, Class of 1972, and earned his PhD
from Rutgers. After teaching analytical chemistry at Kean, some of
Wieck’s early work was for I-STAT Corporation, the diagnostic blood
analysis equipment company on Windsor Center Drive. He joined I-Stat
in 1986 when it had just four people, contributed to a dozen patents
there, and left in 1991 when he was director of medical products R&D.
He worked at PA Technologies and PA Consulting group for five years.
Now i-STAT has 150 people and has gone public; its stock helped
in 1996. At first it was a "lone wolf" consultancy but now
Wieck has interdisciplinary teams — two electrical engineers,
an analytical PhD chemist, a physicist, a biomedical engineer, and
an electronic technician — and is looking to hire more.
Half of Wieck’s business is with entrepreneurs, half with large
or venture capitalists that ask him to do "due diligence"
on a product. A typical assignment: "Fly to California and visit
with three guys in a garage and see what the technology is like."
"In some cases development companies have deluded themselves as
to where they are," Wieck says. "The venture capitalists ask
us to go in and help them. Every venture capitalist fears what is
known as the living dead, a company that does not lose money but never
He has these tips for inventors or project managers ready to hire
a product development consultant.
in the process than you think," says Wieck.
working models? production units? a pipeline? clinical trials? An
early stage company may not have the funds to get to clinical trials.
We can develop a road map between where they are and where they need
to get tools, or plastic moldings, or have displays made. Lead times
may be difficult to compress."
to the people you need."
a printing press in the house. He still has a basement full of things,
and he’ll go down in the basement and find something I need."
For one of his early inventions at i-STAT, Wieck sourced his father’s
basement for silicon rubber. "One of our hobbies was making metal
soldiers, and we used a liquid rubber that you pour around the model
and then pour in molten metal. At i-STAT we developed components based
on that same material.
Wieck is not concerned that a colleague, Chris Robinson, has started
a consulting firm. "Chris used to work on some of my
says Wieck, "but our company focuses more on technology
There is enough work to go around."
— Barbara Fox
1, Monmouth Junction 08852. Henry J. Wieck PhD, president.
fax, 732-355-1002. Home page: www.polygenesis.com.
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