Waters Corporation: Fifty Years of Innovation in Analysis and Purification

A publicity photo for Waters Associates organic synthesis marketing program taken in Robert Burns Woodward's chromatography lab, 1973. Pictured are (from left to right) Helmut Hamburger, Josef F. K. Huber, James Waters, and Woodward, in front of the ALC-100 Analytical Liquid Chromatograph at right.

A publicity photo for Waters Associates organic synthesis marketing program taken in Robert Burns Woodward's chromatography lab, 1973. Pictured are (from left to right) Helmut Hamburger, Josef F. K. Huber, James Waters, and Woodward, in front of the ALC-100 Analytical Liquid Chromatograph at right.

Maley immediately proposed that Waters Associates manufacture the system that Moore had conceived. Moore convinced upper management in Midland, Michigan, who favored a much larger firm, to contract with this tiny instrument company, and in January 1963 Waters made a $10,000 down payment on royalties for his exclusive license to the GPC technology. Waters himself went to Moore’s lab for three weeks of fact finding; he learned every aspect of the process, including how to synthesize the polymer beads (later to be sold by Waters Associates under the trademark Styragel), and returned to Framingham filled with ideas on how to construct an improved version of the instrument. Within three months, Waters and his team had built and sold five prototypes of the GPC-100—in essence the first commercial high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) system .

It used to take up to three weeks to get a molecular weight distribution for a single polymer; GPC could achieve the same result in about 90 minutes. Polymer chemists soon saw the potential of this new technology. Maley in turn took note of the issues that GPC users experienced and inaugurated an annual GPC symposium at which successful early adopters and struggling users could learn from each other, thereby fostering best practices, while Waters’s team gleaned R&D ideas from both. (These meetings inspired many similar user forums that continue to this day.) The financial success of the GPC business enabled Waters Associates to move to larger facilities in 1965 and to expand its product line of instruments and column packings over the next decade to all modes of analytical and preparative liquid chromatography.

The B12 Story

The next big break for Waters Associates followed in fall 1970 from a user query: Helmut Hamberger, a postdoctoral fellow in the Harvard University lab of Nobel laureate Robert Burns Woodward, called Waters in frustration to ask for help in separating isomers of key intermediates in the total synthesis of vitamin B12. Waters had no idea who Woodward was, but when his vice president of marketing, James Little, told him about Woodward’s exalted reputation among organic synthetic chemists, Waters concluded he should tackle the problem himself. This market was one he had wanted to penetrate ever since being told in 1968 by a prophetic researcher at Mobil that every organic chemist ought to have a liquid chromatography (LC) system on his or her bench. So he packed some columns, trundled an ALC-100 (a versatile system with both ultraviolet and RI detectors) to Woodward’s lab, and proceeded to solve separation problems. 

I was present at the symposium on natural product synthesis held in 1971 at the 23rd Congress of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry in Boston. Before such luminaries as Derek Barton, Alan Battersby, Karl Folkers, and Gilbert Stork, Woodward, in a nearly four-hour lecture, recounted the B12 story, punctuating it frequently by declaring, “We could not have done this without liquid chromatography.” Nearly every organic chemist of note was in the audience of close to 5,000, and although Woodward cited neither company nor brand names in his talk, the cognoscenti spread the word like wildfire. Following Woodward’s example, a single HPLC peak soon supplanted a single thin-layer chromatography spot as a criterion for chemical purity in organic synthesis.

To take advantage of such excellent publicity James Waters himself quickly assembled a bold direct mail campaign. He compiled a list of 900 names and addresses from an American Chemical Society directory of chemistry faculty and mailed each a promotional kit that included a glossy photo of himself with Hamburger and Woodward and a letter with the simple message, “Look what we did for Woodward. We can do the same for you!” Following up on the 100 replies to his first foray into marketing catalyzed phenomenal growth for Waters Associates.