Morrow reflects on career as a chemist entrepreneur


Undergraduate medicinal chemistry major

Published March 14, 2022

Janet Morrow.

Janet Morrow


A chemist entrepreneur is a researcher who uses their ideas involving the synthesis of compounds and advancements in the field of chemistry to develop new products for commercial use.

UB has a number of chemist entrepreneurs, including Janet Morrow, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Larkin Chair in the Department of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences. Morrow is also co-founder and chief science officer of Ferric Contrast Inc., where she is leading efforts to develop iron-based contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Last December, Morrow published a piece in the American Chemical Society journal Inorganic Chemistrytitled “Should You Become a Chemist Entrepreneur?” In this editorial, she acknowledges that while commercialization can be challenging, it is very rewarding if it leads to useful products that benefit the public good. She also details some of her experiences as a chemist entrepreneur and explains the process of technology transfer.

Of course, Morrow didn’t start out as a chemist entrepreneur. She had to work her way through the chemistry field to get to where she is today.

From when she was young, her parents encouraged her and her three brothers to attend college. It made sense for her to go to a state-funded school because the children were all close in age, and higher education can be expensive. It worked in her favor that she grew up in California, which boasts one of the best public university systems in the country. When it was time, she chose the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she studied chemistry.

UBNow recently talked with Morrow and got a glimpse into her journey.

How did you get into chemistry?

I’ve always liked science and engineering. My dad was an engineer, my mom was a nurse. My dad pushed us to go into STEM.

In college, I decided I was either going to major in engineering or biochemistry. After two years of biology and engineering classes, as well as chemistry, and then doing undergraduate research in marine biology as a sophomore, I chose chemistry. I felt that a good understanding of the basics of chemistry would serve as a springboard for interdisciplinary opportunities in the future. 

While at school, did you face any challenges?

You have to get accustomed to college-level courses. The first year was an adaptation but I managed to do well.

One of the drawbacks was adapting to a large university with large introductory classes. I took advantage of the university setting by doing undergraduate research in several different laboratories in the chemistry and biology departments.

When did you choose to become a chemist entrepreneur? How did you get started?

I was doing basic research in graduate school in inorganic and organometallic chemistry. I was a postdoctoral fellow in France (University of Bordeaux) and in California (University of California, San Diego), with a focus on basic research.

When I arrived at UB, I started working in the area of antisense oligonucleotides. I got into that area and was contacted by two biotechnology companies. I wrote my first patent when I was an assistant professor, and my lab was awarded funds for joint projects with Isis Pharmaceuticals. That was my first experience working with a company toward commercialization of a product.

I didn’t return to commercialization until I started research into MRI contrast agents, which is what we’re doing now. We wrote patents and landed funding for this area, and in 2017 I started a company. I co-founded it with Bradford La Salle, who is my business partner, and it’s called Ferric Contrast. We have obtained two STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer program) grants and funding from New York State, and are pursuing strategic partnerships with established contrast agent companies.

Janet Morrow (left), SUNY Distinguished Professor and Larkin Chair in the Department of Chemistry, co-founded the startup Ferric Contrast with Bradford La Salle (center). Patrick Burns (right), a UB PhD graduate, is the company's lead chemist.

 Janet Morrow (left), SUNY Distinguished Professor and Larkin Chair in the Department of Chemistry, co-founded the startup Ferric Contrast with Bradford La Salle (center). Patrick Burns (right), a UB PhD graduate, is the company's lead chemist. Photo: Douglas Levere

How has your journey been, starting your own company? How long is the process of producing new compounds?

It is very time-consuming. It’s a race to get the best compound and find the right commercial partner.

It starts with designing a compound and figuring out how we’re going to synthesize the compound. We do a lot of chemical synthesis, including the organic part of the contrast agent and then adding the metal ion. The contrast agent is a metal ion inside of an organic cage. Chemical synthesis and purification are time-consuming.

Since what we’re preparing has to eventually be tested in people, it’s going to be very expensive. We have to find a company to partner with who will fund a lot of that.

It’s never easy to come up with something that will work on a practical level. It’s been a lot of work to get funding, and it has involved a lot of brainstorming to come up with new ways of doing things.

It is really rewarding to see the pieces of the puzzle come together. I have enjoyed the opportunity to meet new people, including radiologists and entrepreneurs who have a different viewpoint than the traditional academic researcher.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Several faculty in my department have asked me about commercialization funding, so there certainly is interest in this topic.

My editorial was written to help these and other faculty decide whether to pursue commercialization of their inventions and to become aware of the resources available to do so. UB has resources on campus to help introduce people to business and entrepreneurship.

How can people go about finding these resources?

National agencies such as the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health have programs to help academic scientists learn how to commercialize their inventions. These are called I-Corps, and UB also hosts an I-Corps site program.

At UB, faculty can contact the Technology Transfer team to get started with disclosures of their inventions. Any time you want to do something entrepreneurial you have to get patents on your work. You have to patent everything before you can publish it, otherwise you can’t commercialize it. Also, the Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships office at UB provides resources such as funding and help connecting with industry partners.