October 10, 2012

What It Takes - Ken Rapp, Accelrys Inc., Milford

Matt Pilon

Ken Rapp has done what many entrepreneurs dream of: building a company from the ground up and selling it. But as he tells MetroWest495 Biz, he's nowhere near finished with VelQuest, the laboratory software firm he founded in 1999 and sold late last year for $35 million to California-based Accelrys Inc. Rapp will continue to manage his Hopkinton-based team, which next month will move to new digs in Milford that offer twice the space. Much has changed, but Rapp, now managing director of the company's analytical development and quality business segment, finds himself returning to the same thing he did when he founded his company: talking to customers and trying to solve their problems with technology.

What has changed for you and your 40-plus employees since the acquisition?

Back in 1999, what we did then is very, very similar to what we're doing now. We decided to start a company that was based on customer needs. We hadn't invented anything. We didn't have any software done. We didn't have a piece of hardware. We would discover what they thought what missing and then put a team together and work on it. What [Accelrys CEO] Max [Carnecchia] said to me is: Why don't we take this opportunity to go understand the market needs again and work on a product vision and strategy by going to the customer and asking them what's missing and what their needs are? I'm a one-trick pony and that's what I do. The last four weeks, I've been all over the world.

What have you found so far?

What we initially set out to do is still a problem. The paperwork for compliance dominates the laboratory arena. So the mission of VelQuest continues to be to automate those lab operations and provide value to them. But the world has changed in a big way in terms of the next problem set of unmet needs facing the industry. One is in externalization, the number of partners and collaborators the industry is working with, is significant compared to 10 years ago. The second thing is there are many standalone applications that have evolved and been required throughout the lifecycle of a product. And a problem with that is to be able to gain process understanding, which is really the Holy Grail, to be able to absolutely understand your process and then make improvements to sharpen the saw.

What will the new location in Milford do for your operation?

All the facilities will be modern. Accelrys is investing in our team. We're going to actually have very nice furniture and a very comfortable work environment for the team with pods where you can sit down and have a cup of coffee and work at a white board and places you have team meetings and video conferencing. And it will have a dedicated space for customers to come and learn about our products.

Building a company from the ground up and then selling it is a dream for many entrepreneurs. Would you be willing to share what that experience has been like for you?

I looked at a number of alternatives for the company. We were very lucky at VelQuest that we had good alternatives. But I didn't realize how good it could be to join a team of people with the same DNA. And that's why I'm here. Max and his staff and the team at Accelrys have the same DNA as the former VelQuest team. I think that if they didn't, it wouldn't be as much fun. And I may not been here. We really have a great solution that hasn't been communicated to the rest of the world and now we're in a position with Accelrys to bring it to the rest of the world, in addition to looking at what the new opportunity is.

What do you like to do when you're not working?

My family is number one. When I'm not working, we do a lot together. We have a house over in Sutton where we have a place on a lake and we like to fish. I water ski my brains out. There's a new thing happening since I joined Accelrys, which is I dusted off my guitar and I'm in a band. It's a classic rock band and were about to go out and play in some clubs and stuff. We're called the South Street band. We're doing The Who and Led Zeppelin and some more modern stuff like Adele.

What's one big lesson you've learned about managing employees?

A., you can't motivate people and B., you can't manage people. You need to create a common vision and a culture that will enable people to really want to grow and perform at their own pace. You unlock the power of the team. I'm the straw that mixes the drink. I've never had a job description. If I ever heard the words 'That's not in my job description,' that person shouldn't be a part of the company. Leadership is about principles and creating the environment and setting the bar very high. n

This article was edited for length and content by Matt Pilon.


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