The Week in Review: Thermo Partnership

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Just yesterday a reader directed my attention toward a Gloria Metrick post regarding her decision to become a Thermo Scienific Global Alliance Partner. My first reaction was, 'so what?' In business you are beholden to your stakeholders. Your job is to produce value for them. Sometimes that might mean that you have to make difficult decisions.

Now normally that would have been the end of the story, but it got me thinking about how I tried to participate in the Thermo Global Alliance a couple of years ago. The memories are still fresh in my mind and they are actually quite funny so I figured I would write them out for others to see and learn from.

It all started with a discussion I was having with an old friend of mine, an individual I used to work with at Thermo back when we were both employees. She had moved on to work with a company that was considering joining the Thermo partnership program themselves and she clued me into it. I was dissatisfied with bounding around from subcontract to subcontract with LIMS clients and wanted a change. Her recommendation was that I speak with the head of the program and see if I could get in. I followed her advice, sending a nice letter to the program head, and I tentatively joined. I say tentatively because the only document I signed was a non-disclosure agreement and not a partnership agreement. I was never actually given a partnership agreement; instead I was given a draft of one that that was non-binding on either party. Perhaps this was a mixed blessing.

Being let into program, even provisionally, meant that I was given access to the mailing lists and I was invited to some sales meetings as well as the Thermo Informatics World conference. At the conference I was given numerous opportunities to interface with Thermo clients and I even had my own booth. I remember at that conference a certain Brazilian informatics partner stole my table and forced me to host my booth in a corner all the way at the end of the room. Despite this I was constantly surrounded by familiar faces from Dow Chemicals, ExxonMobil, and others who not only visited but stayed to keep me company during the entire event. The Brazilians were close enough for me to observe and I did not see anybody sticking around at their table, proving that crime does not pay. (I eventually worked on a project where the company had hired that same Brazilian firm to perform some SampleManager work. Except for the fact that they spoke the native language of the end users their work was deemed incompetent. I was not surprised.)

The months in the program dragged on and I was learning a lot about selling systems. This was apparently a big focus of the program -- selling systems. I was not entirely happy with that. I knew that I was terrible at selling systems but quite good at selling services so I wondered if perhaps it would be possible for me to help Thermo out with their needs and somehow help myself out in the process. Well, that turned out to be a disaster, but a happy disaster as it clued me into the whole budding DIY marketplace. If it was not for the Thermo Global Alliance program and its sales efforts I would never have learned about DIY LIMS.

Thermo has a professional sales group, people that get paid and have an expense budget purely to help convince would-be customers to buy their systems. When these professional sales people got overburdened or, as was the case in this instance, apparently did not want to pursue someone's business it could be turned over to a partner. In my case I received a request to discuss some licensing opportunities with a small company that was still in its startup phase (we will call them B&M Lighting).

B&M had received some seed funding from a venture capital firm and had, at its head, two scientists that were, as I remember it, also professors at a state college. Their main product was some kind of industrial lighting device that used some form of gas that made the lighting product itself incredibly bright. It was like looking at neon but it was not neon. There was definately a market for what they had invented and patented. They were in very small production runs at the time and were working hard at scaling up. However, they were nowhere near ready to use the SampleManager LIMS.

First off, they couldn't afford it. They had no idea how expensive a commercial LIMS could be. The seat licenses alone would have set them back significantly. Then there was the consulting associated with gettting the system up and running and customized to meet their needs. Again, they simply could not afford it. If I were their venture capitalist I would have immediately balked at any request for additional funding to pay for those things either, particularly when their production runs were so small.

Thermo had bird-dogged me to a dog. Getting these people to buy software licenses was going to be about as easy as getting blood out of a turnip. The funny thing is that I knew that even before I went out to meet them. I learned to perform preliminary client evaluations in my consulting career. One of the first things you look at are the past 3-5 years of revenues. Are they growing? Is the business sufficiently capitalized? Depending upon what you are selling there will be benchmarks in place. Companies losing money or those that are short on capital are not going to be making investments. If what you are selling is more expensive than paperclips you need to move on.

All my metrics told me that B&M had very low potential to be a good candidate. Sure, they weren't even in the same zip code as someone with enough money to afford my time or the SampleManager product, but I liked them and I liked what they were doing. I had to walk away, but it bugged me to not be able to help them.

The B&M experience shook me up. I thought long and hard about it. I remember saying that if we as LIMS professionals do not help organizations that are trying to build new things in the world, things that help the environment or help feed starving populations or thwart global pandemics, what in the heck kind of LIMS professionals are we? I questioned whether I was actually helping to make the world a better place through my work or whether I just wanted money. Ultimately I decided that I wanted a little of both -- to make money responsibly. To me that means dedicating a portion of my time to help small and budding scientific organizations do great work. You don't get paid for it but it is fulfilling to know that you helped bring things to market that actually help people. You learn a heck of a lot in the process to boot.

Shortly after the B&M Lighting meeting I elected to leave the Thermo Partnership program. I don't even remember what my resignation letter said but at the time I think it sounded only slightly better than 'Hey, I want to run off and join the circus.' In LIMS being a DIY person means you are somewhat of a hippie, drinking rain water and banging on a drum while stringing together disparate parts of different systems. It is a job where your only payment is in thanks and in the delight of seeing new, awesome things being born.

This brings me back to the beginning of this post. Being born the last in my family meant two things: one, that I would have to learn to speak the loudest in order to be heard; and second, I would never experience having a younger sibling. The buck stopped with me. Both those things have carried on into my professional life. I think that there are individuals and organizations doing meaningful work that are being overworked and overlooked in the mad dash to increase revenues. Someone needs to stand up for them. The buck stops with me. Ultimately, I did not feel that I was making the right kind of difference in the Thermo Global Partner Alliance, but I honestly wish the best to anyone else that wants to try. I'm much happier here shouting at trees with a glass full of rain water and a comfortable drum anyway.

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