Spontaneity in Business: Or, How We Got Lab Equipment as Pricey as a New Car

Two weeks ago I was browsing the internet after work hours, daydreaming about having enough funding to buy a 4x4 vehicle to support our fieldwork.  On an online auction site, I found a functional Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (ICP-MS) listed for the shockingly low price of $36. This is an exceptionally useful piece of equipment. An ICP-MS can analyze the composition of all types of matter ranging from tissue and hair samples to rocks. They pop up in toxicology work, at companies looking to comply with OSHA regulations, in the radiometric dating of rock samples, and in the pharmaceutical industry. Typically, they retail for between $40,000-60,000. An ICP-MS was so far out of the budget for Blueprint Earth that owning one had never crossed my mind.

My first thought was about what we could do with the machine from the perspective of a geologist working on Blueprint Earth’s Mojave Desert field area. Date all the rocks!!! We work across multiple scientific fields, though, and there are numerous other ways we can use the ICP-MS to help us refine our cataloging efforts and create a much more accurate picture of our environment. With our own ICP-MS, we could avoid the high cost of paying an outside lab to process samples for us.

Behold, the wonders of ICP-MS!

Behold, the wonders of ICP-MS!

However, as excited as I become about different opportunities for BE, I’ve learned to temper my enthusiasm with a healthy shot of reality whenever I reach “extremely thrilled” levels about anything. I made a list of Pros and Cons.

Pros of Buying a Ridiculously Cheap ICP-MS

o   Advance Blueprint Earth’s mission and save money by processing our own samples

o   Give our student volunteers valuable training on how to use the ICP-MS

o   Earn money for our research by processing samples for outside scientists/groups

Sounds awesome, right? Take my money now, GSA Auctions! But wait, there are some interesting Cons to consider here.

Cons of Buying an Enormous Piece of Specialized Lab Equipment

o   Have to pay for the purchase, even if the winning bid is relatively cheap

o   Need to transport it from its location in Spokane, WA to Los Angeles

o   Must set up a lab to use it properly

o   Need to find a place to keep it in until we can open a lab

As a nonprofit CEO, I’ve had to learn to balance the energizing, visionary moments with ice water-filled buckets of “no, we can’t afford that now.” This instance was no different, but the obstacles from my Cons list were mostly readily surmountable. My co-founder Carlos and I decided that we could afford to bid for the machine out of our own personal funds, to a certain amount. We could donate the ICP-MS to Blueprint Earth if we did win it, which would preserve the money BE has received from donors for our field research. I own an SUV with a tow hitch, so I could make the drive to Spokane, rent a trailer, and bring our new machine home. I also have a weather-proof storage shed that’s currently filled with a mix of BE’s field gear and random personal effects. The theoretical ICP-MS had found temporary quarters.

The remaining, harder to quantify Con of setting up a lab is going to be the real challenge. However, BE’s network of scientists is strong. Their collective knowledge of how to set up and maintain a working scientific lab will be invaluable to getting our ICP-MS running. Blueprint Earth will be able to provide hands-on laboratory training opportunities for students in addition to performing our own sample processing! And hey, we can potentially earn money to fund our research by performing sample processing for outside groups. Having a sustainable source of income would be tremendous for our nonprofit.

We won our bid for the ICP-MS, and now we have a new set of challenges to meet in order to make this a success. Without flashes of spontaneous inspiration, however, we’d never be at this point. While we have new challenges, we now have a whole host of new opportunities that were non-existent just two weeks ago. One of my cardinal rules in life and business is that you make your own luck, and this applies here as well. The true value of spontaneity in business is the creation of possibilities. The creation of possibilities is at the very heart of nonprofit work. If you’re not opening doors for others, then you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t have enough money to build a door just yet, cut a hole in the wall. Eventually, you can build a nifty swinging bookshelf in that hole. Spontaneity with a dash of planning will get you everywhere.

Time to wrap this up. I need to prep for the drive to Spokane to pick up a Mass Spectrometer. 

Jess PhoenixComment