From Academician to Entrepreneur — A Convoluted Trek

From Academician to Entrepreneur — A Convoluted Trek

LCGC North America

LCGC North America, LCGC North America-07-01-2008, Volume 26, Issue 7
Pages: 626–631

Walt Jennings briefly sketches a path, occasionally humorous, occasionally somber, from the time of his Ph.D. candidacy in 1953 to the present day.

In 1953, I was still working on my Ph.D. thesis when the department chairman offered me a faculty position, albeit at the lowest rung of the academic ladder. Jobs were scarce in those days, and I accepted. I fully realized that I was taking a serious risk in joining a faculty where I had been a student — there was a danger of always being considered a student, unless I could establish myself in a field that was clearly differentiated from all of my former professors. Gas chromatography (GC) had been envisioned in 1948 — A.J.P. Martin received a Nobel Prize for his work in liquid chromatography; in his award address, he theorized that a gas might be used as the mobile phase in chromatography. GC was demonstrated roughly in 1952 (1), and its potential was defined more clearly by Ray in 1954 (2). This was the year I was searching for my field of study, and on a visit to the USDA laboratory in Albany, California, I met Keene Dimick, who was constructing his first gas chromatograph. I was fascinated with the concept, and Dr. Dimick offered to serve as my mentor. He gave me diagrams, bits and pieces of apparatus, and an abundance of support and advice. Dimick later founded Wilkins Instrument, which evolved into Aerograph, and ultimately Varian Instruments. I built my first GC system in 1954, which was essentially a copy of Dimick's. In 1957, I published a paper that was well received (but which I wish I could disown today), and a senior professor called me into his office. I am convinced he had nothing but my best interests at heart when he told me that my paper on GC was a good start, but that this was a flash-in-the-pan field, and I should now find another research area if I wanted to survive to tenure. It was my great good fortune that I ignored that advice.

Dr. Walter Jennings

In the ensuing years, my graduate students and I first concentrated on flavor chemistry; that is, the isolation, identification, and biosynthesis of natural flavor compounds in a variety of fruits. Our studies on the Bartlett pear (Europeans know this as the Williams pear) were particularly successful, and attracted the attention of a Swiss group that was organizing a symposium on fruit flavors. When they offered to cover my expenses, I happily agreed to present our findings at their 1965 meeting in Zurich. It was a well-attended meeting, our presentation was very well received (particularly by Givaudan scientists), and I made a number of contacts and connections.

Back in the laboratory, we graduated from packed to open tubular columns, and in 1966–1967, probably as a result of the Swiss exposure, I spent a sabbatical year in Vienna working under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) identifying the products of food irradiation. We had an apartment in the city close to Schoenbruhn, my three children were enrolled in Viennese schools, and my laboratory was in the suburb of Seibersdorf, which housed the atomic reactor and a team of about 100 scientists from myriad countries. The common language was German, and it was such an atrocious German that it was difficult for my wife (a German war bride) to avoid breaking into merry laughter on many social gatherings. Taste panels that sampled the irradiated food were composed of volunteers that were usually in short supply, but a senior scientist, Dr. Harry Gorseline, insisted on personally sampling all irradiated products. There was a beautiful young Viennese receptionist reigning at the lobby desk in Vienna, and when the 80-year-old Harry eloped with her, it precipitated a flood of volunteers for the tasting panel. In subsequent years, the IAEA gave me short assignments into several eastern European countries — Poland, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia — in the days when the iron curtain was very real; some of those assignments were pleasant, while others were like bad dreams. After each such assignment, I was debriefed in Vienna, and then made my way into Germany to visit my wife's relatives before returning home.

In 1967, I also spent several months in Switzerland, working at the research station in Waedenswil, just outside Zurich. Here I met Professor Kurt Grob, who gave me my first glass capillary column. I immediately realized that I had been working in the stone age of GC: Grob's columns generated superb separations, the chromatograms were beautiful, and I hastened to move my efforts into this new field.

In 1973, the German government instituted what they described as a "Reverse Marshall Plan," under which they awarded "Humboldt Prizes" to selected American scientists. German scientists could, under strict confidentiality, recommend an American scientist to a panel consisting of the chairman of the Max Planck Institutes, the German Ministry of Education, and the von Humboldt Stiftung. The awardees were offered a stipend equivalent to their current American salary that was originally tax exempt in both Germany and the U.S., and a year at a German institute of their choice. I was surprised and immensely pleased to receive one of the first of these awards. The offer came one year before I was due my next sabbatical, and the von Humboldt Stiftung graciously agreed that I could delay until 1974.

