James KornackiCo-Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Üllo
“Understanding that there’s a human element to all the decisions that you’re making is the biggest departure from science and was the biggest initial challenge for me that I had to learn very, very quickly.”
After collecting several hard science degrees, navigating the NUventure Challenge, and launching a successful Kickstarter, James Kornacki is ready to deliver. By February 2016, pre-ordering customers will have his wine purifier, Üllo, in their homes and stripping sulfites.
Upon observing his aunt’s sensitivity to sulfites, and later his own, Kornacki saw a gap in the current market, and decided to create his own product. He developed a sleek design that doubles as an optional aerator to regulate manufactured sulfite levels in wine to naturally occurring levels while maintaining other necessary compounds.
Can you talk about your background and what led you to Northwestern?
During the second year of my PhD at the University of Chicago, my advisor took a faculty job at Northwestern. I had already collected my master’s [degree] and he said, ‘We’re going to Northwestern.’ I was really happy for a change in venue. Northwestern had pulled ahead in the rankings just a little bit in Chemistry, so it was sort of a directed call on my part, too. I finished up at Northwestern about three years after that, and here we are today.
I think I knew I wasn’t destined to be a bench scientist. I think I could have been happy getting an industry job, but there are fewer opportunities that you initially expect when you go into this field. In hardcore science, they’re really pretty limited, so I thought I’d try something new when I have time in my life and very little to lose. I’m very satisfied with where it has gone.
How did the conception of Üllo come about?
I was aware of this problem because I have an aunt who’s sensitive to sulfites. I realized later, after drinking a lot of hard cider, which is really high in sulfites, that I’m sensitive, too—although not to the same extent that she is. It’s not something I had dwelled on a whole lot, but rather it came from sort of a thought experiment into what I could use organic chemistry to solve. What practical problems are out there? What I had been studying in the lab might have practical applications one day but it was something that really only a handful of people in the world understand. To derive a practical application from something so focused is really challenging. I thought there has to be some things that just haven’t been addressed yet. As it turned out, it had been addressed, but it was addressed using some very obvious chemistry that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because that chemistry will take sulfites out but it will take out everything else too, so I think people just called it quits. When they thought they had a solution and it didn’t work, I don’t think anyone thought beyond that to what else could be a solution.
And the name?
The name means ‘pure wine.’ And I say that after a whole lot of thought went into creating a name for the product. The "u" with the umlaut comes from a symbol that alchemists use to describe purity, which looks like the u with the umlaut. We took that symbol and made a name around that symbol, as a way of reflecting my stories as a chemist in a brand that stands for purity.
Coming from a science background, what drew you to entrepreneurship?
I would say the variety, or the perceived variety in the work—and also the ability to chart my own course, which I think is sometimes misunderstood in science. People probably classify scientists as followers who sit in location and do what they’re told, but that’s not how science is at all. Science is driven almost entirely by curiosity, or at least it should be. And if you’re a good scientist, you’re self-directed and you really are operating very independently. So, in many respects, entrepreneurship is really the same thing. People think entrepreneurship is glorious and it’s just a wonderful job, and it can be, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time, like science, it can be really isolating, because you are the one who has to make the decisions and the ramifications fall back on your shoulders, the same way they do in science. So there are a lot of parallels there; it’s not as much of a departure as people think. Fundamentally, the departure comes from understanding that the business world is really much more social than the scientific world, and it operates on social values, and that was something I had to learn really quickly.
What are some of the biggest learning curves you’ve faced since starting?
Understanding the language of business, because it’s very different than the language of science. It’s less black and white than my world, which tends to be very black and white. Understanding that there’s a human element to all the decisions that you’re making is the biggest departure from science and was the biggest initial challenge for me that I had to learn very, very quickly. And I hope that I did.
What role did the Farley Center played in your journey?
A critical role, an absolutely critical role. Starting a business is not a level playing field at all, it’s really unfair. And to some extent that’s okay because there’s a Darwinian aspect to it that I think is critical to business success. At the same time, if you don’t have access to resources like the Farley Center, you’re at a real disadvantage, so the benefit I got was the chance to work with students to help develop my marketing plans and then to work with amazing advisors, Mike Marasco being the crown jewel of the bunch.
Did you take a NUvention Course at the Farley Center?
I did but I was the client in the course, working with students who decided they wanted to help me develop my marketing plan. So I worked with NUVention Nano to develop and really refine the value proposition, and it’s where we established that the product is restoring wine, that we’re not just taking sulfites out, but rather we’re restoring the natural purity. Then, I was part of a marketing class where students helped me develop a plan for getting the word out about Kickstarter and making that a success. So two classes, both orchestrated by the Farley Center.
So when you got involved with NUvention courses, you’d already come up with the concept?
Yeah, I had done the NUventure challenge and that was the launch pad to everything thereafter, because it got me acquainted with the Farley Center and just accelerated from there. So that competition made me focus my business plan and put things down on paper and it got me my first money— five thousand dollars, which was enough to file my first patent, which gave me enough leverage to start getting investment everywhere else. So within a year, I took a five-thousand-dollar investment and turned it into at least a five hundred thousand business, and it all started from the NUVenture challenge. One year. Who knows where we’ll be next year? Maybe five million.
So you did the Kickstarter and announced it to the public, have you gotten any feedback since then?
Surprisingly, no. In fact, I’m doing an update today for everyone, because it’s been like crickets, and the communication with our backers is very important so we want to keep them apprised of all of our manufacturing processes in hope that we can deliver by the time that we can. And so far, so good, but of course that can change. And if and when it does change, our backers are going to be the first to know.
And do you have any advice for aspiring young entrepreneurs?
Find the stability you need in your life, first and foremost, to be able to commit fully to your idea, that’s the hardest part. Committing, after you have the stability.
And where do you see Üllo progressing in the future?
We’ve had a lot of interest from restaurant groups that believe their customers really would like to have pure wine. So right now we’re focused exclusively on delivering this to the consumer but we see this application in the restaurant business, as well as an interesting commercial application for wineries who sometimes need to regulate the amount of sulfites they have in their wine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.