James Kornacki just received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Northwestern University and is setting out to revolutionize the wine world with his company, Üllo.
Üllo makes wine products that selectively remove sulfites from wine. Sulfites are typically used to keep wine preserved during bottling and storage. Without sulfites, wine can’t survive the trip from the vineyard to your glass. However, ingesting too many sulfites can have negative health effects, and some people experience sulfite allergies or sensitivity.
Kornacki’s Üllo products work like filters, but interact specifically with sulfites by forming bonds with them. When wine is poured through, sulfites stick to the filter and they are retained while everything else flows past unaffected. This means consumers can enjoy their wine in its natural state without worrying about sulfite preservatives.
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Why did you start your business?
A couple of decades ago I became aware of sulfites at a family Christmas party. I was about 12 years old and my aunt Linda turned away a glass of wine because of the sulfites. She said her doctor said she couldn’t have wine because of the sulfites. We were all wondering, “What are sulfites?” It stuck with me.
I was always a science dork and super-into chemistry. Sulfites were something I was always thinking about. When I was finishing my education in chemistry after about 9 years of doing research, I thought about this question and wondered if I had the resources and knowledge to solve this problem. I did crazy-sophisticated stuff in the lab at Northwestern that, ultimately, only a few people in the world really understand. While I was really engaged in that work, I wondered if I could do something more practical. I wanted to solve this problem of sulfites in wine, and I did!
How did you get the funds to get going?
I started the business when I was a grad student. When you’re in grad school, you’re really poor, so the prospect of taking out loans would have been an impossibility.
I financed the business by showing some traction after becoming a finalist in a business plan competition. I was generously supported by a few Chicago-area angel investors who I primarily met through Northwestern’s network. These angel investors believe in the concept and believe in me.
Have you heard of business credit?
Yes. When you’re starting a business and you’re really committed to something, you have to weigh the risk of using your personal resources. I didn’t have personal resources at the time to risk. If push came to shove, I could understand why you would use personal credit to get your business started, but you have to understand the risk of having to pay that money back.
Once I was funded, I opened a business credit card, and that’s been useful in making purchases.
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Managing the Business
What’s most challenging about running your business?
There are so many moving parts and so many things that come up every day. It’s paramount to find alignment among everyone you’re working with so you can communicate your objectives in a way that makes sense and is effective.
How do you finance your business to manage cash flow or growth?
That’s a premature question, because we haven’t begun production yet. Therefore, we don’t have cash flow coming in. My job right now is to manage the outflow of cash to ensure it’s not entirely depleted (or anywhere close to that) before we have a positive revenue stream.
Do you use trade credit from your vendors or suppliers?
What’s the smartest thing you did in your first year?
The smartest thing I did was to recognize how “not smart” I was in certain areas and to get counsel and advisors to complement my own deficiencies. Surrounding myself with smart people who were good at the things I wasn’t good at was critical.
What’s the most rewarding thing about owning a business?
Not being forced to wake up to an alarm clock every day. Although, sometimes it does mean getting by with less sleep, nonetheless.
What does the future look like for your business?
We’re super-excited to get the product out because it’s the first of its kind. There’s no product anywhere in the world that can selectively remove sulfites from wine. We’re excited to change the wine world.
Long-term, we’re excited to change the way we’re drinking wine to respect the fact that wine is pure naturally and should always be pure.
What advice do you have for someone starting a business?
Know that you really want to do it, because the hardest thing is fully committing to the journey. You can’t be successful until you fully commit. And fully committing sometimes means taking things out of your life that could be a distraction to your goal, which can be hard.
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