Amethyst Technologies Turns International Experience Into Domestic Success
Amethyst Technologies, based in Maryland, provides development and compliance services and offers products that support the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, healthcare, and food and beverage industries. Kimberly Brown, chief executive officer of Amethyst Technologies, is a long time U.S. Commercial Service client and has experience with multiple services including client counseling and the Gold Key Service. The company has also been awarded multiple federal contracts and has successfully exported to regions throughout Africa.
Brown discusses the challenges of exporting and keeping a business afloat during COVID-19. Additionally, she offers advice to Black entrepreneurs concerning the value of mentors – especially as it pertains to securing financing.
Amethyst Technologies is a woman and Black owned business.
Title: Amethyst Technology Podcast Transcript | Date: Feb. 8, 2021 | Duration: 34:41
[00:00:01] Host: On this episode of Export Nation, we speak to Dr. Kimberly Brown of Amethyst Technologies. Amethyst Technologies provides development and compliance services and offers products that support the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, healthcare, and food and beverage industries. The company has also been awarded multiple federal contracts, and has successfully exported to regions throughout Africa. Kim, good morning. Thank you for coming on to Export Nation podcast just to discuss some of your successes and what your company has done, and what you’ve been able to accomplish. We can start with the basic question, and if you could tell me a little bit about your company and about yourself
[00:00:49] Kimberly Brown: Good morning. Thank you for having me on this podcast. My name is Kimberly Brown, and my company is Amethyst Technologies. I started Amethyst 15 years ago after working for a small business called Cell Systems that had a contract to provide validation for the US Army’s vaccine program. I was in grad school at the time and started this part-time job, which turned out to my career. After working for nine years for the small business, we were providing engineering services for vaccine development, quality assurance services for compliance to FDA regulations and for sterility assurance for vaccines.
I started Amethyst with one employee and one very good client, US Army, Walter Reed. From that, we were able to expand overseas and run the US Army’s Malaria Research Program in Africa for eight years. With that project, that took us overseas and opened up the whole world of export to a small business.
[00:02:24] Host: How did that opportunity come along?
[00:02:26] Kimberly: Basically, we’d shown success in supporting the vaccine program. We were approached by the head of the Malaria Research Program because US Army had a failed clinical trial due to inaccurate diagnostics in Tanzania. We were brought on, originally. It was a 1-year project to improve the quality of malaria diagnostics in 16 role healthcare facilities in Tanzania. With the success of the project, it went so well, it turned into eight years. We were able to support restarting the vaccine research program, trained a thousand healthcare workers, set up centers of excellence in malaria diagnostics, HIV diagnostics.
It was really a pivot for our business because we were engineers. Then we ended up running a global health program. From there, we expanded to various other projects in about five or six African countries and also in Iraq.
[00:03:39] Host: Then how’d your journey begin with us? Because it seems like your exporting journey just began through this process. Now, when did your journey with the US Commercial Service start?
[00:03:25] Kimberly: We started private sector engagement after running the Malaria Research Program when the Ebola outbreak happened, that’s when we clearly thought that our expertise and diagnostics would be an advantage to implementing private sector initiatives in health. 2015 is really when we expanded from providing services to the US government to exporting our expertise in the private sector and also other governments other than the US government. Then also, I was appointed to the President’s Doing Business in Africa Council in 2016, which is under the Department of Commerce. Also, with that appointment, was further engagement with Department of Commerce.
[00:04:49] Host: Let’s talk about Africa a little bit. Sometimes there’s a little hesitancy in dealing with Africa, but it seems like a majority of your exports happen in Africa. Is that correct to say or do you also export to other countries currently?
[00:05:04] Kimberly: Everything has been in Africa. For us, because we’re in health, we looked at, “Where is the opportunity? Where is the market for our services? Where, frankly, do we enjoy and feel fulfilled in what we’re doing?” Africa was the place that we were able to make an impact, serve a market need, leverage the resources that we had, the contacts that we had to expand and provide export services to the markets.
