Microbe-Managers

This Vermont company is a
world leader in analytical analysis of molecular chemistry

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

biotek-adam-alpert-and-Briar-AlpertBriar Alpert (left) is president and CEO of BioTek Instruments Inc. in Winooski. His brother, Adam, is vice president of corporate development. BioTek was founded by their father in 1968.

Afan of the CSI television series might recognize a description of the work produced by equipment that BioTek Instruments manufactures in Winooski. Among the company’s products are the instruments that analyze the biological specimens gathered at a crime scene.

BioTek makes life science tools — “sophisticated instruments and software that allow researchers to understand the building blocks of biology,” says Briar Alpert who, with his brother, Adam, run the company founded by their late father, Norman, in 1968, not long after he accepted an offer from the University of Vermont to be chairman of its physiology department. Briar is president and CEO, and Adam is vice president of business development. They were ages 10 and 12 respectively when their family moved to Vermont.

At the start, Norman and engineer George H. Luhr, who directed UVM’s instrumentation and model facility, worked in Luhr’s garage to develop biomedical testing devices that could mimic various bodily functions and test equipment such as defibrillators, heart-rate monitors, and respirators used to treat patients.

In the years since, by remaining nimble and dedicated to its marriage of science and engineering, the company has evolved and grown, while staying true to its commitment to keeping Vermont the company’s home: in 70,000 square feet set in two buildings in Highland Park at the end of Tigan Street.

“Worldwide we have 360 employees,” says Briar. “Of that, 260 are here in Vermont. Here, we do all of our manufacturing, but also all of our engineering, marketing, our core back office functions, administration, our core service operations — everything is here with the exception of direct sales and service.”

BioTek also employs 40 to 45 people in 20 states across the country who do sales and service and another 60 or so people around the world, where it has its nine subsidiaries, and counting.

“I would say we have a company in almost all the major markets in the world,” says Adam. “For example, we have two offices in China, an office in Singapore, Korea, we’re establishing an office in Japan. We have an office in Germany, France, the U.K., Switzerland, India — these are BioTek people in BioTek offices.” Where there are no company offices yet, such as in Brazil, which is an emerging market, affiliate distributors are guided by BioTek employees, who live in-country.

“We have 20 different products, and each one has a number of versions or set of accessories you could get with it,” says Briar. The product line can be said to comprise four categories of instrumentation — microplate readers, washers, dispensers, and automation. They are used in life science research (at universities), drug discovery, and clinical discovery. Among the alternate markets are forensics, food safety testing, environmental testing, and alternate energy sources. For example, BioTek is working with British Petroleum on a process to generate power, in a relatively benign way, from various products such as algae and switchgrass.

The company will soon introduce a fifth category: imagers, which will allow scientists to see, magnified on a computer screen, in real time, images of a cell and how it interacts with other cells. “If you poke it in real time and it interacts with something else, you’ll be able to quantify the poke and see the reaction,” says Briar. “Never before have customers been able to have the information presented to them in that fashion at the price we’ll be offering this.”

He defines a microplate as “a vessel that replaces test tubes. “It is a plastic plate a half inch high and about the size of your hand divided into lots of little vessels.” “Lots” in this case might be 100 or 1,000 on a single plate. One accessory allows a reader to stack the microplates being analyzed, making what once was a tedious process much more efficient.

BioTek readers and washers run on proprietary software also developed by the company, which makes them difficult to copy. They are visually reminiscent of a computer printer. “What this is about is miniaturizing the kinds of things that go on in a test tube,” Adam adds.

In that test tube can be samples such as those tested by professor of pathology Nicholas Heintz, Ph.D., a research scientist at the UVM College of Medicine department of pathology. “A lot of what they sell is to companies testing various pharmaceutical compounds,” he says. “We do cancer biology where we’re looking at new candidate chemotherapeutic drugs. What we’re trying to do is find agents that have an effect on cancer cells, and if something shows a significant difference, we can find where that difference lies.”

Interestingly, the company’s 20 products do not include the original ones that helped build the business. The shift to microplate technology began in 1981, when BioTek expanded its product line into the molecular realm and introduced its first microplate reader.

“Go back in time about 10 years ago,” says Briar. “We had two businesses. One made biomedical test equipment for calibrating the devices that they hook you up to in hospitals. That was the origin of the company. Then we had a second business, which is the life science tools.

