A Grace-Full Endeavor

This entrepreneurial family carved a niche

by Phyl Newbeck

bia_diagnostics0317Thomas Grace, his wife, Robin (right), and their daughter Hannah are the owners of Bia Diagnostics, a Colchester food- and allergen-testing company launched by Thomas and Hannah in 2007. Bia Diagnostics co-owns Elution Technologies with Immunology Consultant Laboratory.

Some families bond over dinners, movie nights, or sporting events. The Grace family does things differently: They bond over allergen testing. In 2007, Thom Grace and his daughter Hannah started Bia Diagnostics, a food-testing facility that also sells allergen testing kits, known as assays. Four years later, Thom’s wife (and Hannah’s mother), Robin, joined the firm. These days, Hannah has stepped away from the business to return to school, but Bia Diagnostics and its sister company, Elution Technologies, remain a family affair.

Thom was born in Dublin, Ireland, to an Irish Catholic family. His father was an architect/engineer while his mother raised eight children. In 1958, the family emigrated to America, moving to Queens, New York, and then Long Island.

“I was a science nerd,” Thom says, “but I was also a jock and very active in the community.” Taking a gap year before it was fashionable, he hitchhiked across Europe before enrolling at Stony Brook University.

Thom dropped out of college, and although he didn’t receive a degree from Stony Brook, he got something better. Robin, still a high school student, was visiting a friend at the college when she met Thom. Born in Queens, Robin was raised by Sephardic Jews so when the couple were married at the United Nations in the middle of a blizzard in January of 1977, both a rabbi and a priest officiated.

bia_group0317Rachel Scholten (left) is a lab scientist; Adam Bouchard is marketing and sales manager and lab scientist; Diana Butler, lab scientist; and Luke Emerson-Mason, lab manager, research and development.

After leaving Stony Brook, Thom did odd jobs before joining the Air Force as a lab tech. Upon receiving his discharge in 1980, he and Robin moved back East from Colorado. A track star in high school, Thom took up running again, and every year from 1984 to 2008, ran the Boston Marathon.

He worked in cancer research at Dartmouth and then The University of Vermont, where he finished his degree in biochemistry. Hannah, now 34, was born while Thom was at Dartmouth. After the family moved to their current home, a 250-year-old Fairfax farmhouse, Aiden and Sophie were born.

Robin enrolled at Queens College but she, too, dropped out early, eventually completing her degree in art and psychology at Johnson State College. “After we married I taught Head Start and kindergarten,” Robin recalls “but when the kids were born I didn’t want to send them off someplace and I needed an income.”

She began to bake borekas, Sephardic pastries made with phyllo dough and filled with spinach, cheese, and other products. In time the business, which she named Skopje Bakery (after the capital of Macedonia, honoring her Sephardic roots), was selling borekas and baklava at stores in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Quebec as well as at farmers’ markets and festivals. After 10 years, Robin quit the bakery business, returning to work as an early childhood consultant.

With the family growing, Thom left academia for work at BioTek and then a German company called R-Biopharm, where he helped market its assays. He went on to Biacore, a pharmaceutical company, and then to a British venture known as Tepnel BioSystems BioKits, which specialized in food-testing kits.

Thom realized there was only one laboratory in North America doing allergen testing and it took several days to provide results — a process he believed could be done in one day. “In 2006 I decided to do this,” he says “but I needed help. Hannah was working, but not happy, and she agreed to help me.”

Following in her parents’ footsteps, Hannah had also dropped out of college. “I’d been pre-med since I was 3 years old,” she says, noting that one of her earliest childhood memories is sitting on her father’s lap while he looked at laboratory slides. Hannah attended the Gailer School, and at 15, interned in the cancer research lab where her father had worked.

Unfortunately, Hannah was also in an abusive relationship and she married on her 18th birthday. “Halfway through my second semester at Bard College I left him and put him in jail,” she says.