[00:05:47] Host: How do we help you in terms of sales or in terms of new client acquisition? What would you say is our primary role?
[00:05:55] Kimberly: We’re a small business. As a small business, we don’t have a team that focuses on exports, we don’t have in-house counsel that knows all the rules and regulations of the countries that we work in or targeting. We go to commerce first. Looking at any potential market, we go to commerce first. We work with the local commerce in Baltimore, which is near our office. Then when we go into a country, we go to the embassy, we introduce ourselves and our work to the Commercial Service Office. That’s where we start.
Several times, when we’ve been looking for new local partners, we use a Gold Key search that commerce provides, which is very cost-effective, it’s very efficient, it’s very timely, and you can trust the information that you’re getting. Those are the things that we do routinely. Then non-routinely, we continue to have a good relationship with Commerce Department, commercial services, and all the countries that we work in and the countries that we’re targeting. We keep them abreast of where we are. Also we’ve had a few challenges about contracts.
We’ve engaged along those lines to get some information on what direction we need to go in, get some information on what the focus is going to be in the country, some kind of political risk information. We always work with commerce, and we think that’s really the strength for a small business, you can rely on those services, those expertise.
[00:08:09] Host: One thing you brought up, you brought up the Gold Key Service. Did you find that that was very helpful in terms of meeting your potential buyers or stakeholders that you would be working with? Did you use that service in that way in terms of going over there and meeting prior to setting up deals?
[00:08:27] Kimberly: Yes, I think it was very helpful because it gives you ability to get some information on the potential partner before you have an agreement. I think it’s definitely key to have that kind of research and particularly with the small business where you don’t have any other real avenues. It can really prevent you from making a wrong decision. Also, it can strengthen decisions that you have made or want to make because you have some key information that you can rely on and get a good picture of who that potential partner is, what they’ve done in the past, how much confidence you can have in this partnership, and is it a good fit.
For us, it’s about, “Is it a good fit? Do we have the same values? Can that person do what they say they’re going to do?” Because one of the things that we found is it’s very difficult to do business in a country if you do not have a strong local partner. We won’t go into a country or pursue opportunities without a strong local partner.
[00:09:54] Host: You speak a lot about relationships and relationship development. Now, don’t mean to pivot too much, but with the current year how have you found your ability to maintain those international relationships? Has it changed? What would you say, 2020, with COVID-19, how would you say that affected or impacted your business?
[00:10:19] Kimberly: Definitely, it’s impacted our business. Prior to the COVID pandemic, I travelled about 50% of the time overseas. I spent quite a bit of time in West Africa and East Africa. When the pandemic happened, travel stopped. With that, basically, we have to rely on our local partners because no one’s really travelling. While in the US, Zoom meetings and having meetings where you’re not face-to-face is very common way of doing business. In the countries that we work in overseas, it’s not as common, is much more challenging to do that. You definitely rely on the local partner.
For our business, what we also did because our expertise is in health diagnostics, we used our expertise to spin off a new company to do some of the same things that we’re working on in Africa with diagnostics and healthcare. There’s two things that have happened with us because of the pandemic.
[00:11:51] Host: Sure, elaborate on that. What were the things you were able to do and these are domestic, correct?
[00:11:58] Kimberly: Based on all the work we’ve done overseas in Africa, it uniquely qualified us to set up a diagnostics facility, and we did. We went to Western Maryland, which is a rural area that did not have a lab. In four months, we set up federal and state- accredited laboratory to provide high complexity testing. We service Western Maryland with COVID PCR test. We were able to use our export initiatives, our expertise, our contacts, even some of our partners overseas to quickly establish and set up the facility here. We use the business plan, we use overseas.
It’s been quite interesting. Even after the pandemic, our facility here will help us expand more overseas because we have more expertise, we have more resources, we have more partners, and we have the ability to duplicate what we’ve done here overseas. It’s quite interesting what’s happened.
