An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Prof. Wayne Reed (co-founder and CSO) of Fluence Analytics, which was honored in our:
- 2023 Best Tech Startups in New Orleans
- 2022 Best Tech Startups in New Orleans
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in New Orleans
Tell us the origin story of Fluence Analytics – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
In the mid 1990’s, I realized it would be a great advance for the trillion-dollar worldwide polymer manufacturing industry if they could monitor and control their polymerization reactions. This would make more efficient use of energy, non-renewable resources, plant, and labor time, as well as improve product quality, enable the manufacture of more sophisticated materials, produce less emissions, and lead to greater safety for plant workers and the surrounding communities.
I had a flash of insight in 1997 about how to experimentally achieve continuous polymerization reaction monitoring and set about to make embodiments of the invention, which I patented under Tulane University ownership. In 1998, my research group and I at Tulane made the first working system, which we called ACOMP (Automatic Continuous Online Monitoring of Polymerization reactions). The publication of the work led to immediate inquiries from various polymer manufacturing companies, and many fascinating research projects, which we carried out at Tulane. The early work was also backed by the U.S. National Science Foundation, and later by the U.S. Department of Energy.
After each project, the industrial sponsor would invariably ask if we could build them one or more ACOMP units. Naturally, being at a university, we were in no position to manufacture and sell instrumentation. One industrial sponsor’s offer to fund the transfer from university lab to industrial reactors, at a very high funding level, led to the formation of the startup company, Advanced Polymer Manufacturing Technologies (APMT), which soon thereafter changed its name to Fluence Analytics.
Fluence soon had follow-on orders, new orders, and a new product line aimed at the biotechnology sector. Orders for the latter followed.
As the Chairman of our Fluence Board said at the beginning of the enterprise, “There are startup companies with dreams, and then there are start-up companies with dreams and purchase orders.” We were in the latter category.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
From day one of the company’s founding we realized that: a) there was a large, pent-up demand for ACOMP, b) that the technology had been amply proven to work, as documented in numerous peer-reviewed research publications from Tulane University, and c) that our biggest risk was in the execution. A great amount of both engineering and strategic marketing development were needed to bring ACOMP to commercial success.
Indeed, that turned out to be true as we tried different models. Starting first with all young, bright engineering and science graduates (the average age at the company at the beginning was about 24), we realized they couldn’t just ‘figure it out on their own’ and needed seasoned management and expertise. Team-building and execution of the needed engineering were the single biggest hurdles we encountered.
What does the future hold for Fluence Analytics?
Fluence was just acquired by the Yokogawa Electric Corporation of Japan. The Japanese typically think on a much longer time scale than U.S. companies – years, even tens of years, rather than just quarters or next year. They have grasped the vision of how fundamentally transformational polymerization reaction monitoring and control can be in this vast worldwide industry, and they want to be the global leaders. They also realize that our separate products (e.g. Argen) have an important future in the biotechnology industry, as biologic drugs become ever more complex and sophisticated. We believe that Yokogawa has the engineering and economic muscle, and the global reach, to further develop and deploy our technologies worldwide.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in New Orleans?
It has evolved immensely since we first started Fluence. NOBIC and the Bioinnovation Center have spurred interest and investment in startup companies based on advanced technologies. The entrepreneurial scene and incentives at Tulane, the University of New Orleans, and other regional universities are finally getting the attention they deserve. With mentorship from successful ventures, such as Fluence, and careful investment from local, national, and international sources, the tech startup scene in New Orleans should have a bright future.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Stay realistic – don’t get carried away by quixotic dreams and maintain a clear vision of what your particular entrepreneurial activity might achieve. Do the research to see if there really is a market for your idea, and what the competition looks like. While the patenting process is long and tedious, and frequently annoying, it is usually required if the product is successful to protect it from predation by larger companies. Make sure the startup has people with real business talent and savvy – STEM faculty are rarely up to the business tasks required. If you hope to exit in the future, consider founding a C-corporation, with ownership distributed among stockholders. This can pay off immensely if the venture is successful.
Prepare for a long haul! It will consist of moments of euphoria, bouts of depression, and likely continuous stress! Not for the faint hearted!