In 1970, Ilkova and Mistrykov (3) had described a unique column coating procedure. A coiled glass capillary tube was filled with a dilute solution of stationary phase, and one end was flame sealed. The open end was then threaded (or literally "screwed") into a heated oven. A copy of their apparatus was constructed, but it produced terrible columns. By replacing the solid oven lid with a glass window, it was discovered that on entering the 100 °C oven, the coating solution in the column repeatedly superheated, and the low boiling solvent then evaporated in a series of uneven bursts, leaving blotches of stationary phase randomly scattered on the column wall. The apparatus was modified by adding a 150 °C preheater tube to serve as the entrance to the 100 °C oven, and the columns then emerged with smooth, even coatings. By today's standards, they were terrible columns, but at that time they were unsurpassed. This led to a suggestion from one of my completing Ph.D. students, Robert Wohleb, that we form a company and go commercial. By agreeing to accept no salary from the company, restrict my activities to customer support, and avoid any connection between my university research and the company activities, I gained UC's permission; J&W Scientific was founded in 1974 as I left for a second sabbatical, which was connected to the 1973 von Humboldt Prize. This time the sabbatical was in Germany. My wife and I were housed in the visiting professors' apartments on the edge of the Black Forest at the University of Karlsruhe, and my research station was at the atomic reactor Zentrum in Linkenheim, some 20 km outside the city. I reported to Prof. Dr. J.F. Diehl, whom I had met on my previous sabbatical, and whom I strongly suspect was my sponsor for the Humboldt award. He chauffeured me around a wide area, and introduced me to a number of German scientists, including Rudolf Kaiser, who operated (and still runs) an Institute for Chromatography in Bad Duerkheim. In 1975, Kaiser organized an invitational meeting of scientists that were engaged in glass capillary GC. Held in Hindelang, an isolated village in the Allgau (German Alps), this was the first meeting of what ultimately became the biennial International Symposium on Capillary Chromatography and Electrochemical Separations. At this initial gathering, which Kaiser kindly invited me to attend, there were perhaps 60 attendees, and we heard presentations in the mornings, and sat around drinking strong German brews and discussing chromatography far into the evenings. It was a "who's who" in glass capillary gas chromatography: Grob, Roeraade, Schomburg, Liberti, Cramers, Rijks, Sandra, Verzele, Jaeger, Desty, and so forth. I still think it was the most exciting meeting I have ever attended. I emerged with new knowledge, exciting ideas, flushed with enthusiasm and impatient to return to my laboratory in the U.S., where I could renew my efforts.

Back in the U.S., Wohleb was experiencing a slow year, but before I returned he had begun to assimilate a small customer list that included, for example, the Sun Oil Company and the Jockey Club of Hong Kong. While industry as a whole was very interested in glass capillary columns, they faulted their fragility. With a few notable exceptions (for example, 3-M, Ciba Geigy, Dow Chemical, Tennessee Eastman, and Stauffer Chemical), fears of downtime, which were legitimate, limited most of industry to packed columns. At the third Hindelang meeting in 1979, Dandenau and Zirenner (4) introduced the fused-silica column. Shortly thereafter, Hewlett Packard began marketing fused-silica columns, and it became difficult to give, and impossible to sell, glass capillaries. J&W abruptly shifted to the new tubing. This strong, flexible tubing made a much more robust capillary column, exactly what industry had waited for, and with this development, industry began a massive shift into capillary GC.

By 1983, J&W was growing at a fast pace, and as one of our research people began to envision a single-fiber fiber-optic spectrometer, we expanded into a second building to house our new Analytical Waveguide Division. The analytical cell per se is diagrammed in Figure 1. By March 1983, we had built three spectrometers; two were transported to the Pittsburgh Conference, where they attracted considerable attention. One eager customer even insisted on prepaying for the first instrument to be released. An agent of the Chemicals and Equipment News studied the displayed instrument and reported "The unit allows the commonly used, but normally incompatible, techniques of absorbance (both fixed and variable wavelengths), fluorescence, refractive index, and scattering to be performed simultaneously or serially, using standard or remote detectors, on a single micro-volume HPLC [high performance liquid chromatography] sample, according to the company. The new LC/OS concept . . . uses single strand fiber optic cables to interconnect the various spectrometer elements such as light sources, sample cells, monochrometers, and array detectors . . . ." We now envisioned a glorious future, but our visions of grandeur were soon deflated when we learned that the engineer in charge of the project had concealed an unfortunate fact: the detection cell had a lifetime of only 3–5 days. Under strong UV radiation, the minute quantities of impurities in the fiber-optic cables begin to agglomerate, and UV transmission through the laser-welded cables soon dropped off, rendering the cell useless. The project engineer assumed this problem could be solved, but before he could proceed further, we were dismayed to discover that the money generated by GC column sales that had been supporting both column manufacture and the spectrometer development was insufficient to cover our total expenses. This was an immediate crisis: there were insufficient funds to meet a looming payroll, and J&W was teetering on the brink of disaster.

