I had the pleasure of interviewing James Kornacki, PhD, the “Chief Wine Revolutionary” of Üllo, a first of its kind product and market leader for removing sulfites from wine. James founded Üllo after learning his aunt was sensitive to sulfites. He invented the company’s technology while completing his doctorate in chemistry, holds four patents on the subject, and is the author of several scientific publications.
Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?
When I was twelve years old, I remember my aunt turning away a glass of wine at a family Christmas party. Her doctor said she couldn’t have it because of the “sulfites.” Back then, nobody knew what sulfites were, but I remember being intrigued. That moment stuck with me for a long time because at that age I had this bizarre fascination with chemistry and here was a tiny chemical, sulfites, causing someone I knew to change her habits. Fast forward a decade, and I found myself working on my doctorate in organic chemistry — suffice it to say, I never grew out of my fascination with Chemistry. But I loved it, and I knew I wanted to use organic chemistry in a practical way, and to hopefully turn a business out of it. I also had the misguided belief that successful products and businesses needed to be something new or that had never been done before. That’s when I thought of my aunt. With my experience as a scientist, I knew I could solve the problem of sulfites in wine. I set up a small lab in my Chicago apartment and spent the next 18 months developing a polymer that would capture sulfites without disrupting a wine’s natural chemistry. That became the Selective Sulfite Capture™ technology which is the magic of the Üllo brand today. Fundamentally though, what drove me to be a founder is also what drove me to chemistry — incessant curiosity and a fascination with the unknown.
Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Üllo has created something truly inventive in an age where almost all new products are innovations of existing ideas. That really sets us apart. I remember Üllo attending its first international trade show, the Home and Housewares show in Chicago. I had just finished graduate school and six years in a chemistry lab, so this was my first experience in the world of consumer products. The displays and booths put up by well-known brands were dazzling, but while walking through them, I couldn’t find a single, new product. Not one! Everything on display was just a new color, new material, or new shape of an existing product. I knew then that our new technology would mean we always stand out.
Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Believe it or not, the Üllo Wine Purifier that we launched on Kickstarter and stock on shelves with the national retailers like, Sur la Table, Bloomingdale’s, and Best Buy is the same as it was from day one. Our designs really got it right the first time, which I have come to understand is rare, especially for a product concept that has never existed before. We’re now engineering a second-generation product — one that makes the Pure Wine experience even more intuitive, accessible, and enjoyable.
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Flatland. This short book is about anthropomorphized, two-dimensional shapes that begin to realize there’s a third dimension. It’s kind of like The Giver we all read in middle school, where people living in a black and white world begin to see color. It’s the perfect allegory of entrepreneurship.
Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
(1) “Advice is abundant, but good advice is scare.” This comes from one of my most trusted advisors, Michael. When I was starting Üllo everybody seemed to have advice on what I should or shouldn’t do. Michael helped me realize that advice isn’t created equally, and just because it comes from someone richer or more successful than me doesn’t mean it’s good advice.
(2) “Business is about thinking ahead and planning for the future but life, however, can only ever be lived in the moment.” This lesson comes from Ekhard Tolle’s, “The Power of Now,” which another trusted advisor, Verinder, encouraged me to read. For a while, the job of running a startup was running my life and I needed this simple idea to bring things back into perspective. Every entrepreneur needs to make sure they still make time for life and all of its joys or else the reasons for their company can start to vanish.
(3) “Nothing is a crisis.” In the same way that you have to live life in the moment, you have to realize that in the scheme of life nothing is a crisis. Üllo’s COO, Jim, is a consumer products guru. During his thirty years of experience, he has seen it all and from that he’s taught me that things can be broken, things can go wrong, but nothing is a crisis.
(4) “People are full of different talents and passions” I met Joe, Üllo’s CTO, while finishing my PhD. In addition to being a registered patent attorney and chemical engineer, he is a certified sommelier. He can blindly taste a wine and tell you its varietal, region, and often times its vintage within a year or two. Until I met him, I thought this practice was smoke and mirrors, but I’ve since learned that people are capable of talents and passions that are as unique as all of humanity.
(5) “Always take the high road.” In reality, the lesson is that, “the great think about taking the high road is it imparts more velocity to the stones you throw from above.” Not surprisingly this comes from our top-notch Chicago attorney, Matt. No business is without its moments of conflict, especially when you are a start-up working with lots of independent partners. Thanks to Matt’s guidance, we’ve always tried to take the high road and appeal to noble virtues. I firmly believe this has helped us resolve virtually all of our disputes amicably instead of “lawyeringup”.
Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Wendy Williams. I have to ask her, “how you doin’!?” I have her on every morning when I hit my inbox, and it’s the only thing that gets me through the onslaught. Aside from her therapeutic effect on me, I’m amazed by her story. She has a self-made media empire and has ventured into consumer products with a successful clothing line. And honestly, who would be more fun to have lunch with?
— Published on June 27, 2018