It's been 10 years since Invitrogen, a California life sciences company, bought the former PanVera Corp., of Madison, and while the publicly traded Invitrogen — now called Life Technologies — has grown and changed during that decade, it has not abandoned Madison.
Life Technologies has 100 employees at 501 Charmany Drive, the University Research Park building PanVera built in 2001, providing biological tools and services used in research and drug discovery.
Chris Armstrong leads the operations as Life Technologies' vice president and general manager of primary and stem cell systems. A native of the United Kingdom, Armstrong, 43, has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and biochemistry from the University of Dundee, Scotland.
Armstrong and his business unit are based in Madison, for the most part, but Armstrong also keeps an eye on the unit's other locations in Carlsbad, Calif.; Frederick, Md.; Grand Island, N.Y.; and Paisley, Scotland.
A publicly traded company (Nasdaq: LIFE), Life Technologies had $3.8 billion in revenues in 2012, with 10,000 employees, more than 5,000 patents, and more than 50,000 products. It acquired PanVera in 2003 after two other companies owned it, in rapid succession, in 2001. PanVera was founded in 1992 in Madison.
Over the past several months, rumors have persisted that Life Technologies is about to be sold. Armstrong declined to comment about that.
Q: What is the mission of the Madison operations?
A: We make a lot of proteins, enzymes that researchers use in their experiments, whether it's to understand more about the biology or, potentially, to develop new drugs.
The other thing we do in Madison has to do with cell provisioning. Our labs are able to grow, manufacture and characterize large quantities of cells that we provide to our customers. They could be cell lines that we've engineered or cell lines that customers ask us to reproduce.
Q: What has changed for the Madison operations in the past 10 years?
A: Since 2003 when PanVera was acquired, we've really been adding additional capabilities.
Cell biology was a key capability we added, as well as small molecule compound screening and stem cells.
Many companies, biotechnology and pharmaceutical, send us small molecules that come out of their screening activities, and they want to know how potent they are and how selective they are in terms of performing the function for which they are intended.
We've set up significant automation and instrumentation platforms. Probably the world's largest provider of screening services for protein kinase research — which can include research into diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease or neurological disorders — takes place here in Madison, under tight confidentiality.
Q: How is Madison's Life Technologies operation involved in stem cells?
A: For the last two years, we have been making investments in stem cell biology capabilities, particularly with the opportunities available in Wisconsin.
The scientists that we serve increasingly are interested in learning how they can use stem cell technology, whether it's in terms of how an organism develops, or what are the factors that drive disease, or how do you discover better medicines.
We have set up a state-of-the-art laboratory and research center to better understand the work flow and create tools and reagents that make our customers' jobs simpler, and to conduct our own research.
There is a fabulous network of talent in Wisconsin from the UW-Madison, the Morgridge Institute for Research and the WiCell Research Institute. We do a lot of training.
We're very fortunate in Life Technologies that we have a number of sites with significant stem cell expertise. We are building up Madison, and we are networking with the local community.
One of the things I'm very keen to do is to look at opportunities to bring in new technologies and position them for our customers faster than they might do on their own.
Also, last June, we formed a partnership with Cellular Dynamics International (founded by UW-Madison stem cell pioneer James Thomson) for global commercialization of products we develop together.
Madison is becoming one of Life Technologies' centers for excellence in stem cells.
Q: Have there been any increases or decreases in the number of employees in recent years?
A: We have 100 employees, in manufacturing, research and development and administration. The number is driven by demand, and it has fluctuated over the course of several years, but it has never dropped below 100.
Q: Is Life Technologies here to stay?
A: The reality is that none of us has a crystal ball. This site has existed for almost 10 years since Invitrogen purchased it. Businesses need to make the right decisions to maintain value to shareholders and to customers.
If the business performs well locally — and we continue to perform well — that weighs into any decisions. As it stands today, we continue to make investments in this site, and we're looking forward to serving customers.
Q: What are your plans for the next couple of years?
A: One of the things that excites me is how we're really leveraging the technology of stem cells, and we're just starting. It's quite clear that stem cells will revolutionize life science research and medicine. As we keep building that aspect, we're going to keep looking at the local community as sources of innovation.
We see ourselves as bringing the most innovative, enabling technologies to our customers — ultimately, contributing to improving the human condition. I think it's just a really exciting time.