Northwestern doctoral student James Kornacki looked at the boxed wine in his kitchen and considered a question: Could he use his chemistry expertise to remove the sulfites that can cause headaches for wine drinkers and affect the taste?
Many wine lovers, including members of Kornacki’s family, struggle with a sensitivity to sulfites — preservatives used in food and beverages. Kornacki drew from his research experience in the lab, where he was studying the biochemical properties of antioxidant wine compounds. While completing his doctorate, Kornacki set up a homemade lab in his apartment and created a polymer technology to remove free sulfites from wine and restore it to its original, from-the-vintner purity and taste. The purifier also doubles as an aerator, boosting flavors in red wines.
“Resin inside our filter captures just the sulfites. We can remove them without messing up the wine chemistry,” explains Kornacki ’15 PhD, who founded Üllo in 2014. (The “Ü” in Üllo is a reference to a symbol used by alchemists to describe purity.)
Kornacki, Üllo’s CEO, refined the idea as part of the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s NUVention: Nanotechnology course and then participated in the NU Venture Challenge (now VentureCat), a student pitch competition where he won $5,000 — enough money to file for a patent and launch his search for investors.
By 2016 Üllo was shipping purifiers to consumers. Its filters are available online and with major retailers, including Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table and at select Costco locations nationwide. Kornacki is also working with restaurants and wineries.
Kornacki, who lives in Miami Beach, Fla., says he knew he wasn’t cut out for a job as a bench scientist and wanted an opportunity to chart his own course.
Kornacki said in an interview with the Farley Center. “And if you’re a good scientist, you’re self-directed and you are operating independently. In many respects, entrepreneurship is really the same thing.”
Kornacki acknowledges that combining his chemistry expertise with his business ambitions was initially a challenge, especially when it came to “understanding that there’s a human element to all the decisions you’re making,” he told the Farley Center.
But Kornacki says he has found fulfillment. “Designing chemistry for an industrial process just isn’t as much fun as creating something that people are going to use."