[00:13:23] Host: That’s great news. I’m glad you were able to make that pivot. I know we see there are some companies struggling. It seems that companies who had an avenue of exporting just had another channel to conduct business. It’s very interesting that you were able to transform your exporting experience and use it domestically. I think one of the things we see with exporting is they normally help companies to create new jobs because I know you said you started with one employee and one good client. Where would you say you’re at now?
[00:14:02] Kimberly: We expanded to about 40 employees in 10 years. Now, we’ve created an additional 10 jobs in the last 6 months in Maryland, and we’ll probably add another 10 jobs in the next 4 months in Maryland. I think we’ve definitely aligned with what the US— The US really wanted to look at ways, for exporters, to provide services here and we’ve definitely done that. We’re excited about our future.
[00:14:44] Host: That’s awesome news, and definitely one of the stories we really like to hear. Out of those 40 employees, so the last few employees that came on board they were to support your domestic efforts. Is that correct to say?
[00:15:00] Kimberly: Correct.
[00:15:02] Host: Then the 40 that you gained over the year, how many of those would you say directly are supporting exporting?
[00:15:09] Kimberly: About 80% of our work is overseas, about 80%.
[00:15:16] Host: A question I wanted to elaborate on, your client, is it more so foreign government entities?
[00:15:27] Kimberly: It is. Our main clients are US government, foreign governments, and some private sector.
[00:15:37] Host: Could you talk to me about any export hurdles or challenges you’ve had to overcome?
[00:15:43] Kimberly: There’s so many challenges. Not just with export, with any business there’s so many challenges. For us, because we’re a small business and we typically compete against large organizations with what we’re doing when it comes to setting up laboratories, implementing health programs, pharmaceutical manufacturing, it’s usually large companies.
That’s the challenge, and that’s where our strong relationship with Department of Commerce helps us because while we may not have a department dedicated to exports and the legal ramifications and human resources overseas, we do have the US Commerce Department that can find us a local partner that has that expertise that can help us vet local partners, that can help us navigate changing rules and regulations overseas, change of government. One of the things I think that’s impacted us hands down the most is change of government.
[00:16:57] Host: Change of government here or change of government—
[00:17:00] Kimberly: No, overseas. We’ve had contracts that have been signed, and they didn’t move forward because a new government, a new president was elected, and they had a change of vision or something else happened. That happens quite a bit. That political risk is something that is very challenging for our business. Because you may spend two years working on a project and then the third year, there’s a new government after you’ve closed the deal, and then you have to start over.
That’s been one of the biggest challenges. Then access to capital overseas is another challenge because we’re a small company, because some of our clients don’t have the ability to pay for the services upfront. Having to develop different innovative ways of payment, of financing is the other major challenge we have.
[00:18:21] Host: Understood. You know better the political risks that you were discussing earlier. When those situations typically arise, do you lose the contract or do you have to readjust? What is the normal impact to your company during those times?
[00:18:45] Kimberly: It depends, in some cases we’ve lost the contract. In all cases we’ve readjusted because the one thing, what we do, we have a model that is it could be used any country. Like I mentioned before, we’re even using our model here in Western Maryland. What we really develop is a template for quality diagnostics, and that is something that the whole world is seeing. There’s a need everywhere for quality diagnostics. While we may invest time and effort in a project that doesn’t or didn’t move forward, we still always look at what we’ve gained, and we look at, “What do we do? What’s the next step?”
We’ve built partnerships that we can use in other places like the partnerships we use. One particular project that didn’t move forward, we’re using here in the US for this project. We really look at lessons learned, how do we stay true to our vision, our model, and then where is the next place that we can take this model That’s really what we’ve done. Even if a deal didn’t go the way that we wanted. Also, knowing when to move on. Because we’re a small business, so our time is very limited, our resources are also limited. We definitely want to focus our time and our resources in a place that is going to have the most return also.
