You may have been wondering how Percy Julian was able to do so much work on hormones while he was at Glidden, a paint company. Glidden allowed Julian to make steroids from soybeans because they had lots of soybeans, and they wanted to use them to make money. But they weren’t interested in making medicines from other plants, and Julian was. So Julian quit his job at Glidden in 1953 and started his own company, where he could follow his own research interests.
It was a bold step for Percy Julian to leave his steady job at Glidden and go into business for himself. He had to go into debt to pay for it. He started his new company in 1954, calling it Julian Laboratories. The main task at Julian Laboratories was researching steroids. But instead of making steroids from soybeans, like he did at Glidden, Julian focused on a plant called the Mexican yam. Mexican yams aren’t like the yams you buy in the grocery store. They are giant root vegetables about the size of small microwave ovens. They’re also great sources of steroids.
Julian Laboratories built factories in Mexico and in Guatemala to process the yams, and Julian discovered more new medicines, including a new and improved version of cortisone. Even more important, he developed new processes for making old products. He invited many young chemists to work at his laboratory. He wasn’t a professor anymore, but he was a teacher and mentor for those who came to work for him. Eventually, bigger drug companies started to take notice. In 1961 Julian sold his company for $2 million to Smith, Kline, and French, a much larger drug company.
Even before he sold his company, Julian was a very rich man. In 1960 he made Ebony magazine’s list of the wealthiest African Americans. After selling Julian Laboratories, he started the Julian Research Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to training young research chemists.