Chris Myatt is the CEO of Precision Photonics Corporation in Boulder, CO, a company he founded with his wife Sally Hatcher in 2000. Precision Photonics Corp. develops precision optical components, coatings and assemblies for the telecommunications, aerospace and defense, biomedical, and semiconductor industries. He also guided the incubation of mBio Diagnostics, a subsidiary of Precision that develops low-cost medical devices. Chris earned a BS in Physics and a BA in Mathematics at Southern Methodist University, and a PhD in Atomic Physics at the University of Colorado. As a graduate student he worked with Carl Weiman on the Bose-Einstein Condensation (BEC) project for which Carl received the Nobel Prize in physics in 2001. After graduate school he went on to a post-doctoral fellowship at NIST in Boulder working on ion trapping. In his spare time Chris enjoys cycling and hockey.
Here is an excerpt from my interview with Chris:
What do you consider your biggest career achievement?
Getting Precision Photonics Corp. to where it is stable and makes money and gives us the freedom to start a medical diagnostics business has been a huge achievement. We started PPC in 2000 and were profitable in 2006. We made a number of missteps and had some major challenges in 2007 and 2008, but recovered from them. We were able to turn a profit in 2009 and should be doing very well in 2010.
What are the top skills that enabled this achievement?
It was not a brilliant business plan and it was not luck, because we had a lot of bad luck. The biggest thing has been perseverance. My wife and I have a lot of our money tied up in the company and so do our families. When you have that level of personal investment it’s “Never Say Die.” We have had two very close encounters with death [of the company] and several near misses and I think many other people would have given up.
Another important thing is an attitude about the time you invest. When you are running your own business, there is a blurring of the boundary between work and personal time. My wife works at PPC as well and it consumes 80%-90% of our time. I learned about this at an early age from watching my dad. He was a self-employed dentist and worked a tremendous number of hours. If something went wrong with the business it didn’t matter if we were planning to go to the beach – it was, “Come with me; we are going to go fix the plumbing in the office.”
It’s also very important to focus on the problem at hand and not waste time on non-critical details. My dad was a very practical thinker and I picked that up from him. This attitude worked well in graduate school with an advisor like Carl Weiman. His opinion was if you are getting more than a B in your classes you are not spending enough time in the lab. Every physics student wants to talk about electrodynamics and field theory, and other cool things but his attitude was “Get back in the lab and get the experiment working.” Graduate school also prepares you for the blurring of personal and work time that I mentioned before.
Once I jumped into business and realized the problem at hand was that a paying customer expected me to deliver something to them, it wasn’t so hard to make that transition.
How do you feel that your science training has contributed to this success?
The science training means that I can do this all in a technical field. It lets me play in an area where I have an advantage.
Sometimes I consider it a disadvantage, however, because it makes it harder to be a good salesman. I try to maintain a perspective on why my work would matter to my grandma. I figure if my grandma can understand my business plan it is actually probably a pretty good one. I know so many details about our technology that it is harder to give a clear, cogent description that my grandma would understand. I can also see so many ways we could improve on what we do, but we can’t make all the improvements due to other non-technical constraints.
Solving a problem in the real world has constraints far beyond just technology. That’s only one of about 30 axes that matter. For mBio what really solves the problem is an adequate level of technical performance, delivered in Africa, this year, with approval from the ministry of health, and at a specified price point.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, read more in my book “Turning Science into Things People Need,” available in paperback and Kindle.
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