If the Madison area has earned a reputation as a biotechnology hot spot, one huge reason is Promega Corp.
"For people in Madison, it's the granddaddy of biotechnology," said Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).
Promega is 30 years old this year but it's not just longevity that has earned a worldwide reputation for the company and its founder, Bill Linton, or the fact that some of its products have been popularized on TV.
The Fitchburg company distributes more than 2,000 products used for life science research, has sales offices in 13 countries and manufacturing branches in San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Shanghai, China; and Seoul, South Korea.
Promega has 920 employees worldwide, including 570 in the Madison area, and revenues that have climbed from $85 million in 1998 to $130 million in 2002 and $220 million last year.
Several of its employees and managers have gone on to start their own biotech companies in Dane County - such as PanVera Corp. (now part of Invitrogen), Mirus Bio Corp. and Quintessence Biosciences - and Promega itself has spawned a subsidiary and a think tank.
Terso Solutions develops radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems to help companies manage inventory and the nonprofit BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute stages industry forums and educates students and teachers.
"We've always recognized Promega as a pillar of the biotech community in Wisconsin, with their long and successful history here," said Jim Leonhart, executive director of the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association. "I've been very impressed by their commitment to give back to the industry and to the community."
Although it is privately owned while most of its competitors are publicly traded, Promega is highly regarded throughout the industry, said Mike Duff, president of the Analytical and Life Science Systems Association in Alexandria, Va.
"There are several companies that you would call the market leaders, and clearly, Promega would be one of those," Duff said.
"People in the industry recognize Bill as very thoughtful, someone who has built a very solid business. But what I found was he thinks very strategically. I think he has a real understanding of the business, life science research, and how that business is evolving," Duff said.
A California degree\In 1978, with a bachelor's degree in biology and biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, graduate studies in pharmaceutical chemistry at UW-Madison and several years working at Scientific Protein Laboratories in Waunakee, Linton became restless.
He talked to professors at UW-Madison and other universities to find out what types of products they needed.
Promega was formed, manufacturing enzymes that could cut and splice DNA in novel ways, for use by academic research scientists.
Linton had never taken a business course.
"I was young and naive. Sometimes it's very good to not know what you might face," he said. "Our whole focus was finding niches in the market where (researchers) needed things, things they were certain to need for a long period of time."
Today, Promega has about 200 patents and more than 100 licenses to other people's inventions. It is one of three companies that subscribe to a WARF program that allows them an early look at UW-Madison research tool discoveries, with a royalty-free license for the first year.
"It's a way for us to get the technology very rapidly out to the marketplace by lowering the initial cost for them to put (it) in their catalog and see if it sells," said Craig Christianson, director of licensing for WARF. Promega also collaborates with some UW-Madison scientists and sponsors their research, he said.
DNA typing products\Academic research still provides 60 percent of Promega's revenues, Linton said, while biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies comprise Promega's second-biggest customer group.
But gaining ground are tools used for diagnostic tests and genetic screening, and DNA typing products.
DNA fingerprinting technology can determine paternity and help solve crimes. "Our products are used by crime laboratories all over the world to help identify individuals via their DNA profile," said Len Goren, global director of Promega's genetic identity division.
The technology, discovered by a British scientist and licensed by Promega in the 1980s from University of Utah research, has been further developed so that tiny samples of human cells from blood, hair or a fingerprint on a glass, for example, can create a genetic profile unique to a person.
Promega's kits helped solve the BTK serial killer case in Kansas and were used to identify victims whose remains were found in mass graves in Bosnia, Goren said.
"We were in New York City immediately after 9/11 helping to identify victims; Promega technology was used to help identify victims of the (2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami," Goren said in an e-mail interview. "For me, it provides an emotional connection to my work and a sense of purpose."
Promega's Maxwell 16 purification machine, used for forensic analysis, has been shown on the TV program "CSI: Miami."
Promega is one of only two companies worldwide that are the main providers of the genetic identification products, Linton said. The other company is Applied Biosystems, a publicly traded, Foster City, Calif., company with $2.1 billion in annual revenue.
Profitable since 1984\While many biotech companies struggle for years before they break even, Promega has been profitable since 1984, Linton said. He's had offers to buy the company or take it public, but Linton is steadfast about keeping Promega privately owned.
"So many compromises have to be made when you go public. There really isn't a need (for that)," he said.
Promega has about 350 main shareholders. Linton is the largest shareholder, with less than one-third of the stock, he said. "Easily, a majority of the 350 are present or former employees. We really encourage employee participation," he said.
A Madison venture capital firm, Venture Investors, made one of its first investments in Promega in 1984. "We were just in the formative stages," said senior partner John Neis. "We had $1 million under management and I think we committed 10 percent of that to the company."
By the time Venture Investors exited Promega, its ultimate investment of $200,000 had compounded into "a very, very nice multiple," Neis said, declining to provide details.
Twice, when the number of shareholders has approached 500, Promega has offered to buy back shares. "Once you reach 500, you take on significant Securities and Exchange Commission reporting requirements," Linton said. That opens a lot of company information to public scrutiny with "none of the benefits of becoming public," he said.
That may have frustrated some shareholders seeking a quicker or larger return on their investments, but it hasn't rattled Linton or his mission.
Asked how he thinks Promega has changed over the past 30 years, he said, "I think we've gotten better at the things we do, from finances to marketing, sales and production. At the same time, we haven't lost our core values: to make it a great place to work."
Linton and Promega have created a lot of jobs and helped make the Madison area a biotech hub, Neis said.
"They were the first to demonstrate that you can create an enormous success story here in the Midwest, in the biotechnology world," he said.
COMPANY PROFILE\PROMEGA CORP.\Address: 2800 Woods Hollow Road, Fitchburg\Web site: www.promega.com\Established: 1978\Founder and chief executive officer: Bill Linton\Products: Primarily biological tools used for life science research; also products for genetic identification.
Other locations: Manufacturing in San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Shanghai, China; and Seoul, South Korea. Sales offices in 13 countries.
Employees: 920 worldwide; 570 in the Madison area.
Annual revenues: $220 million in 2007.