If you scratch the surface of many of the biotechnology companies in the Madison area, chances are you will find some connection with Promega Corp. — scientists who cut their teeth there and went on to found or lead other biotechs in the market.
For more than 30 years, Promega, led by founder and chief executive Bill Linton, has grown and flourished in the fields of Fitchburg, nurturing biotech studies, encouraging worldwide discussion of biotech ethics issues and serving as a training ground for future biotech leaders as its own business has developed worldwide.
Selling 2,500 products used by scientists, researchers and life science and pharmaceutical companies, Promega has 1,200 employees, including nearly 700 here, and topped $300 million in sales in 2011. One of its machines, the Maxwell 16 purification machine used for forensic analysis, has been on network TV, on the CBS program "CSI: Miami."
Now, Promega is expanding, embarking on one of the biggest construction projects in the Madison area this year. The $120 million project will add a manufacturing building at the Fitchburg campus that will open Promega to a new tier of potential business and add as many as 150 local jobs over the next three to five years.
So what is the secret of Promega's success? How has it blossomed from its beginnings as a small enzyme business in 1978 to become "the granddaddy of biotechnology" in the Madison area, as Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, has termed it?
"Bill Linton had the idea of starting a research products company in the right place at the right time," said Richard Burgess, emeritus professor of oncology at UW-Madison. "He's done a marvelous job of guiding this company through the ups and downs of the economy and everything else."
Burgess was one of the first investors and remains a shareholder in Promega, which was first incorporated as Biotec Corp. The name was changed as the word biotech was becoming more generic.
"Promega began operations at a very prodigious time, at the dawn of the biotechnology industry," said Ralph Kauten, chairman and CEO of Quintessence Biosciences, who held various finance and administrative positions at Promega from 1979 to 1992. The focus of biotechnology research then was on DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, as the key to genetic instructions and finding ways to manipulate DNA.
"The company recognized that tools used by DNA researchers were not readily available and because of this, researchers were required to produce the tools needed to conduct the research. It would be similar to observing the site of home construction and seeing carpenters produce their own nails," Kauten said.
So, Promega determined to make those tools available, rapidly and at a reasonable price, Kauten said.
That has remained its strength. "Nothing we make is used in any form of treatment or diagnostic outcome. But we make components, some key ingredients, for the biotech industry," Linton said.
Nature as teacher
The company is known for its DNA fingerprinting technology, discovered by a British scientist, licensed from University of Utah research, and further developed by Promega. The Fitchburg company is one of two main U.S. providers of kits that identify a person's genetic fingerprint, used, for example, to help identify victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks.
Its DNA products also check for pathogens in food and water.
Another specialty of Promega's stems from bioluminescence, the ability of fireflies to light up. Promega learned how to modify molecules to produce light with different wave lengths and intensities, used by scientists as markers to see how a cell changes in response to various interactions.
"Nature taught us how to start," said the 64-year-old Linton. "Nature is our greatest teacher."
Promega already has several buildings along Woods Hollow Road and East Cheryl Parkway, including its research and development building; the prairie-style Agora, with offices and retreat space; and the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center, which houses manufacturing, conferences and an art gallery.
The new building, scheduled for completion in June 2013, will be two stories with a penthouse to house utilities. It will provide 260,000 square feet of space, with 210,000 square feet of that for manufacturing and the rest for conference rooms, a cafeteria and workout space.
"It's going to help us move further into the diagnostics market," said Jennifer Romanin, director of invitro diagnostics operations, who is overseeing the project.
It will provide room for a second bottling line for Promega's products and it will meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements for clean rooms, packaging and training, Linton said.
In many cases, it will make the same products that Promega currently manufactures but under more stringent guidelines required by the company's customers for products they have to submit for the FDA's approval, he said.
The company could have put the new building in San Luis Obispo or Sunnyvale, Calif., or in Shanghai, China, which already house some of Promega's manufacturing operations. Instead, it chose Fitchburg.
"China offers big incentives," said Linton. In fact, the company recently bought a second building in Shanghai and plans to double employment there to 100 within three years.
"But there is so much personal expertise in the Madison area. We love the Madison area," he said.
A big part of Promega's success, Linton and others say, is its staff.
"You have to have good people with good ideas. It's really about building staff — bringing in really talented people who share the vision," Linton said.
"Over the years, Promega has gotten some really excellent people," Burgess agreed. "I do think it's been a major training ground for many people who have gone on to either start companies or hold high positions in other companies."
Attention to detail has been another of Promega's strengths, Kauten said, including making sure its products are high quality and customers receive clear instructions on how to use them.
"Providing support for use of Promega products has always been a hallmark of the business model," Kauten said.
Linton also has made it a comfortable work environment for employees, said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
Promega was one of the first local tech companies to have its own day care center — it helps subsidize the Woods Hollow Children's Center — and offers a cafeteria and yoga space. "It's not just the folks out in Mountain View, Calif." who do that, said Still, referring to Google.
Linton is "an entrepreneur who's just really made it work," Still said.