Kevin Theisen | Chemist Profiles
Kevin Theisen took an unlikely path to becoming a software entrepreneur. Although his parents were both professionals in the field, Theisen notes, “I myself was never terribly interested in computer programming growing up. My father had urged me to pursue computer science in high school, and I kind of did it on the side. I remember thinking that it was cool to be able to create a program on a calculator that solved equations for me, but that was as far as it went.”
Actually, Theisen was more interested in the field of organic chemistry, and specifically in the study of renewable energy. In college he also started working with NMR spectroscopy, and grew to love the technology. “I saw it as a puzzle where I could view molecules in ways that I couldn’t with a microscope, and it provided me with an interesting way to work with chemical structures.”
And then, Theisen had his epiphany: what if he could create software that could predict the spectra he observed with NMR? “Because the spectra are so specific for molecules,” he recalls thinking, “we should be able to generate rules to create them from the structure.” So he did, and that is when he was able to embrace his interests in chemistry and fell in love with programming. He began to explore other areas of interest, including graphics and informatics.
In 2007, he released his first commercial product for chemical graphics and publishing, ChemDoodle, on the Internet. It was an immediate success, as he could instantly reach users around the world on a low budget.
Fast-forward eight years, and Theisen’s brainchild has blossomed into something he couldn’t have imagined. His ChemDoodle software is now in its seventh release, and his company, iChemLabs (www.ichemlabs.com), has formed partnerships with such organizations as Microsoft, ThermoFisher, Cengage Learning, and others, as well as distribution arrangements with a variety of corporate and academic organizations.
In addition to its flagship ChemDoodle brand products for chemical graphics and informatics, early this year the company released an enterprise solution for building intelligent chemical systems called ChemStack. More recently, iChemLabs has developed two additional new end user products — a bioinformatics data system called BioTuple, and ChemDoodle 3D for working with and creating advanced 3D scientific graphics (both launched in August 2015).
What is your major responsibility in your current position?
My major responsibility is to keep everything running at iChemLabs where we create cheminformatics software. My job entails many different things, from programming to meetings to marketing. Every day is different.
Please describe your typical day on the job.
There isn’t really a typical day on the job. It can include working to resolve issues customers are having with our products, talking with my VP or CBO regarding sales trends, working with a developer on a project, teaching interns, or participating in interviews. I wear a lot of hats, and have to be able to move from one activity to the next, usually repeatedly throughout the day.
Typically, how many days each month do you spend away from your workplace on travel?
Typically, I spend one week a month away. Sometimes the travel is business-related, and other times it’s for pleasure.
What apps/software/instrumentation/tools can't you live without?
This is an easy one: ChemDoodle. I certainly cannot live without it.
What is your work environment like?
iChemLabs is a distributed company, with employees around the world. So we all work from home offices. My work environment is tailor-suited to what I do. It is optimized for getting work done and is ergonomic. Health is very important to us, so having the right equipment to enforce good posture is essential. Especially for programmers, bad posture leads to back and neck pain, as well as acid reflux. My relationships with my employees are very good and I work hard to keep everyone healthy and happy.
How many hours do you work in a typical week?
In terms of sitting down and working, depending on the situation, it can be anywhere between 20-80 hours. Of course, as an entrepreneur I am always thinking about my company, and constantly coming up with new ideas.
What do you like most about your job?
I like that I am solving a real need for access to quality chemistry software among students; there was a serious lack of access to such essential resources when I was an undergraduate.
What is your best productivity trick?
I like to talk to users of my software and hear what they have to say. It is often inspiring and helps guide me in deciding what to do next.
What's the best career advice you've received?
Maciej Haranczyk, my advisor at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory when I was at UC Berkeley, noted one busy summer that I should take a break or I would burn out. Of course, I ignored that advice and eventually burned out, and it was not a fun experience. So I now take that advice to heart and stay aware of my current workload and stress levels. It is important to keep things balanced, as it keeps me energized, happy, and able to do my best work.
What personal talent or trait makes you a great fit for your job?
I guess it would be my spontaneity. I like to take on new challenges and try new things every day. This helps me cope with unexpected problems, and then work toward solutions.
How did you find your first chemistry-related job after you graduated from college?
I founded iChemLabs while I was an undergraduate at Rutgers University. I never had a formal chemistry related job.
Is there anything that you wish you had done differently when you were an undergraduate student?
I’m happy with the decisions I made as an undergraduate. While not everything worked out, both the successes and failures helped create who I am today.
As an undergraduate did you complete any undergraduate research experiences? If so, what did you do? How did you benefit?
I worked in two wet labs as an undergraduate, and was really glad I did. It exposed me to that type of work, and I realized I did not like doing it. Of course, I am fortunate to have had those experiences, as they helped me confidently choose my own path early on, and now give me insight into the decisions I make for my software company.
What is your favorite ACS resource?
This would be the Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling. Succinctly, it is the best journal in my industry, and all the material interests me.
How have you benefited from being an ACS member?
I have been an ACS member for 5 years and have found it to be an invaluable resource for networking and finding professional solutions. iChemLabs also helps individuals from various parts of the ACS with their software needs. I'm looking forward to ACS Publications accepting our software file formats.
iChemLabs is a distributed company, with employees around the world. So we all work from home offices. My work environment is tailor-suited to what I do. It is optimized for getting work done and is ergonomic."