By Tim Kelly
The Technology Center at Innovation Park, home to Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania, Magnitude Instruments, and other start-ups. Photo by T. Kelly
After experiencing endless frustration and months of effort attempting to acquire useful data from a home-built transient absorption spectrometer, Eric Kennehan, his former advisor John Asbury and co-inventor Christopher Grieco came up with a better, faster, cheaper solution, but didn’t think they could commercialize it. Ben Franklin Technology Partners and the Happy Valley tech business ecosystem helped prove otherwise. Kennehan shared his experience, his advice for other startups and what’s next for Magnitude Instruments as it expands sales globally.
Without Ben Franklin there's not a chance that the company would even be around today. They've been absolutely integral in our success.
“There was no company before Ben Franklin. We were not starting a company. It was not anything we were interested in, because it just seemed like this barrier that you couldn't overcome. We didn't even know what questions to ask.”
One of their Penn State contacts suggested they take the 10-week TechCelerator course from Ben Franklin Technology Partners. “Through that TechCelerator process, what I learned was it's not that hard to start a business-- it's hard to make it successful. Without Ben Franklin there's not a chance that the company would even be around today. They've been absolutely integral in our success.”
“They essentially gave us a roadmap that we needed to follow to get things started. Without that, again, it wouldn't have happened. We knew the technology, but we knew nothing about business, knew nothing about commercializing a product. We had the idea, but then Ben Franklin really helped us execute that idea.”
“Sales!” Kennehan quipped. “We started getting traction early on, 2019, 2020,” he continued, “and then COVID happened and slowed everything down. We overcame a lot of hurdles through that process and now things have turned back on and we're seeing our sales double or triple year to year. That gives you a ton of confidence.”
They essentially gave us a roadmap that we needed to follow to get things started. We knew the technology. We had the idea, but then Ben Franklin really helped us execute that idea.
He said he realized Magnitude Instruments was viable, “our second or third year of business, when we were selling multiple systems per year that’s when I really was like, okay, this is something that people really do need, that we can really market.”
Disruption in a box: The Magnitude Instruments enVISTA™ spectrometer system.
Disruption in a box: The Magnitude Instruments enVISTA™ spectrometer system. Photo provided.
“There's not one thing that you can really put your finger on… I would say it's the whole support system, the whole network. Without that, without the numerous advisors that I've been introduced to through the entire ecosystem , I don't think we would be successful.”
I think the most important lesson is persistence: you stick with what you believe is going to work, what you really believe in and what you're passionate about.
To launch and grow their business, Kennehan and his partners received help and support from Invent Penn State, the Penn State Research Foundation, Penn State’s Office of Technology Management, and the Penn State Happy Valley LaunchBox in addition to Ben Franklin Technology Partners. Support services included help with patenting their technology, accounting, human resources, and the legal aspects of their business.
“I think the most important lesson is persistence: you stick with what you believe is going to work, what you really believe in and what you're passionate about. You're just going to have to stick to it.”
Kennehan added, “You can't be afraid to fail because that's going to slow your success. One of my advisors with Ben Franklin told me, ‘Listen, you're going to make mistakes, you're going to make bad choices, but at least make them 100%. You can't make timid decisions. And if you fail, fail early and change directions or pivot.’”
“This year we're expanding our sales globally, which has been a huge undertaking.”
He continued, “We're going to continue to build better spectrometers. We have a lot of great ideas to improve our TA spectrometers, at least another order of magnitude, if not more, so that we continue being the leaders in transient absorption spectroscopy.”
He added, “I really see the company becoming a staple in optical spectroscopy. There's potential to introduce new products that aren't only based on transient absorption. There are many other optical spectroscopies that we could go after, leveraging our expertise and expanding our company and our products to support scientists.”