Home Sweet Global Business
- By Nancy Stearns Bercaw
With a mere $900 in capital, BioTek Instruments set its course in 1968 when Norm Alpert, professor of physiology and biophysics in UVM’s College of Medicine, and his colleague George Luhr, head of the university’s instrumentation and model facility, began mixing biology and technology inside Luhr’s Charlotte garage. The friends, who had in tandem uprooted their careers and families to relocate from Chicago to Vermont several years earlier, wanted to create tools to help colleagues perform their clinical research. The duo transformed that garage into a re-think tank. Regardless of the nature of the request, each one called for a product that could capture precise, repeatable measurement of biological events.
Fast-forward more than forty years later, and the Winooski-based business is a true Vermont/UVM success story. BioTek is a global business, a leading manufacturer of devices and software related to the use of microplates — a series of test tubes, condensed and consolidated into a single plate, that are critical in many research and public health procedures from testing for bird flu to ensuring the safety of blood supplies.
Today, the late Norm Alpert’s sons, Briar, CEO, and Adam, vice president, continue to grow the enterprise their father began, making it a top priority to sustain the personal and business ethics that guided him. “Dad had a real romance with science,” Adam, UVM Class of 1980, says. “But above all he was a teacher. His greatest pleasure was seeing other people self-actualize.”
While Norm Alpert and George Luhr would nurture BioTek from its work-bench beginnings to a $10 million per year business, and the next generation would come on to help build it to a $100 million per year business, BioTek’s ascension has not been a straight line skyward. “There were a lot of ‘near death experiences’ before I came,” Briar, UVM Class of 1983, says, smiles, and adds, “and I contributed to some during my own experience.” Looking back, he recalls one of his father’s favorite phrases — onward and upward. “He had an optimism and a belief that everything was going to work out OK — that he’d figure it out through perseverance.”
These days, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relies on BioTek equipment for E. coli testing; so, too, does the Red Cross for checking the safety of the nation’s blood supply. Microplates also come into play for forensic and genetic testing, in addition to drug experiments for cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. When the bird flu epidemic swept the globe last year, BioTek equipment swept into action checking 100,000 birds for the virus.
Because BioTek products run complex protocols without human intervention or error, the humans creating those instruments must be equally precise in their work. “We have to be 100-percent right all the time,” says Briar, explaining that life and death decisions are made based on the results provided by BioTek instruments. “We have a shared responsibility to each other. For us to win, everyone here has to do their job well.”
So the brothers place considerable focus on ensuring the health, happiness, and success of the three hundred individuals who comprise the company. More than two-thirds of these “contributors,” as Adam refers to them, operate out of BioTek’s 65,000-square-foot facility in Winooski. The rest are direct sales representatives who live in the region they supply and service. BioTek outposts are also located in Germany, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Singapore, and China.
“It’s not about working harder, but making it easier for the people who work with us to do their jobs right,” Adams says. “Talent wins. Get it. Retain it. Improve it. That’s the macro-concept of human capital — and it’s the only way Americans can remain competitive against China.” Bio Tek’s effort to get and retain a top-notch staff is bolstered by the company’s creative environment and a progressive, even fun, benefits package that would be the envy of many. They provide a number of incentives to promote healthy lifestyles for employees, and racks full of bikes (even in early winter) speak to the Vermont eco-ethic of the people and place.
Running a forward-thinking business — with old-fashioned values — from northern New England in this era is a very different challenge than Norm and George faced back in the day. But for the Alpert brothers, there’s no place like home. They’re pleased with the market share they’ve been able to earn from here — about 15 percent of a $600-million worldwide industry. While it might be easy to find reasons to move or outsource, the company is sold on the state and the lifestyle advantages it offers employees. BioTek earned the Deane C. Davis Outstanding Vermont Business of the Year Award in 2010, an honor recognizing commitment to economic growth, a positive work environment, and local community support.