[00:20:29] Host: Now, I want to go back a tad bit and just talk when the business was getting formed. Do you feel that as a black or African-American that you faced— were other struggles involved with developing a business? Because one that’s reported widely is access to capital. I know you mentioned access to capital regarding the overseas side, but have you found that to be the case with your business?
[00:21:10] Kimberly: Definitely, access to capital is a challenge, and it’s most challenging when you need it. One thing that we learned is don’t wait until you need it to try to access it. Access it when you don’t need it. When you have the strongest revenue, everything is in your favor, that’s the best time to really try to access capital. That’s one thing that we learned. Also, when we first started the business, I spent about five years preparing to start the business because I worked for a small business. I knew that the owner was going to retire soon.
I knew the time was coming for me either to start my own business or I would have to go and get a job. I started saving money, paid off my debt over that period. I was able to use my own resources to start the company, and then I started with a contract. Over those five years, I also was able to align with our client, had a good rapport with them.
When my boss retired, I was able to go to them and say, “I’m starting my company. We’re going to provide the same level of services that you [unintelligible 00:22:39] to over the last 10 plus years, and we want to provide those services.”
We were able to start with a contract. We started with revenue, and I was able to save money. Over the years, whenever we’ve needed funding, money, investment, it has been a challenge. What we’ve had to do is leverage mentors that we have to help position us in front of the right banks, that’s been helpful. To go to a bank and fill out the application, even now, I don’t recall ever doing that, and it was favorable. Definitely, access to capital is a challenge.
[00:23:33] Host: Do you think that the relationship— because you said filling out an application, obviously, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the loan. Do you think there’s still personal relationships that need to be developed with banks in order to have a better chance of securing funding?
[00:23:51] Kimberly: For us, our mentors, when we needed to access financing, I would go to a mentor, tell them where we are, what we needed. In many cases, a mentor either would, in some cases, maybe personally offer some support or refer me to a bank, a financial institution that they knew. That’s when we would have favorable outcomes.
[00:24:26] Host: Were you concerned when you first exported because it’s dealing with an overseas client, did you have any skepticism or hesitancy going overseas?
[00:24:42] Kimberly: Somewhat, but because of the foundation that we built here in the US and because we were going over with US Army, and that’s what I also tell to small businesses that I mentor or have talked to that if you’re looking at opportunities overseas, also, you may want to look at US government opportunities that would get you to that country. Because, for example, if you have a US government contract, and your target country is the UK, and it’s in the UK. You have this contract which gets you on the ground. It gets you past performance on the ground, it may get you an office there, it gets you set up, everything.
Because as a foreign business, you have to become set up in the countries that you’re working in. I think that is one way that small businesses can get their foot in the door overseas is first with either a US government contract or a private sector contract that is in that country. Many times, those opportunities exist because people are always looking for partners they trust, suppliers they trust, sub-contractors they trust, so that’s what we did. We went over with Walter Reed, we set up an office, hired local staff.
That’s really the only way we would have been able to export so soon in our business.
[00:26:26] Host: Now, you’ve talked about the satisfaction. You mentioned earlier— I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you have a sense of feeling satisfied with doing business in Africa. Do you have any memorable experiences or export-related experiences about doing business there?
[00:26:47] Kimberly: In general, being able to provide quality diagnostics in a place where there isn’t a lab, to me, that’s very rewarding. When we went over during the Ebola outbreak to Liberia, and literally, our team went on the last commercial flight to Liberia and was able to support the government there. We went at the request of the Liberian Government. It’s just very rewarding to be able to do those kinds of things. It helps you with your partnerships, it helps you in learning and being able to know how to respond to challenges, which any business, you have to be able to do that, overcome challenges.
Those are the things that on a daily basis we were doing, and it just became part of our core which enabled us, during the COVID pandemic, to set up a new business that in three months was accredited providing testing even during a pandemic. It’s just that constantly doing that all the time, it just enables you to move to the next level, go to the next country, solve the next very critical and important problem. That’s what we’ve been doing as a small business since 2008, which is the first time we went overseas.
