Org Prep Daily

August 21, 2017

Breaking Bad in South Florida (1)

Filed under: Uncategorized — milkshake @ 2:02 am

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. If you find any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, deadly or lively, or actual molecules, carbons or heteroatoms, it is purely coincidental.

Part 1

(Here is Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 , Part 6, Part 7 Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Aftermath)

One day in January 2013, the CEO moved to our synthetic lab and started cooking Ecstasy.

The CEO told us he was pursuing a project unrelated to our company research – he said it was something for the business of his father (they lacked synthetic labs), a method of hardening finished steel drill bits by doping them with boron using volatile catechol-boronate complexes, a great trade secret that he invented himself and did not wish to discuss with anyone. The cover story was odd but our young CEO had a PhD in polymer chemistry and a tough guy attitude, dropping F-bombs at every opportunity, and it was his company – he was both the co-founder and a major shareholder. What puzzled me though was that he was setting up large-scale reactions, 2-liter flasks and more, and recrystallizing half kilo of p-benzoquinone in an oversized beaker. Benzoquinone has a strong, unusual odor and bright canary yellow color. The CEO asked me about the dark impurity in benzoquinone he was trying to remove (most likely quinhydrone.)

That he needed benzoquinone was curious; one can perform Diels-Alder with it, although most commonly it is used as oxidant in palladium-catalyzed alkene reactions, Wacker oxidation for example. Our CEO was running also reductions with amalgamated aluminum foil all the time – an obsolete method of reductive amination that is still popular with garage chemists. I did not make that connection initially and registered just the nuisance – our CEO was inept experimenter and inconsiderate one too, not used to cleaning after himself. He would stuff large flasks still dripping from oil bath into a 100L base bath which I used for cleaning our Schlenkware reactors dedicated to ultra-sensitive anionic polymerizations, and in there the aluminum leftovers curdled in contact with KOH + phosphate + detergent bath to form cement-like aluminum phosphate chunks that were hard to dislodge from the glassware and just few attempts of cleaning this mercury-contaminated crap with nitric acid convinced me to give up on washing his dishes. No-one else volunteered either.

Seeing the tension among the chemists, our research director arranged for refurbishing and equipping a satellite synthetic lab that we previously used only for storage, to serve our CEO private project. We went shopping to Lowe’s to get a storage cabinet and argon pipe fittings for the satellite lab and I noticed our research director wasn’t enthusiastic about the new lab at all – he was buying the cheapest plastic cabinet and shelving which really contrasted with his usual servile attitude towards anything CEO-related. I was curious but he did not want to talk about the “secret” project and said it was nobody’s business.

Soon our CEO moved his experiments to his own little lab but he was coming back to the main lab all the time, to run rotovaps and NMRs, to re-stock on the glassware he was trashing at a prodigious rate, and all the while asking innocent questions like “how can we best cleave off a methyl group from aryl methyl ether?” without explaining what he was trying to do. I replied it depends mostly on what is in the molecule since all known methods are harsh and incompatible with many functional groups. He wanted something like BBr3 or BCl3 but milder so I recommended him demethylation with AlCl3-Me3N.HCl 2:1 liquid complex. He promptly purchased the materials, made the reagent and stored it in our fridge, then took it to his lab. A week later I asked him – how did it work? And the answer was vague. So I asked him what was in the rest of the molecule, that maybe it would explain the problem. He said he has been trying to demethylate eugenol. There was a little pause, a sharp intake of air, and then I asked him if he run Wacker oxidation on eugenol. And he said why, yes, and it worked! He was obviously pleased with himself so much. I asked him about the amalgamated aluminum – he nodded, yes, he tested the reductive amination, with methylamine and aluminum foil, it worked great too…

And so it finally became clear, mid March 2013, that our CEO was trying to develop a process for manufacturing MDMA from eugenol and that is why he obtained three 250mL bottles of it. MDMA is made from safrole, the shortest sequence is Wacker oxidation followed by reductive amination of the obtained ketone with methylamine. Safrole is a closely-watched precursor and our CEO was apparently using eugenol as a training material while he was dreaming about developing a method for converting eugenol to safrole. He was an inexperienced chemist and deluded one too so he did not realize that his imagined transformation of eugenol to safrole wasn’t trivial… At this point I just excused myself, walked back to our main chemistry lab and informed my labmate colleague, a cranky old hand, that our CEO went completely mad and aspired to run a street drug manufacturing operation from our biotech company.

