Bhaskar Venepalli is the President and Co-Founder of CiVentiChem, a specialized chemistry services company located in Cary.
“CiVentiChem is a small to mid-size contract research organization,” explains Venepalli. “We provide drug discovery services for pharmaceutical biotechnology companies. In addition, we also provide other chemistry related services such as chemistry synthesis and manufacturing services to companies. So we are a pure service business model.”
CiVentiChem was launched in 1994 as Universal Organics when Vasu Chittineni, a research assistant at Duke University, set off on his own. Chittineni, who is now Chief Technology Officerof CiVentiChem, teamed with Venepalli to invest $20,000 to get the business off the ground. The company’s name creatively combines parts of both founders’ last names.
Early on,Chittineni worked solitary hours fulfilling contracts with companies such asGlaxoSmithKline, while Venepalli remained a silent partner, keeping his full-time job as a business development manager at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York. Venepalli joined CiVentiChem full-time in 2000.
The company started slowly and did not hire its first full-time employee for two years. In 2001, CiVentiChem got a big break when DuPont awarded it an important research contract.
CiVentiChem then quickly ramped up, increasing its employee count and establishing a laboratory in Hyderabad, India, where it could complete chemical analysis work. That location has grown rapidly and currently employs around 80 people. CiVentiChem also has a plant in Hyderabad that supplies large volumes of chemicals. The North Carolina lab location has 15 employees, most of which are Ph.D. level organic chemists.
Both CiVentiChem founders are natives of Hyderabad, and they point out it’s less expensive to establish manufacturing operations there. The overseas location offers clients both the benefit of a quicker turnaround and cheaper cost, though they can choose to have their work done locally as well.
Venepalli came to the United States from India in the early 1980’s. He grew up in a very small village where education was a rare opportunity and most young people were expected to go into agriculture. Venepalli walked four miles to attend high school, where he excelled at his studies and was able to go onto college and then obtain his Master’s in Chemistry.
After his post-graduate studies, Venepalli says he was lucky to land a job with Eastman Kodak. As a research scientist there, he knew he was good at his job but soon realized it wasn’t easy to move up through the ranks.
“The only way I can do what I want to do is do something on my own,” Venepalli says he learned. “So in 1990 I decided I should do something on my own, and then I was trying to figure out what can I do with a chemistry background? I had to figure out, how do I learn business skills for a synthetic organic chemist? I’m pretty good with people and a hard working guy, so I thought I would take a shot at it.”
Venepalli credits his role at Eastman Kodak with providing him some of the early hands-on business training he needed to be able to later start his own company.
“When I decided to get into the business side, coming from a foreign country, it’s not easy,” says Venepalli. “I was trying to find an entry, and you do that by working at a company or doing some business, and in a large company you don’t get an opportunity as easily. Eastman Kodak had a chemical division where they did a lot of contract manufacturing. I was lucky enough to find a job that grew as a business development manager, so that way I understood how business development works and how business is done.”
CiVentiChem works with many small biotech companies as well as with some mid-size and large pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer. Venepalli says that CiVentiChem currently works with half of the top ten pharmaceutical companies active today. A few of its clients are based in the Triangle Area, but more are on the East and West coasts, as well as in the Boston area.
The company does not advertise its business, so its clients come through word of mouth and then often remain as longtime, ongoing clients. In today’s competitive environment, however, customer loyalty can be a struggle.
“I think the biggest challenge for our size business is getting the customers onboard and hanging on to them,” explains Venepalli. “The reason is because we are in a service business. We work in a very tough, challenging research environment. Many times things don’t work, and our biggest challenge is when things don’t work, how do we explain to customers so that they’re also convinced that we are doing our best?”
The culture at CiVentiChem is one that balances teamwork with individual challenge. Venepalli relates that daily at 10:30 am, all the scientists come together for coffee to talk over chemistry problem solving.
“It has to be interdependent, otherwise it’s very difficult for us to go in different directions,” he says. “So I think the key is to manage the processes properly so we all put our efforts and resources together, and then each of our scientists has their own project. At the level of our sophisticated research,we don’t have 10 people working on the same thing. It’s not like making a product in a plant. It’s more of everybody at their own operation.”
Venepalli says that developing its own chemical products may be in the near future for CiVentiChem. This would be a challenging and highly competitive endeavor, but providing both the product and service would give the company a significant leg up.
Currently, both the company’s Indian and U.S. sites are growing. It is hiring chemists in the U.S., where the company is equipping itself with kilogram-scale manufacturing capabilities that comply with the Food & Drug Administration’s Good Manufacturing Practices. In Hyderabad, the company plans to develop a second manufacturing location, since the current site is fully utilized.
Hard work and growth clearly do not daunt Venepalli, but he is humble regarding his success. This humility is an Indian cultural norm, he explains.
“I believe hard work, sincerity and good ethics are it,” says Venepalli. “I think without those three that nobody can be successful, in my opinion. They might be successful for a short time, but it will be temporary.”