[00:28:38] Host: Are all the countries— Maybe all this too much. Can you list a few of the countries that you work in?
[00:28:45] Kimberly: Sure, Ghana, Liberia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Cameroon, and Iraq.
[00:28:58] Host: Tell me who do you work with normally in the US Commercial Service?
[00:29:02] Kimberly: I have three, go to Ayesha Jones, Yolanta Kofi, and Carrie Esslinger. Whenever we have any needs, if we need any introductions overseas, there are three that we can count one to provide immediate response. You don’t have to wait.
Typically, they respond the same day to almost any request. They’ve really been extremely instrumental and our first points of call when we need help.
[00:29:40] Host: You dropped a few nuggets of wisdom throughout this conversation, which is really good and hopefully very helpful to our clients and to our listeners. Now, do you have any other pieces of advice just in general or even specifically to black- owned businesses, any advice you want to impart on exporting?
[00:30:06] Kimberly: Sure. With exporting, definitely being prepared. Understanding that it’s a significant commitment to export. Usually, it’s a marathon, definitely not a sprint. When you do look at exporting, really make sure you have resources on the ground. Particularly, now more than ever, where we see the ability to travel, the interest in traveling is probably going to be changed for a significant amount of time. A strong local partner that you trust, and that has the same values that you have is very important to your continued success in exporting. Also, really lining up the financial resources. They need to be lined up.
At the beginning, when you’re exploring the deal, “Who’s going to pay? How will they pay? How will I finance my invoices or my materials? How will I transport the goods that I’m selling? What are the laws?” Which is one thing, as particularly small companies, we don’t have a lot of resources to really fully understand what the export and import laws are. Really working with the Department of Commerce because you definitely don’t want to have any challenges as far as not following the rules and regulations for importing, exporting. Then the local country that you’re targeting, becoming very familiar with all their rules and regulations and their equivalence of Commerce Department in that local country is also something that is very key.
I think the last thing I would say is that export is really critical to the success of most businesses. As a global economy, if you look at how the patterns that large businesses have, if you look at e-commerce, definitely export is more and more critical. It’s something that I think most businesses should have some plan. You might not export today, but in your five-year plan export should probably be considered for most businesses.
[00:32:53] Host: Wonderful pieces of advice. Do you have any deals, any future prospects, anything in the pipeline? That you can discuss, of course.
[00:33:01] Kimberly: I do. In the pipeline we have a cancer center in Ghana, is in our pipeline. We have a laboratory, urgent care center in Liberia. That is in our pipeline at the moment.
[00:33:20] Host: Those projects you think will start soon or in the next year?
[00:33:26] Kimberly: Liberia has already started. The cancer center in Ghana, we hope that it will start this year. We are fairly far along down that road. Then the COVID pandemic happened, which has slowed many things. We hope this year that we can move that project forward too.
[00:33:50] Host: Tell people if they wanted to reach out to your company, where could they find you?
[00:33:55] Kimberly: Amethyst Technologies, amethysttech.com is how you find us. We look forward to continuing engagement with the Department of Commerce, with the business community in our area and with our global partners.
[00:34:17] Host: This podcast is intended to provide information that may be of assistance to you as companies. Statements made by Export Nation podcast guests reflect the views and opinions of that individual. This podcast does not constitute an endorsement by the US Commercial Service of the individual, his or her employer or affiliated entity. The specific information provided, resources mentioned, or products or services endorsed or offered by that individual and his or her employer or affiliated entity. The US Commercial Service assumes no responsibility for the accuracy, completeness or timeliness of the information provided by the guest or for the decisions made in reliance on any information provided by the guest in this podcast.
The information provided in this podcast does not constitute legal advice. Thank you for listening to this episode of Export Nation brought to you by the US Commercial Service. For more information on how you can get started exporting, please visit www.trade.gov.
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