High Tech Gadgets

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Prepared for August 30, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All

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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

Isthmus LLC, 112 Lawrenceville-Pennington

Road, Lawrenceville 08648. Chris Robinson. 609-620-1000; fax,



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High Tech Gadgets

From Polygenesis

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

patient compliance.

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

becomes profitable."

He has these tips for inventors or project managers ready to hire

a product development consultant.

1. Decide where you are now. "Often you are earlier

in the process than you think," says Wieck.

2. Define where you want to be. "Do you need a dozen

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 be."

3. Get real about timelines. "Figure out if you have

to get tools, or plastic moldings, or have displays made. Lead times

may be difficult to compress."

4. Decide what to farm out. "We can introduce you

to the people you need."

"My father was a tinkerer," he says, "and we had

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

Polygenesis Corporation, 4270 Route 1 North, Suite

1, Monmouth Junction 08852. Henry J. Wieck PhD, president.


fax, 732-355-1002. Home page: www.polygenesis.com.

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