By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Vig Sherrill described his third start-up, a company named Healthspex, in his characteristic fashion – “it was a whole lot of fun” – but added, “We never got the chemistry to work as well as it should have.”
The fun in no small part was related to his two partners – Charlie Barnett, a local physician and entrepreneur, and Bill Malkes, a colleague in ASIC International and two more of Sherrill’s seven start-ups.
“I had fantastic people to work with,” Sherrill said of Barnett and Malkes. He extended the praise to all of his colleagues in every start-up, a praise that is frequently returned by these same individuals.
Healthspex was focused on DNA processing, commercializing a technology referred to as the “lab on a chip.” It was developed by Tuan Vo-Dinh, a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who left in 2006 to join the faculty at Duke University.
“Our goal was to develop a machine to rapidly identify different pathogens in the body,” Sherrill said. “It was an utterly fascinating technology.” Healthspex is now Nano Detection and is in clinical trials for their first commercial product.
By 2005, however, the entrepreneurial itch caused him to leave Healthspex and co-found a company called TradeWind Technologies with Doug Yeager, an individual whom Sherrill described as “absolutely brilliant” and Bill Malkes. This time, the focus was on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)technology.
The start-up designed, developed, manufactured, and sold RFID readers as an attachment to Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and mobile phones. Their alliance lasted about a year before Canada-based Sirit Technologies acquired TradeWind.
“That technology is now used all over the world,” Sherrill said. “We had a lot of fun.”
Next up was Quercus, a company aptly named for a Latin word referring to a species of tree. It was his only non-technology start-up and, by Sherrill’s own admission, it was a mistake.
“I needed to stick with technology,” Sherrill said.
Quercus was founded with Ian Dafferner, an entrepreneur and lumber jack, to harvest pine trees infested with the pine beetle.
“It was a whole lot of fun, but I didn’t know the industry,” Sherrill acknowledged, adding, “It’s a tough industry.”
For his sixth start-up, Sherrill came back to technology and partnered with Bill Malkes to found Aldis Corporation. The company focuses on providing innovative traffic management systems.
In an earlier teknovation.biz article, Malkes told us the duo had the idea for Aldis for about a decade, but “the cost of (computer) processing made the project impossible at inception of the idea.”
Fortunately, Moore’s Law – the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years – proved fortuitous, and a breakthrough came in December 2006 that allowed the partners to proceed with the idea.
The Sherrill-Malkes partnership is based on mutual respect for each other. Sherrill describes Malkes as the disciplined, business-focused individual.
“I don’t know how other entrepreneurs do it by themselves,” Sherrill says in describing how he has relied on Malkes through four start-ups.
Today, Malkes is Chief Executive Officer of the company now named GTI-Aldis where its GridSmart® traffic management system has been deployed in 30 states and 22 countries. Sherrill disengaged from day-to-day activities at Aldis several years ago, although he remains on the Board of Directors.
These days, Sherrill is fully consumed with his seventh start-up – General Graphene. We’ll explore this innovative and relatively new technology in our next article in the series.