Therapeutic Dose: Chromatography Dreams

The sleek little column is a testament to two old friends and a dream they shared.

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By Paul Thomas, Managing Editor

There was a healthy buzz at last month’s Pittcon show in Orlando over a chromatography column called Primesep, a sleek little unit combining reverse phase and ion-exchange separation. Its makers claim that Primesep does what other mixed mode approaches in the past have failed to do — facilitate faster, easier, and more selective and reproducible separations for a variety of compounds.

A recent thread on Chromatography Forum (www.chromforum.com), where the diehard chromatography crowd hangs out online, calls Primesep the “biggest breakthrough in HPLC in 25 years!” The claim, by one of the column’s enthusiasts, might be exaggerated but has generated a fairly spirited discussion. Several chromatographers wrote in to say that Primesep, indeed, was a unique tool.

The column isn’t manufactured by one of the market’s major players, mind you, but by a little company called SIELC Technologies, Inc., out of Prospect Heights, Ill. SIELC (pronounced like “silk”) stands for “Shielded Ion Exchange Liquid Chromatography,” and also, “Science Invented by Efforts of Laid-off Chemists.” It’s really just a fancy name for two down-to-earth entrepreneurs from Russia, Vlad Orlovsky and Yury Zelechonok, and the friends and family helping them out to get a fledgling business off the ground.

Orlovsky (left) and Zelechonok


Whether it hits the big time or not, Primesep is a testament to two old friends and a dream they shared.

Yury and Vlad grew up in Ufa, in the heart of the Ural Mountains. Ufa was a classic Soviet industrial city, known for its chemical and petrochemical plants. Both Yury’s and Vlad’s parents worked in the industry, and it was natural that the two would pursue careers in chemistry themselves. They met and became research partners at the local university.

Ufa was home, but both men had dreams of getting out. (“It was a nice place, except for the five plants polluting the air and water,” Vlad recalls.) Vlad would often listen to the BBC on a short-wave radio and envision making a life in the West.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Yury brought his family to the Chicago area. Vlad followed suit a few years later. They both worked odd jobs, Yury’s to help pay for post-doctoral work at Northwestern University.

They eventually hired on at Monsanto, in the Searle Pharmaceutical division in Skokie, Ill. Yury was in analytical support, Vlad in chemical development. When Pharmacia bought Monsanto, and later Pfizer bought Pharmacia, it looked as if the two would be settling in for good long careers at the world’s largest drug company.

But Pfizer had other plans. It closed the Skokie plant in 2003, and Vlad and Yury were looking for work. They both had offers from firms out of state, but figured there was only one way to avoid future “terminations” — go into business for themselves. They picked the chromatography business.

Both men had experience and skills from their time at Pfizer, but not much cash. The solution? The Internet.

“With eBay and Google you can find anything you need at a fraction of the cost,” Vlad says. They located all the old, used equipment they needed for just a few thousand dollars, then converted an office space into a research lab and got to work. The pair assembled their first working LC system from $200 worth of parts found on eBay—a pump for $20, detector for $50, an autosampler for $40, and so on.

Then good fortune hit. Pfizer decided to auction off all the equipment from the Skokie site. Vlad and Yury got in touch with some old colleagues, and lucked into state-of-the-art equipment at pre-auction prices. Now their lab is a scaled-down version of a sophisticated Pfizer lab.

Still, they had already spent half of their termination packages. And they needed supplies as well. Vlad remembers looking through a high-end catalog. “Five-hundred dollars for a case of organic solvent? Twenty dollars for a liter of di-ionized water? Are you kidding me?” he laughs. Wal-Mart offered cheaper suitable alternatives—a gallon of rubbing alcohol at $5 and distilled water for 58 cents a gallon. For 99% of their needs, Wal-Mart quality is fine, he says.

The most difficult days for SIELC may be in the past. It has signed deals with several global distributors, and Primesep has found a home in more than 50 global pharmaceutical companies, large (including their old employer, Pfizer) and small.

The column has believers. “We’ve revived a multiple interaction chromatography that was abandoned and given it a fresh look,” Vlad says. The competition has taken note, he says, and copycat columns are in the works. Not to worry, Vlad and Yury have other technologies in the works, too.

And the two Russian friends aren’t afraid of a little competition. Their entrepreneurial baby, says Vlad, is now a toddler, “walking around and trying to see what else it can learn and create.”

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