She left school and worked a series of jobs including lifeguarding, retail, and a stint at the Great Harvest Bread Co. “Dad took me out to breakfast,” she says, “and asked if I would run his lab. I started doing office work in the morning and lab work in the afternoon.”

Named for the Irish word for food, Bia (pronounced BEE-yah) Diagnostics opened its doors in February 2007 at North Winooski Avenue and Archibald Street in Burlington, using materials scavenged from UVM and St. Michael’s College, and sourced from eBay.

“We had two kids in college and no savings,” Robin recalls. “The only reason we were able to do this is because Opportunities Credit Union gave us a second mortgage and Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office gave us a loan.”

“The first year it was just my father and me running the assays and developing methods,” Hannah recalls. “I did the bookkeeping, filing, database systems, and graphic layouts.” Thom did the marketing. Around that time, people began to approach him in the hope of creating a validation process for gluten-free food, and that became a major part of the business.

After four years, Hannah realized she needed help. Robin was a consultant for Child Care Resource as well as doing work in family violence prevention and for homeless families with young children. “Never in a million years had I thought of myself in the business or science world,” she says, but when Hannah called in January of 2011, Robin started helping out in the office.

This allowed Hannah to return to school at the start of 2015. She is still part of the business decision-making process but she is studying in Johnson State College’s external degree program with the goal of working with at-risk kids.

Two and a half years ago, the company moved to Colchester in a building owned by Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. “They are amazing,” Robin says “They hired an architect and sat down with us and told us to dream up whatever would work for us. They got us a loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority to cover the costs and gave us 10 years to pay it back.”

In addition to the Graces, Bia Diagnostics has seven full-time and two part-time employees. The company does same-day food allergen analysis with an emphasis on gluten, eggs, soy, milk, and peanuts. A second company, Elution Technologies, spun off from Bia in 2012, makes and sells enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) and rapid analysis kits. Both analyze food products, but the rapid tests take only 10 minutes. “They are like pregnancy tests,” Robin says. “It’s not a sophisticated analysis: It’s just a yes or no.”

Bia/Elution’s small size is one of the reasons Evan Rosen, vice president of food safety and quality assurance for PacMoore Products in Indiana, relies on them. PacMoore had been working with a larger company, but Rosen likes the fact that he can deal directly with Thom and laboratory manager Luke Emerson-Mason. “They’ve helped us through some tricky situations and that’s priceless,” he says. “I can’t say enough positive things about them.”

Most Bia Diagnostics customers are in North America although the company has analyzed samples from as far away as Tanzania. Volume-wise, Bia constitutes the majority of the work for the Graces, since more samples come in daily than orders for kits, but Elution is more global and is also the more lucrative part of the business.

bia_three0317Bia Diagnostics has seven full-time and two part-time employees. Donna Walter (left), the office manager, handles customer service; Mary Keator is quality control coordinator; and Raquel Sobel manages production, research and development.

Job Donkor, the lab supervisor at the WWF Quality Assurance Laboratory in Colorado, has been working with Bia for almost eight years. “One of the main things we do is allergen testing to make sure our products are safe,” he says, “and we needed a supplier who could give us kits that were robust and sensitive. Their kits are very user-friendly. In a fast-paced environment you don’t want something cumbersome.”

From the employees’ perspective, it’s a good place to work. The get five weeks of vacation time when they start, and the company pays 100 percent of their health insurance. There is tuition reimbursement, and the Graces have what they describe as a “robust collaboration” with UVM for interns. They give back 10 percent of their profits to the community and encourage their employees to volunteer for charitable causes. One pet project is the Run for Empowerment, which raises money for Steps to End Domestic Violence. Robin chairs its board of directors.

They also work as active members of Amnesty International and help out with Fairfax’s annual Egg Run. The Graces bike and kayak, and Thom continues to run, although it’s more of a hobby now.

Hannah assumes that a lot of people wonder how a 20-something could handle working with her parents every day. “It has changed and enhanced my life in more ways than I can explain,” she says. “It has given me a chance to get to know who they really are.”

Thom couldn’t agree more. “It works both ways,” he says. •