“In 2002, we sold the biomedical business to a company called Fluke that’s owned by Danaher, a very big international. It was a somewhat traumatic event for the company, but it allowed us to focus on one thing, these life science tools, and brought money into the company so that for the first time in its history, the company had a single focus and sufficient capital to pursue our ideas.”

In 2002, Briar had been president for barely a year, but, as Steve Mease had written in a 1992 story about the company for our magazine, “BioTek has demonstrated an uncanny ability over the years to be in the right marketplace at the right time.” The imager is another example of getting into the right market at the right time, says Briar.

The company has only about half a dozen competitors, “almost all of them divisions of public companies,” Briar says, adding that staying private allows BioTek to remain agile. “Because we’re not focused on our stock price, we can make decisions in the long-term best interest of our stockholders, employees, and customers — maybe a more enlightened way to run a business.”

BioTek is an award-winning company on many fronts. Last year it was named one of the Best Places to Work in Vermont. The brothers are proud of the company’s benefit package and its record of employee retention. “Turnover is about 3 percent,” says Briar. “We have an open-books policy; our bonuses are all the same. We pay people not to smoke and encourage our employees to do community service. After Irene, we got a bus and drove people around to afflicted areas to help.”

“I think staying in Vermont and building your company in Vermont is something that the Alperts demonstrate every day,” says Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. It’s an example, she says, of what seems to be true, especially, of people who have roots here, whether business or personal. “The great Vermont story is once you’ve spent time here, you don’t want to leave.”

That commitment to Vermont goes deep, says Heintz. “They demonstrate it’s possible to be extremely successful in Vermont and a very competitive business with real Vermont values: trusting the customer, listening, making products that are well-designed and reliable.”

Revenues in 2012 were “north of $90 million,” Briar says. “We’re shooting for the $100 million mark in 2013.”

Although Briar and Adam grew up with the company, they did not join their father right out of school. Briar graduated from UVM in 1983 with a degree in mechanical engineering. “I had the opportunity to work for some companies, including IBM and Pizzagalli Construction, before I came to BioTek,” he says, adding that he earned his master of business administration in 1993, seven years after joining the company.

Adam’s degree is also from UVM — a bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics. He graduated in 1980 with the hope of becoming a commercial airline pilot. He had even earned his pilot’s license toward that end, but the number of ex-Vietnam pilots coming into the labor force kept that from happening.

Adam, too, worked for several businesses, including Hayward Tyler Pump Co., and for a time had a small consulting business that developed software for structural analysis on personal computers.

He came to BioTek in the late ’80s to manage the newly formed software engineering department. “Software was still quite a novelty even then,” Adam says, “so this was a chance to bring more focus to it.”

To gain experience, each brother spent time managing a Nevada company BioTek had acquired. “Briar made it great and all I had to do was not make it bad — a pretty easy job for me,” says Adam with a grin.

It’s clear the brothers like and respect each other, and they express great admiration for their father. “Our father passed away about eight years ago,” says Briar, “but in many ways he lives on in the culture of the company. Norman was a combination scientist, businessman, and entrepreneur, so with him not being here, it takes a number of people to fill his shoes.”

Adam lives in Milton with his wife, Gisela, whom he married in 2000. She is his “highest priority,” he says, “and my air force is secondary to that.” His “air force” grew from his passion for flying and consists of five aircraft — “a few airplanes, a helicopter” — that he enjoys.

“When I’m not at work,” says Briar, who lives in Charlotte with his wife, Susan, and their two daughters, ages 13 and 15, “I actually enjoy continuing to think about work a little bit. Because of the span of things, even when you’re not working, just sitting in a chair at home, you think about work, but in a more relaxed way, and that is pleasurable.

“The thing I enjoy most is spending time in my home with my family,” he says. “I’m physically very active: I run, swim, play tennis, golf, and am very fortunate to be here in the state of Vermont, because you can do all those things. In winter, we ski or sled or snowshoe, and in summer we’re kayaking in the lake or climbing mountains.”

It’s too early to tell if his daughters will join the company. “There’s a drawer that we keep full of candy here, and they would like to be in charge of that drawer,” he says, laughing. “Other than that, they’re too young to know what they want to do.”

“I guess our philosophy,” says Adam, “is securing the future: for the business, our employees (our biggest asset), and for our customers, who depend on us to provide them with novel solutions. This is the significant differentiator and one that’s going to pay big dividends.”