Pipeline's boost for entrepreneurs

Unlike most of the past six Wichitans to go through the Kansas Pipeline entrepreneurship grooming program, this year's crop of innovators has fully established businesses.

The innovators aren't sitting on an idea for disruptive technology, a product that no one else has developed. Nor are they actively looking for capital investment — at least not yet.

Brian Williamson and Gerry Rues have companies that are more than five years old and with buildings, equipment and employees.

They also have varying degrees of experience running and growing their companies.

Yet they said they have come to Pipeline for help. Help to figure out how they can grab hold of a bigger chunk of the markets in which they operate, and along the way add revenue and employees and possibly enter new segments of industry.

"They really want to figure out... how do we really scale this," said Pipeline president Joni Cobb. "Brian and Gerry are a little bit more similar to some of the guys we've had coming out of Kansas City, like Toby (Rush of Rush Tracking Systems) and Bruce (Ianni of Innovadex)."

Wanting help to grow

Williamson is a pharmacist by training. The Kismet, Kan., native started his career working as a pharmacist at a couple of hospitals in San Antonio. But the bulk of his career was spent instructing pharmacists on how to compound pharmaceuticals in a sterile environment for Professional Compounding Centers of America in Houston. He also was an adjunct instructor on the subject at the University of Oklahoma. He joined JCB Labs as a partner and its CEO a few months before its launch in 2003.

The pharmaceutical compounding company, at 3510 N. Ridge, provides what it calls "sterile injectables" — medicines that can be injected intravenously or into muscle — to ambulatory surgery centers across the country. It also supplies nasal sprays and irrigations, and other sterile medications and solutions, to health care providers and pharmaceutical companies. It employs nine people and does business in 41 states. Business in all of its segments is growing, Williamson said.

"I want to learn how to run the business smarter, faster, more efficiently, because they don't teach business in pharmacy school," Williamson, 39, said.

Rues started Electronic Sensors in 1984 in the basement of his home.

An engineer who worked in the flight test group at Boeing, Rues said he was presented with a product idea that led to the founding of his company, whose business is the manufacture and support of simple and complex sensors that monitor the levels of liquid storage tanks for companies in the lube and oils, fuel management and industrial chemicals markets.

The company employs 22 at a 15,000-square-foot facility at 2063 S. Edwards.

Rues' motivation for getting involved in Pipeline comes partly from frustration of being in an industry where neither he nor his competitors gain or lose market share.

"I keep saying, what is it going to take to be the dominant player in our market," Rues, 57, said.

He wants to take his company above $10 million in annual revenue.

"Obviously that would take quite a few more employees to hit the $10 million mark," he said.

Williamson and Rues began their formal, year-long Pipeline training last month.

Despite concerns about Pipeline's continued funding, Williamson and Rues said they are focusing on what they are learning from the program.

Pipeline receives the bulk of its funding from the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corp., which Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed in his fiscal 2012 budget to roll into the Kansas Department of Commerce. The proposal, which has been passed by the House, also calls for eliminating Pipeline's funding.

Cobb said she is "pursuing every avenue so we can ensure our program continues."

The first of four, three-day-long training sessions was on market validation, a concept taught by Rob Adams, an author, angel investor and entrepreneur. Market validation is a process of determining what a market really wants to buy, who makes up that market and whether there is enough money in that market to make it worth entrepreneurs' and investors' time and money.

"It's kind of solidified what our market is," Williamson said, and "it's key to executing a growth plan."

Trish Brasted, CEO of Wichita Technology Corp. and one of three mentors to Williamson and Rues, said both men "are in markets that have opportunities in front of them, and now's the time to get the resources behind them to grow."

Brasted said because they are seasoned businessmen, she's wondering if there aren't more like them in Wichita who could benefit from Pipeline.

"Hopefully we can take this model and figure out how we can do this for more Gerrys and Brians," Brasted said.