By Judy Pickering
Four years into our 40-year marriage, I can recall Michael saying “I know I can improve amino acid analysis” with such enthusiasm it could only mean big things. He’d finished up his second post-doc and was working in industry – a startling contrast, to be sure, but moving every year was increasingly difficult with our growing family. So, we settled in the Bay Area permanently and he started first with Durham Instruments and then worked for Spectra Physics. At the time, amino acid analysis was taking chemists on the order of 12 hours per run! Reducing the run time to three hours was only the first of many developments Michael had up his sleeve.
Within the year, Michael left his job to start Pickering Laboratories with our flagship product: Trione®, our ninhydrin reagent. The first bottles were sent out to industry experts for evaluation, and became our ambassadors carrying with them our hope of building a successful business. I remember it was important to Michael for the bottles of Trione® to ship upright, because he thought of them as little soldiers marching off to the marketplace to do the job of defending his reputation and building our brand.
The early days of the business were challenging. Michael did all the phases of production, taking orders as well as all of the manufacturing, packaging and shipping. He even “hired” our two older kids to wash the bottles sometimes. I was working in corporate marketing at the time, so I would attend trade shows and help Michael network with potential customers. We didn’t want people to know we were such a small company, so I used my maiden name to give the appearance I was an employee instead of his wife!
When Michael would talk to chemists about Trione®, they would get so excited about this breakthrough reagent for amino acids analysis. We were always grateful so many people offered their advice and counsel just to help the enterprise along. It was rough-and-tumble for the first year or two, and every encouraging word helped keep us going.
Customer orders began building momentum, and Michael and I breathed a sigh of relief! Michael hired an additional 3-4 people on staff and I quit my job to help with administrative duties and expanding our marketing efforts. He determined there was demand for a post-column derivatization instrument, and the PCX5000 was born. Our earliest foray into instrumentation came as a benchtop kit, with standalone components including a pump, mixing system and reactor. Michael initially didn’t want Pickering Labs to be an instrument company, but we found that the instruments were needed to support the sale of our Trione® reagent and also the growing family of buffers we were selling.
Michael’s reputation for post-column expertise began gaining attention from other chemists whose applications were post-column but not amino acid analysis. As a result, Michael began to explore these other industries’ post-column needs. And when he developed Pickering’s OPA-reagent-based products for analysis of Carbamates and Glyphosate, he entered into the world of environmental testing and began working with EPA methods. Chemists who had previously been making their own eluents by following the EPA methods could now buy Michael’s ready-to-use buffers and purified reagents instead. And they kept reordering because of the quality and reproducibility that Michael’s chemistry delivered. He would even say that he would “guarantee the chromatogram” to any chemist using his products, which was unprecedented.
With the administrative/office duties securely staffed and the business looking more and more like a successful enterprise, I stepped back into a part-time role and focused on marketing. As our family expanded, my time also became more occupied at home (our two youngest daughters were born in the mid-80’s). By the end of the eighties, Michael was ready to hire additional staff to manage the business so he could really focus on his true passion: research and product development.
In fact, as I think about that time, the early nineties are when the company really started to take shape in its modern form. Michael added then-Operations-Manager Jim Murphy to manage the business in 1991 (Jim is our current President) and shifted fully into a technical role. They also hired a full-time marketing manager, and so I went to work soon thereafter for the Palo Alto school district.
Michael and his team evolved the PCX5000 standalone kit into the PCX3100 and PCX5100, our first fully-integrated post-column derivatization instruments. Michael also developed more post-column applications with the collaboration of EPA, FDA, AOAC and CDFA, all of which further expanded our chemistries and columns offered. Which in turn cemented our customer base and reputation for making the post-column instruments. The business experienced steady growth, and the PCX3100 and PCX5100 sold well and supported our chemistry sales exactly as we’d envisioned.
Pickering Labs celebrating its 35th anniversary is a wonderful chance for me to reflect on working so closely with Michael during the first ten years of the business. And I’d like to use our newsletter as an opportunity to introduce myself, or reintroduce myself to our long-time customers. After my retirement from the school district, I began getting involved in the business again and joined the Board of Directors in 2014. My work with the Pickering team behind the scenes isn’t very visibile to our customers, but I hope this gives us an opportunity to remember Michael together and that you enjoy my fond recollections (and new perspective?) of how Pickering Labs began.