Small Business of the Year runner-up
FUENTEK LLC Headquarters: Apex President Laura SchoppeEmployees: Nine salaried and 21 contractors Founded: 2001 Projected 2011 revenue: $1 million Business: Technology-transfer services
Laura Schoppe cut her teeth far from the quiet street in Apex where she now lives and works. “After graduating from college, I worked in the defense industry doing missile-plume intelligence as part of the Star Wars program,” she says of her time tracking faint disturbances in the sky half a globe away. Now she’s president of Fuentek LLC, where she and a stable of nine employees and 21 consultants turn clients’ ideas into moneymaking products and businesses.
Fuentek is based on a simple premise: Brilliant minds often have tunnel vision. Potentially lucrative findings and inventions collect dust at academic institutions and government agencies because their creators don’t envision their commercial viability. Moonbase Alpha, an online game commercialized in part by Raleigh-based Virtual Heroes Inc., and solar-powered refrigeration that keeps life-saving vaccines cool when electricity is unavailable are just two gems uncovered by Fuentek.
Schoppe, 49, graduated with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and engineering/public policy from Carnegie Mellon University in 1984 and a master’s in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University in 1986. (She would earn an MBA from UNC Chapel Hill in 1998.) Her first job out of school was with Princeton, N.J.-based SciTec Inc. A stint of submarine- and surface-combat research and development with Fairfield, Conn.-based General Electric Co.’s aerospace division in Syracuse, N.Y., followed in the late ’80s and early ’90s. She and her then-fiancé left for a better climate and high-tech jobs in North Carolina. She worked for Research Triangle International — now RTI International — for about eight years before launching Fuentek in 2001.
The low startup costs associated with a virtual business benefited Schoppe. “It reduced my risk on capital because I don’t pay rent anywhere and don’t have overhead most businesses would have. I started in my bonus room and spent $4,000 on furniture and computers.” By the end of 2001, she had four consultants and a share of a two-year, $3.3 million contract with what’s now New York-based Deloitte Consulting LLP, helping the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign filter through more than 700 technologies its scientists had developed, abandoning unproductive patents and generating revenue by increasing licensing activity. Fuentek doesn’t stop once an idea with commercial potential is identified. “We market the technology and help with deal negotiating and valuing the deal,” Schoppe says. “Not everybody is good at marketing. Some are better at analysis. We ensure that we’ve got the right person at every step of the way.”
Being a virtual company does bring a set of challenges. “We walk a tightrope between keeping high-quality staff engaged and committed and not being able to promise them 40 hours of work every week,” she says. There are also revenue concerns. Fuentek’s biggest client, NASA, cut its spending with the company from $1.1 million in 2010 to $414,000 in 2011 after lawmakers failed to pass a federal budget. She worries that sequestration could do further damage.
To keep the money flowing, Schoppe has expanded networking efforts with training webinars, blogging, Twitter and LinkedIn. She also has lobbied Capitol Hill to fund more technology. All of that cost about $400,000 in 2011, but it had started to pay off by late this year. She has signed four new university clients and had three more pending.
But at the end of the day, growth is not the goal. “We’ve walked away from large contracts,” Schoppe says. “If they don’t match our mission and culture of wanting to do ethical, high-quality work, we don’t take them. We’re not chasing the dollar. We don’t want to grow to the point where we lose our culture, where we’re so large, we lose what we’re about.”
— Edward Martin