by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Vermont is home to a resource for scientists around the world
Few Vermonters know much about MBF Bioscience in Williston, but its software is well known by top neuroscience researchers around the world. Jack Glaser, the president, co-founded the company with his father, Edmund Glaser (inset at right), when Jack was barely out of college.
In a talk at TEDGlobal in Oxford, England, in July of this year, acclaimed neuroscientist Henry Markram announced that his Blue Brain Project, funded by IBM, hopes to create a realistic digital 3D model of the entire human brain within the next 10 years. Most exciting is that the simulation promises to have all the functions of real human brains, including consciousness.
Pretty heady stuff. Markram is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of mapping the brain. And helping him do this is software created by MBF Bioscience in Williston.
Markram’s is far from the only project using MBF’s software. “We have a fantastic reputation around the world,” says Jack Glaser, president and co-founder of the company with his father, Edmund Glaser. “I can walk into almost any university and I’ll see either a customer or someone I recognize at the highest levels of the National Academy of Science.”
MBF’s customers are researchers, typically at a university or pharmaceutical firm. “Most are neuroscientists, researching cures to things like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, and trying to figure out how the brain works,” says Jack. “Other customers are looking outside the brain to what causes cancer and other illnesses in the body.”
MBF was incorporated by the Glasers as MicroBrightField Inc. in 1987, but work on the system began years before.
Initial funding for the system that became the anchor product arose from a lucky encounter, says Edmund, who has semi-retired from the company, but still works in his field in Baltimore.
“This was a project that began in about 1963,” he says, “undertaken by me and a colleague, now deceased, named Hendrik van der Loos. We were associates at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where I still am. We got together to develop what we called a computer microscope for neuroanatomy, because he was a neuroanatomist and I was originally a computer scientist engineer.”
The two developed the system as a research tool, and one day they had a visit from Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her husband, Sargent Shriver. “They were setting up a little foundation for research, which still exists at Hopkins, called the Kennedy Institute,” says Edmund. “They got referred to our lab and were some of the first people to hear what we were going to do.”
The Kennedy funding, plus some from the National Institutes of Health, got the project off the ground.
“We didn’t know how much, if anything, would happen from this,” Edmund continues, “but we were lucky. We published in a scientific journal back in the mid ’60s, and gradually it went forward.”
Initially, the interest from colleagues was nil, he says, “because in those days, neuroscientists didn’t know anything about computers, or really want to know.” One colleague did see its value and developed an extension of it that took it to its modern configuration. Edmund and van der Loos liked the extension and kept working. When van der Loos moved to Switzerland, Edmund applied for a sabbatical and he, his wife, and their three children moved there.
The project evolved, and when Edmund devised a mini-computer monitor that attached to the microscope, he and Loos applied for a patent, which was awarded in the early ’80s. They returned to Baltimore and applied for and received funding from the NIH and the University of Maryland. By that time, he says, NIH had recognized the importance of what they were doing.
In the meantime, Jack had entered the University of Vermont to study mathematics with a minor in computer science, and landed a work-study job with the department of anatomy and neurobiology. “One day,” says Edmund, “he phoned me and said he was working for someone who’s a neuroscientist who liked what we were doing, and could he, Jack, develop it for a PC. I said, ‘Sounds like a good idea to me.’”
“My father had licensed the patent to Leica and Zeiss,” says Jack, “and Leica was selling product based on his patent, but they didn’t have any software suitable for selling it. He asked me, ‘Would you mind writing software so we could have this run on the monitor Leica is selling?’”
Jack proceeded to write the software, working part time on it. He was working for the department of anatomy and neurobiology as an employee, having graduated in 1984. Once it was PC-based, says Jack, and some of his father’s colleagues asked to use it, “we realized that people might be interested in buying the software and decided to incorporate.”
That year, they made their first sale to a customer outside of Edmund’s direct circle of colleagues. “We went to a trade show and showed our software at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience,” says Jack.
Edmund remained in Maryland, and Jack was in Burlington working part time at the university and part time for the company in a spare bedroom at home. In 1986, he had married Caitlin Logan, whom he met at a meditation center in her home for Siddha Yoga, which they both practice. In 1990, he rented the company’s first office, one room on Hegeman Avenue in Fort Ethan Allen, and the company’s name was changed to MBF Bioscience. In 1991, he and Cait had a daughter, Sophie.
Slowly, Jack weaned himself away from UVM. By the early ’90s, he was working full time for the company, which expanded to a three-room office and hired its first full-time employee.
Jack was developing all the software with help from part-time software developers, and he was doing all the sales and all the installations.
Through the ’90s, growth continued, with a move to larger offices in the Fort. Growth was also taking place outside of Vermont.
“The main office is in Vermont,” says Jack, “where we do all of our software development, but we also have offices in Chicago and San Diego, and one in Tokyo and one in Germany.” The U.S. offices are MBF incorporations; the ones in Japan and Germany are separate companies but dedicated to MBF. Independent distributors all over the world carry the product.
Early in the 2000s, the company moved to its current address on Allen Brook Road in Williston, but in a smaller space on the second floor. Eventually, the move was made to the first floor, says Jack, noting that the company has about tripled since moving to the building, which the company bought in 2002.
Growth necessitated a decision to create a management structure so others in the company could take responsibility for management decisions. “We did that in the mid 2000s,” says Jack. “We set up two vice presidents, Paul Angstman and Jeff Sprenger.”
The company is funded two ways: through sales and through grants for applications to be funded by the NIH and, occasionally, the National Science Foundation. “We have been fairly successful at getting SBIR (small business innovation research) grants to develop new products.” Revenue from sales and grants is about $8 million a year.
Employees now number over 30. They include software developers, support staff — “a big chunk of those are Ph.D.s in biological sciences,” says Jack — software and computer-skilled technicians, a sales team, and administrative support personnel.
The offices are beautiful. A 4-foot-high bronze of the Dancing Shiva greets visitors at the entrance, and art of all types is displayed throughout the building. Surroundings are well planned and spacious. On entire wall of Jack’s office features a display of Hindu and other Asian sculptures.
Until a year ago, he and Cait, an artist, had a meditation center in their house. Jack goes snowboarding in the winter and gardens in summer. “And I meditate all year long,” he adds.
A good deal of his work day is spent speaking with or e-mailing customers, new and old, who are seeking information on new features or wanting to develop new products. “I love coming to work every day,” he says.
Not that there haven’t been bumps along the way — “things a lot of small businesses can relate to and should all learn from us,” he says with a laugh. He tells about a former employee who went to work for a competitor while he was still working for MBF. “We wound up having to sue him and the company he want to work for. We eventually settled out of court and received some remuneration from this company.”
The difficulty was that there was no way to know how much of MBF’s technical knowledge was transferred to the other company, because it was Danish, and MBF could not gain access to its records. “I learned the importance of protecting the intellectual property of a company and having policies in place so we have more formal coverage with our employees. We’re working on that with Larry Meier and Peter Kunin at Downs Rachlin Martin,” he continues.
New products are under development, he says. “We’re hoping to take a lot of the expertise in the field of neuroscience and expand into other areas of biological research.”
It’s such a small market, he continues, “so high-tech, and the things we do are way beyond the complexity of what most people even think about; and our people do it on a daily basis — they come in with smiles on their faces.
“We know that the work we do really benefits everybody because it eventually will be used to cure diseases and improve people’s lives. It’s a really neat thing to come in and know you’re going to leave a legacy of positive change in the world.” •