That our company was now in the business of doing process development on MDMA, a category 1 controlled substance (for which we did not have the permits) and this was being done covertly by our CEO with his own hands came as rude shock to everyone in the chemistry lab. If somebody else tried to pull this stunt, we would be talking to the company management that very minute and have him arrested. But in this case, the whole two-man top management team of our little company was involved in it. The CEO was the co-founder and the main investor in the company and clearly the normal rules did not apply to him. The research director was the second co-founder, a former student-buddy of our CEO and he was always extremely protective of him and loyal to the hilt. It was the research director who convinced our CEO to start the company to begin with, right from the grad school. (They had two other classmates founding the company with them but when the relations soured the CEO paid the other two co-founders off.)

Our research director personally approved all company purchases of equipment and chemicals, and now he just set up a drug lab for our CEO. He also handled the HR agenda like hiring and firing. And he recently married a vice-president for research integrity and compliance at the university on which campus we rented the lab space in the research incubator building. We got to be careful.

Obviously we could have quit or reported this to the police or DEA and have the company raided. Or report it to the university anonymously. The problem with anonymous report is that it is hard to predict the outcome – It could still result in the police raid. It could be suppressed while the management gets a copy; pretty easy to determine who wrote it – and then it would be us, suppressed. More so, the wife of our research director was #3 or #4 official at a prominent university with enormous political clout, any complaint would be handled through the department she chaired. Every move looked bad for our future employability and the retaliation and cover up by the management was a very real possibility. We lived to see the massive coverup that followed, eleven months later.

What we decided back in the Spring 2013 was that first we should try to discourage the drug project continuation without doing anything drastic, and find out more about what was going on. It was clear at the moment the synthetic route our CEO has chosen was not realistic, and it won’t be necessary to sneak into his lab and pour tomato soup into his experiments – our CEO skill level was such that he would self-sabotage, and obviously we shouldn’t give him any help. (An average process chemist could optimize the route to MDMA and get the reproducibility fully tested on a hundred gram scale perhaps within three to six weeks, if he took it as a full time job and had the suitable precursors. But our CEO kept doing rookie mistakes in the lab and working only part time on a scheme that was poorly thought-out so there was still time, maybe couple months before he can get to the final product with his pace). If it was just his caprice after watching too many episodes of Breaking Bad, maybe he would tire of it and move to something else, to use his time in a more productive way –  for example, try to find more investors so that we can finally go to clinical trials with our cancer drug candidate.

Also, there was a good chance the company would soon operate under new management. At that time, our CEO and research director kept excitedly talking how they were in advanced talks with such and such investor group that would come and take over the company. They were also describing on the all hands meetings how they were right now going to take the company public by reverse merger into a shell company and got this big bank underwriting it…

(At the beginning I took all this talk about acquisitions and IPO seriously but the names kept changing and dates shifting. There were several waves of this excitement and nothing came through. The research director later told me they had been in talks with maybe couple dozens of companies, banks and big investors – they all pulled out at the last minute. I guess the due diligence can be a bitch.)

The senior chemistry colleague and I decided to warn a student technician in our lab (he freaked out but continued working for our company) – and I also talked to our Canadian chemistry colleague who joined us a short time later. And we would get more information and decide how to handle it quietly.

The reaction of the Canadian chemist was also interesting. He became very angry with me as I was explaining him the safrole chemistry on his second day in US (we just became roommates by renting a house together) – he finished a postdoc, he moved from Canada to US to be with his fiancé, he had trouble finding a decent job in a typical two body problem – and now this. He said he did not sign for this crap, yelled at me for getting him into trouble by telling him about it, he worried about his visa and his employability in US should this become a public scandal. But he soon came around and found humor in the insanity of our predicament.



  1. Fascinating story. I will be honest, I have often wondered why your tenure at this place ended, as you often alluded to certain management issues. I had no idea it reached this level… and I look forward to Part 2.

    Comment by CRISPR — August 21, 2017 @ 11:21 pm

    • thank you. Its a work of fiction, you know. Keep reading, the story gets better – or actually worse.

      Comment by milkshake — August 21, 2017 @ 11:23 pm

  2. Lol… have you tried to approach the guy up straight with like “Hey… u know, making MDMA large scale is not such a great idea and your method sucks anyway…” ? 😀

    Comment by OK — August 22, 2017 @ 1:21 am

    • thank you. It is a work of fiction. Keep reading and you will see.

      Comment by milkshake — August 22, 2017 @ 1:53 am

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