The spectrometer project was closed, several employees on that project were discharged, a refund was issued to the one prospective buyer, and the lease on the new building canceled. I was 61 at the time, and my wife and I had just finished paying off the mortgage on our home in Davis, California. With her unflagging support, we went to the bank, and from a very weak bargaining position, signed over almost everything we had. This drastic action enabled us not only to fund the payroll, but also to obtain a line of credit so GC column operations could continue. Fortunately, column sales boomed, and we were soon an extremely profitable company that could — and did — negotiate much better terms with the bank. I then realized that I simply lacked the time to function as both a full-time professor and an entrepreneur. I petitioned the university for "phased retirement," specifying 50% professorship, 50% retirement, which they granted. This not only relieved me from the "outside salary" prohibition, but I naively assumed that my academic teaching load — which was one of the heaviest in the department — also would be reduced. Unfortunately, that load remained constant. I then asked for 90% retirement. This, again, was granted — and again, my teaching load remained constant. On July 1, 1989, I fully retired from the university. In retrospect, the university has always treated me well, and my relationships with them are still strong. In 2000, I was given their Award of Distinction.

By mid 1986, J&W was producing approximately 50% of the world's fused-silica GC columns, about a quarter of which were privately labeled for other companies. It was at this time that Fisons, a British pharmaceutical firm that was diversifying their operations, made us an offer we couldn't refuse. On the last day of 1986, the sale was consummated and I was asked to stay on as a consultant while my partner decided to spend more time with his family. My duties remained much the same: participating in national and international scientific meetings, writing papers, and presenting seminars and teaching courses in GC, much of the latter in support of our many domestic and foreign distributors. Life under Fisons was relatively pleasant, but 10 years later two of their top pharmaceuticals were removed from the market, and they succumbed to a hostile takeover from Rhone Poulenc. As J&W was their most profitable section, it was held to the bitter end and then auctioned. Supposedly, I headed a J&W management buy-back; actually, I was merely a figurehead, pushed out in front by Saratoga Partners, a group of investment bankers that succeeded in buying J&W. But investment bankers normally turn their properties over every 3–5 years, and Agilent Technologies, newly split-off from Hewlett Packard, made J&W their first acquisition in March 2000. Again, I was asked to remain as a consultant, and I continued in that role until June 30, 2003, when my wife's Parkinson's disease began tightening its grip. I retired at the age of 81; my wife and I enjoyed another four years of companionship until she died on August 31, 2007.

As I reread this document, I must acknowledge the contributions of the many, many individuals who have influenced and helped shape my life. Through my 35 years in academia, this would include graduate students, post doctoral scholars, other academicians, and industrial contacts. Through my 30 years in industry, I was buoyed up by friends, colleagues, and contacts with attendees at seminars, courses, and other meetings. At J&W, we succeeded in maintaining a "family-oriented" company, with two or three gatherings a year. The summer gathering was usually a barbecue in a local park, and included organized games for the children — with an abundance of prizes. On Thanksgiving and again at Christmas, each employee received a free turkey. Christmas parties were held at a local hotel and a Christmas bonus was standard. The winner of an "Employee of the Year" award (funded by the company, but handled entirely by employees — no administrative input) was awarded a two-week vacation, two airline tickets to anyplace in the U.S., and $2500. All of this fostered a strong team spirit that served us well. Each of these employees has touched my life, and I still enjoy close relationships with a great many of them.

In full retirement, I still get an occasional GC question in my e-mail, give a few local seminars, write a few papers and participate in some Agilent events. Fortunately, Agilent returned my key card, making it possible for me to visit the plant which still houses many old friends and colleagues; former graduate students — many of whom are now themselves retired — drop by fairly frequently. I also maintain good contacts with the university, with many former colleagues and coworkers, and a number of commercial enterprises. I can at long last own a dog, now that my traveling days are over, and I was fortunate enough to find a beautiful five-year-old long-haired golden retriever that now demands my constant companionship and insists on going with me wherever I go. When I have a dental appointment, Sadie curls up in the corner; on visits to the plant, she sits with the receptionist. While our house is far too commodious for one old man and a dog, we are very comfortable. Our yard abuts a wild undeveloped section of Folsom State Park, where Sadie, who has become very territorial, happily chases deer, raccoons, and turkeys back into the park, and simply ignores the coyotes that occasionally howl at our back fence. Both of us are content.

Dr. Walter Jennings

Dr. Walter Jennings has pursued successful careers in both academia and industry. He is an Emeritus Professor of the University of California, where he completed a thirty-five year career on the Davis Campus. He constructed his first gas chromatograph in 1954, and authored a number of books on chromatography. He has also served as editor for several multi-authored books, and published some 300 scientific papers.


(1) A.T. James and A.J.P. Martin, Biochem. J. 50, 697 (1952).

(2) N.H. Ray, J. Appl. Chem. 4, 21 (1954).

(3) E.I. Ilkova and E.A. Mistrykov, J. Chromatogr. Sci. 8, 390 (1970)

(4) R. Dandeneau and E. Zerenner, J. High Res. Chromatogr. 2, 35 (1979).