On Skellig: Why I Started my Company

Skellig was started in 2010 with a very simple idea: try to take care of engineers.

I always wanted to start and grow a company. I spotted my opportunity to begin when I saw how some fellow engineers and myself felt like we weren’t empowered to help solve engineering problems. Instead, we were expected to fall in line, do what we were told, and not to ask questions about why things are the way they are. “Be thankful to have a job” seemed to be the maxim.

I remember reading the following quote from Howard Schultz before I read his book, Onward

“You can’t expect your employees to exceed the expectations of your customers if you don’t exceed your employee’s expectation of management.” -Howard Schultz

I don’t think we’ve cracked the code and done everything well in the eyes of everyone. However, coming back to that quote years later, what I have learned is >don’t try to be all things to all people. Figure out who you are and what you stand for.

The best you can do is to explain your vision for the future. Be as honest as you can about it. This is the best way to let people who might be better off in another company make that choice for themselves. More importantly, it’s the only way to cement a team around a common goal.

I have big plans for Skellig. I want to see it empower engineers to be the best professionals they can be. My role as leader is to build them a stage to perform on.

In any venture find the right people who believe what you believe. Then figure out how to exceed their expectations. Onward!

Make Biotech Factories “Off-the-Shelf” Products

Making the case for a new facility to manufacture a pharmaceutical or biological product is a tough process. The new facility will be built as part of an arduous capital project.

This is a messy process, to say the least. As automation engineers, we see a highly fragmented set of suppliers from instrumentation, electrical components, field bus technologies, automation platforms, automation integration, and validation.

As engineers in this industry, I feel like we live in an alternate universe sometimes because of how we collectively get to the end goal.

Too Many Components, Too Many Services

For non-engineers, it’s like if the personal computer industry didn’t exist and instead everyone that wanted a computer had to build their own.

Instead of walking into a shop or ordering a computer online, imagine you had to know all the individual components that made up the computer. You then had to choose from multiple vendors who to buy each component from… and that’s just the hardware.

Now for the harder bit….

Software comes as a platform so you can’t just get your factory ready to go. You need to pick an automation system. You then need to hire someone to integrate that system.

Still not done; next all of the work has to be validated. It has to work the way you said it would, so you will need a large amount of time and money for testing what you have just engineered and built.

Now that it’s tested, you can call it qualified.

How Might We Move Ahead

I wonder whether we could learn from the personal computer industry and so many other industries that build complex systems. We need to steal the idea of productized services. Imagine biotech factories available off-the-shelf.

Good artists copy, great artists steal

– Pablo Picasso

Many would say “No, it can’t be done. It has to be this way. It has to be as complicated as it is. Because each bioreactor and each piece of purification equipment is similar but different enough to justify waiting 2 to 5 years for a finished facility.”

I disagree. We need to build facilities so they can be browsed and slightly customized in the way you might customize a new car. I imagine a future where you visit the show room. You pick out the set-up closest to what meets your needs and you pay a little extra for the customizations you need.

Why Xerox Didn’t Dominate the Personal Computer Industry…

…and why I believe none of the current automation equipment manufacturers will dominate the next generation of biotech facilities. Hint: product people are key.

Xerox developed some very cool stuff when it founded PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in the 1970’s. It was a tour of PARC where Steve Jobs was shown three things, but he says “I was so blinded by the first that I didn’t really see the other two”. This was the graphical user interface with a mouse for human-computer interaction. The other two, by the way, were object-oriented programming and a network of over 100 computers, all able to allow users communicate via email.

So why didn’t Xerox dominate the personal computer industry? Jobs was asked this question and he said it was actually something he thought about a lot and came to an answer on the topic years later. I found his take very interesting and applicable to a lot of industries, even our own.

Problems with Monopolies

He said he saw it first with John Scully (Apple CEO in the 80’s who came from Pepsi).

“What happened with John at Pepsi is they would change the product every 10 years or so and to them a new product was something frivolous like a different size bottle. So if you were a product person you didn’t get to influence the direction of the company very much. The influence came from sales and marketing. They were the ones with the biggest say and therefore they got promoted and ran the company. For Pepsi, that was fine. However, what’s really interesting is the same thing can happen at tech companies that get monopolies, like IBM and Xerox. So, if you were a product person and you make a better copier, so what! When it’s a monopoly, it’s mostly the sales and marketing people that can make the company more successful. So the product people get driven out.”

I feel like this is our industry, not very innovative
and monopolies last for decades with very little product improvement. I think we need more product people making decisions in our field.

Steve Jobs said “People running this kind of company seem to have no understanding of what makes a great product and they have no real feeling in their hearts about wanting to really help the customers…. Xerox was run by toner heads who had no real idea of what they were looking at. Had they realized this, Xerox could have owned the entire personal computer industry today”.

Empowering Product People

I would argue our industry might be better served by providing comprehensive solutions. We can build fully functional factories where software and hardware are standardized, built together. We need to move away from the paradigm of projects with all sorts of engineering consultants trying to manage the mess. We need products that a company could stand over.

As consultants and engineers who build things, we need to come together and build what we know the market needs, better ways of getting high quality product out the door, sooner. With less time and financial investment. Only product people like us can do that. We have to build it, and constantly doing custom projects integrated together by the end-user is not the way to do this.

The best results will come when we consolidate our offerings into one holistic package where the client’s new facility is 80% done on day one!

Then we get to control the continuous improvement process and drive real product innovation… Together!