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Disease Detectives

BioTek makes scanners that can save your life


Published October 21, 2009 at 5:33 a.m.

Unless you’re a medical researcher, science geek or local business buff, chances are you’ve never heard of BioTek Solutions, a Winooski-based company that makes “multi-mode microplate readers” and “microplate pipetting systems.” But you probably have heard of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and bird flu — diseases for which scientists are finding lifesaving cures with the help of BioTek brand equipment made right here in Vermont.

Building on their father’s enterprise, brothers Briar and Adam Alpert have developed one of the most successful businesses in the state by selling machines that resemble cash registers and move robotically like R2-D2. They’re actually sophisticated instruments used to discover treatments for diseases, and to detect bird flu in chickens and E. coli in hamburger meat.

Microplate systems are essentially super-efficient test tubes: highly sophisticated detectors that look for reactions in hundreds of biological samples at once. Though even their makers admit the scanners have a certain sci-fi quality to them.

“If you were to imagine 300 years in the future, you would see on Mr. Spock’s tricorder the brand BioTek,” says Vice President Adam Alpert, referring to the handheld scanners used on “Star Trek.” “Because that’s fundamentally what this is about: detecting the underlying mechanisms of biological systems.”

These instruments, and the computer software that makes them run, have made BioTek a second-generation, family-owned firm with a global footprint — a David among billion-dollar bioscience Goliaths. Forty-one years ago, BioTek was little more than an idea: Faulty medical equipment in hospitals was endangering patients, and better instruments were needed to test and calibrate it. Today, the company has diversified its product line and spread out across the world, selling on four continents. It’s one of Vermont’s fastest-growing businesses and has earned a reputation as a cutting-edge company with a hometown heart.

Perhaps the ultimate sign of local loyalty: BioTek turns down — almost weekly, according to its owners — lucrative relocation offers from other states in favor of staying in Vermont.

Strolling the factory floor at their Winooski manufacturing plant, the Alpert brothers nod hello to technicians hunched over BioTek’s high-tech instruments. The scanners are being fine-tuned before they’re shipped off to research labs in the U.S., China, South America and elsewhere.

The factory is humming like a beehive, when all at once the workers abandon their stations and assemble in the loading dock around steaming bowls of soup and freshly baked rolls. The bosses are handing out quarterly bonus checks today — about $100 for each of the company’s 287 employees — and have ordered up lunch for their workers to say thanks. Whenever the company exceeds a quarterly goal, 20 percent of the additional cash gets split equally among employees.

“This is the funnest part of my job,” says Briar Alpert, BioTek’s CEO and president. “Our philosophy is that if the company is doing well, we want to share success with the people who are creating success.”

BioTek’s profit-sharing program has put an extra $2 million in its employees’ pockets over the years, Briar Alpert says, and helped win the company Vermont Business Magazine’s 2009 Best Places to Work award in its annual employee survey. The bonus money averages $2000 per employee per year, with single quarterly payouts as large as $1000.

Money is not the only source of team spirit: BioTek has a Green Team to keep it eco-friendly, and collects food scraps in a compost pile that’s sent to the Intervale.

Dr. Norman Alpert founded BioTek Instruments in 1968, while working as a physiologist at UVM College of Medicine, to meet the need for equipment that tested the safety of instruments used in hospitals. Before the days of government regulation, for example, patients could get electrocuted in their hospital beds because a bed motor wasn’t grounded properly. Norman Alpert tapped his network of university colleagues to develop quality assurance products that would ensure better safety, then hired a work force to engineer them.

Only seven businesses in Vermont have experienced faster growth than BioTek over the past 20 years, according to Vermont Business Magazine. But its annual revenues are still relatively minuscule — $68 million in 2008 — compared to global biotech companies such as Danaher Corp. and Thermo Fisher, whose annual sales figures are measured in the tens of billions of dollars.

By focusing more narrowly on fewer product lines, especially microplate systems, and on good customer service, Adam Alpert says BioTek has carved out a niche that lets it compete with huge corporations.

Briar Alpert says the company’s worldwide presence — it now has offices in China, India, Singapore, Germany, France and the UK — buffered it against the worst effects of the recession. Even as the global market for life-science equipment contracted, BioTek managed to grab a larger share of it, Adam Alpert says. The company’s sales dipped in Europe and North America, but they grew in China and India between 15 to 20 percent.

While its publicly traded competitors saw stock prices plummet and slashed expenses to meet their quarterly profit demands, privately held BioTek had its best sales year ever in 2008. The Alperts predict 2009 will be even more profitable, with revenues close to $80 million.

BioTek is doing so well, in fact, that several states are courting the company to relocate there. The Alperts say offers have come from North Carolina, Virginia and, most recently, New Mexico — tempting BioTek with lucrative tax breaks and worker training assistance that would certainly put more money in the pockets of company owners and employees.

But the brothers are committed to Vermont; they were raised here, and each holds two degrees from UVM. Even so, the Alperts say, BioTek might have looked seriously at moving out of state had it not received an injection of state money earlier this year. BioTek won a Vermont Employment Growth Incentive grant worth $692,854 to expand its Winooski headquarters by some 8000 square feet.

“If not for that grant, it would have been a bad business decision to expand here,” says Briar Alpert.

That’s not the only money Vermont taxpayers have sunk into BioTek. The company received job training grants totaling $94,341 over six years. That money has served as an “equalizer” in a state the Alperts call “a little business unfriendly.”

“If you were choosing a state out of 50 states [to locate a business], you probably wouldn’t choose Vermont,” Briar Alpert says. He cites high taxes, strict environmental regulations and worker’s comp laws as factors that make Vermont a “challenging” place to run a successful business.” On the flip side, Briar says, Vermonters have a strong work ethic and are extremely loyal.

“Maybe because there aren’t that many job opportunities here,” he says. “It’s not like they just go across the street to another biotech company.” BioTek’s employees average 10 years at the company, its owners say, and earn on average $62,379 a year, with competitive benefits.

Rocki-Lee DeWitt, a UVM professor and past dean of the School of Business, says BioTek succeeds because, “they’re not a one-hit wonder.” While the company started out serving the quality assurance market for hospital instruments, it has evolved to meet emerging markets for advanced bioscience equipment.

DeWitt, who has studied family-owned businesses extensively, says only a third of them are successfully passed on to the second generation. BioTek is the exception.

“Where they’ve carved out a niche, they do very well within that niche,” DeWitt says. “They’re just people who have fallen in love with being here — the workers and the founders.”