New Mexico Business Weekly's 2010 Small Business Heavyweights

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, July 2010

 

Voss Scientific, LLC

Donald Voss works with something most people know little about, even though it makes up the majority of our universe: plasma. Not the kind of plasma you donate at blood banks; the kind that powers stars. 

For decades, physicists have tried to master the reaction that occurs within stars, which somehow churns out more energy than it takes to propel. If scientists can replicate this reaction, a process referred to as fusion, humankind could find itself with an endless supply of sustainable, waste-free energy. This is the mission Voss and his business, Voss Scientific, LLC, finds himself on. 

Voss started his business in 1988, a few years after completing a Ph.D. in physics at Princeton University. He had worked for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and then the New Mexico-based Mission Research Corporation but ultimately decided he wanted to work for himself. “I liked the idea that by starting my own business, there were no boundaries in terms of what areas of technology I could pursue,” he says.

He got off the ground with a contract from the federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research Program. Twenty-two years later, his clients include both Sandia and Los Alamos National Labs, Lawrence Livermore, Princeton and Ohio University. 

Voss Scientific sells a code called LsP that labs use to predict how plasmas will react under certain conditions. It also provides scientific, engineering and R&D support to its clients. Adam Sefkow has been a client of Voss’ for more than five years, first as a physicist out of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab and now as a senior member of technical staff at Sandia. He says he maintained his connection to Voss when he moved to Sandia because he knew “how important the code is.” “It’s a very powerful code and lots of people use it,” he says. “In the modeling world, it’s important to be able to evaluate problems without having to wait too long. LsP can be run on hundreds of thousands of processors at a time.”

But Sefkow says Voss’ services go beyond simply selling a license for the code—it also fixes any bugs that might arise right away, and it can collaborate on projects, increasing speed and efficiency. It’s that fact—that physicists work at Voss Scientific and not just IT consultants—that’s helped keep the company relevant, says Sefkow.

It’s true that Voss Scientific is going strong. It’s remained relatively unaffected by the recession—“Technology goes on with or without the recession,” says Voss. Because the projects the business works on are so longterm, it hasn’t seen any financial setbacks, making approximately $5 million last year, which is about what it’s made for the last three years. 

And that’s good, because it means Voss can keep trying to solve the world’s energy problems, one plasma experiment at a time.

 

Serafina Technical Consulting 

Brinda Ramanathan ran her first business when she was 12: She managed a small taxi company in India, where she grew up. The company actually belonged to her father; but when he had to leave for a couple years, he left the day-to-day operations in her hands. What that translated to was Ramanathan collecting money from people her father had hired to drive the taxis. “I collected the money, looked at the meter, paid the driver a certain amount of money,” she says. “I did that for two years for my dad.”

Ramanathan gave up taxicabs long ago, but she still runs a business—although this time, it’s her own. Serafina Technical Consulting started in 2002. Ramanathan was working as an engineer with the state’s Highway and Transportation Department at the time and noticed that much of the work at the department was done by contractors. Perhaps it was the entrepreneurial spirit instilled in her at the age of 12, but with her experience with environmental, traffic and highway engineering and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Missouri, Ramanathan decided to get a contract of her own. She started out part-time, but in 2003 she quit her job and went full-time, and a year after that Serafina became a corporation. 

Serafina focuses on air quality consulting, permitting services and environmental compliance. “You have to think of it as an environmental accountant,” says Ramanathan. “As you make money, you have to tell the IRS how much you made and pay your taxes.” She says the same concept is true for the environment. Every business has to tell the government how much it’s polluting and prove it’s obeying the law. And that’s where Serafina comes in—it helps businesses stay in compliance with pollution standards.

The company does that in a variety of ways. Ramanathan and her employees collect samples, perform technical analysis and computer modeling, and help businesses get permits. When sound levels on a highway cause noise pollution, Serafina designs noise barriers. When communities can’t afford the high cost of maintaining a landfill, Serafina analyzes other technologies to find the most efficient and cost-effective alternatives. In other words, the work Serafina does stretches far and wide.

When Ramanathan started her business, she did a lot of pro bono work to establish a reputation, and the tactic paid off. Her business has grown steadily, with clients like the Bureau of Land Management, the Environmental Protection Agency and New Mexico universities. Dorothy Knezevich, the owner of Howard’s Sand and Gravel, has been a client of Serafina’s for more than six years. Serafina has helped the company secure permits for placing portable crushers on its land and completed reports needed for the Army Corps of Engineers. “She’s helped us enormously,” says Knezevich. “Of all the consultants I have ever met, she’s the only one who does what she says she’s going to do.”

But despite Serafina’s successes, it still felt the burn of the recession. The company’s revenue dropped in 2008 and 2009, although it’s now on the rise again. To deal with hard times, Ramanathan had to cut costs, including closing Serafina’s office in Santa Fe. She and her four employees now telecommute. But she expects to open an office in Albuquerque in the near future.

 

WildEarth Guardians

John Horning says nature needs legal guardians. Like a child without parents, some one, or some people, needs to be responsible for it so it goes unharmed in a world rife with danger. WildEarth Guardians’ mission is to be that protective force.

The Santa Fe-based nonprofit began as Forest Guardians in 1989. At the time, the organization formed primarily to quell rampant logging in Santa Fe National Forest, says Horning, its executive director. The tenets of its mission have remained the same—to be guardians of nature and the public interest—but its scope has expanded. Once a purely New Mexico-based organization, WildEarth Guardians now works on environmental issues in 11 Western states, from New Mexico up to Montana. It also strives to protect of an array of wild animals, like the silvery minnow, sage grouse and Mexican gray wolves.

In fact, wolf reintroduction has become one of WildEarth Guardians’ largest campaigns. “It’s our vision is to see wolves along the spine of the continent from Mexico to Canada,” says Horning. But it’s not an easy task to accomplish, in part because wolves are known to occasionally kill and eat livestock, causing most ranchers to oppose the effort. WildEarth Guardians is developing a program that will compensate ranchers who retire their grazing permits for federal land. Although the program is not yet active, Horning is optimistic the organization will take “a big step” later this year toward that goal. Horning says there are currently only 42 wolves in the Southwest.

WildEarth Guardians is unlike most nonprofits in that it works across a variety of fronts. While other organizations focus primarily on either education, litigation, restoration or lobbying, WildEarth Guardians works on all of them, which keeps it in the loop at all levels. 

Dave Parsons has worked with the group for more than a decade, as the former head of the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program and now as the carnivore conservation biologist with The Rewilding Institute. He says the diverse methods WildEarth Guardians uses to tackle its issues is an advantage, allowing it to be aggressive in making sure agencies stick to agreements. “It’s a great group,” he says, “and it does great work on behalf of wild nature.”

WildEarth Guardians is coping well with the recession. Its budget grew from $1.2 million in 2007 to $1.9 million in 2009. This year, the organization hopes to reach $2.5 million—and so far, it’s off to a good start. Like most nonprofits, about 50 percent of its funding comes in the last quarter of the year, around the holiday season. And so even though it’s only received $600,000 to date in 2010, that’s still $100,000 more than it made this time last year. Horning says the boom is simply due to employees “working extra hard” to find money.