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Madison-area health and biotech companies fighting COVID-19 for more than a year
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Health and Medicine

Madison-area health and biotech companies fighting COVID-19 for more than a year

From the Madison Forward, Part 1: Region's business community pushes ahead series
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Promega

Dispensing technician Carl Krueger works in one of Promega's environmental control rooms. Promega in March ramped up production of some materials used in COVID-19 tests.

While the food and hospitality industry was forced to go dormant during the pandemic, Madison’s many biotech and health companies went into overdrive in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

Machinery at Teel Plastics removes swab sticks used for COVID-19 tests from a mold.

Some businesses, including Fitchburg-based Promega Corp. and the Madison facility of pharmaceuticals company Catalent Biologics, immediately began manufacturing products to help with testing, treatments and eventual vaccinations for the new disease. Products made in these facilities have been used around the world.

“We’ve taken the approach of listening and learning from our customers, the science community and our employees so we can understand what’s coming next and do our best to prepare and respond to it,” Promega's vice president of corporate affairs Penny Patterson said.

Exact Sciences, based in Madison, works in cancer diagnostics, but when COVID-19 took hold in the U.S., the company began using its labs to also process tests for the virus. In 2020, the company tested more than 2 million samples and ran on-site tests for its employees as well.

“This allowed our laboratory operations to continue, largely uninterrupted by the virus,” spokesman Scott Larrivee said. “Keeping staff healthy meant patients and providers got timely, needed cancer test results, and additional lab capacity could be devoted to the COVID-19 testing effort.”

Epic Systems Corp., based in Verona, also had a hand in various aspects of the COVID-19 response. The company created and installed software for testing sites, used artificial intelligence to help assess the risk of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and helped health care providers begin using telehealth programs to see patients and more.

“We work directly with health care organizations. Therefore, all the massive challenges they faced, we faced with them,” said implementation executive Nick Frenzer.

Growth and expansion

Workforce expansion was a significant part of the COVID-19 response for many of these companies. Over the last year, Promega hired about 330 employees with more than 100 of them working on COVID-19-related efforts, and the company expects to keep many of these employees on staff once the pandemic subsides.

Catalent, which manufactures drug substances — active ingredients in pharmaceuticals — added 150 employees to its previous staff of 400, and opened a 60,000-square-foot addition to its facility last year.

“Our Catalent Madison site was experiencing strong growth prior to the pandemic, but our role in COVID-19 vaccine and treatment production accelerated that growth,” general manager Graham Brearly said.

While the first few months of the pandemic forced the companies to scramble to produce more while dealing with the challenges of employee safety, they're now better able to keep up with the demand for products. 

Catalent has kept in regular contact with suppliers and customers to manage supply chain problems and prevent a shortage of its life-saving products, Brearly said. 

“The patients who receive the vaccine or treatment manufactured at one of our facilities could be a family member or even ourselves, and that knowledge is something we carry with us every day,” Brearly said.

Patterson said Promega, customers and suppliers around the world have learned from the initial rush to address the pandemic and are now working more effectively despite the continued high demand for products.

“Customers, suppliers, all of us around the globe learned from the initial emergency of more than a year ago,” Patterson said. “Demand is still high, but it can be met much more effectively at this point.”

Lasting impact

Some of the companies also see what could be positive changes for them on the horizon.

Epic, which develops and manages electronic health records and other health care software, saw a marked increase in telehealth visits this year. 

“Adoption of telehealth is here to stay,” said Jackie Gerhart, a physician at Epic. “Patient engagement is higher than ever and will continue to climb as patients embrace mobile technology for health care.”

At Exact Sciences, its at-home colon cancer screening test Cologuard saw an increase in orders in the last quarter of 2020 compared to the year before, even though doctor visits during this time were down. 

“This tells us that Cologuard will continue to help get more people screened and that consumers are increasingly looking for convenient health care options that fit their lifestyles,” Larrivee said.

Exact Sciences has continued processing COVID-19 samples and will until the pandemic subsides — a day the company looks forward to — Larrivee said.

“We look forward to putting this pandemic behind us,” Larrivee said.


Shining stars: Meet the Madison area's Top Workplaces

Make no mistake about it: The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have left painful scars. But this year’s Top Workplaces project shows that many employees across the Madison region remain resiliently upbeat and are clinging to their workplace cultures, even from a distance.

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Celebrate the best of Madison’s local employers and hear top executives explain how they create and maintain their cultures of growth.

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This year’s winners run the gamut from dentistry to financial institutions and engineering to software developers and many more.

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Survey feedback from employees is the sole basis for determining Top Workplaces. And that feedback serves as the ultimate test of how employers are responding in the age of COVID.

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This year’s top-ranked large organization, with about 590 Madison-area employees, UW Credit Union has made diversity a priority during the past few years. 

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Exact Sciences, which rose from a small operation to a growing force in cancer diagnostics, thrives on a workplace culture fueled by innovation, teamwork and a common enemy.

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Teamwork, problem-solving and helping agents find success — however they measure it — drive the workplace culture at First Weber Realtors.

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Everyone wants their pre-pandemic lives back, but the crisis revealed the value of Summit Credit Union’s strong culture.

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The ability of Kwik Trip employees to manage change was important to the convenience store chain’s success during the past year, as it expanded, rolled out new product offerings and dealt with COVID-19.

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Here are the other top-ranked large firms in Top Workplaces 2021, rounding out a diverse mix of some of the area’s bigger employers and featuring a range of benefits that employees are able to tap into.

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The Madison-based firm, which develops mass notification software to alert employees at schools, government office and businesses to emergency situations, strives to understand what drives high job satisfaction among its employees.

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WPPI Energy president and CEO Mike Peters says communication is vital to the success of the Sun Prairie-based, member-owned operation that serves 51 local electric utilities with wholesale electric power supply, utility technologies and services.

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Employees at Madison-based Ascendium Education Group have adopted the values and mission of the organization and appreciate the training that keeps them on the cutting edge.

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Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation values humility and customer service in a culture that has buy-in from CEO Steve Jacobson to the newe…

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The disruption and chaos inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic tested the stability of First Choice Dental’s workplace culture.

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The Top Workplaces winners among midsize companies reflect innovative styles to building corporate cultures that their employees embrace. Here’s a look at the other winners in the mid-size category:

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When the pandemic arrived, Horizon Develop Build Manage president and CEO Dan Fitzgerald was certain of one thing: His employee culture, built purposefully and over time, would carry the company through all of the disruption.

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When Jack Koziol started InfoSec Institute in Madison in 2004, he felt that workplace culture was nothing more than a corporate buzzword. Seventeen years later, he knows better.

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In the past chaos-packed year, revenues dipped for the downtown advertising, design and digital agency — a result of the economic mess created by the pandemic — and the agency had its first layoffs in 20 years, while its staff was scattered to complete work remotely.

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Being successful in providing customers with information technology solutions and services starts with a family-centered culture based on fun, gratitude and expertise at AE Business Solutions.

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The Sun Prairie-based company, which specializes in servicing and supplying components for heavy-duty, off-highway equipment through 10 service centers in the U.S. and Canada, strives for transparency.

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Although winners in the small-company category reflect a variety of missions, they share a common characteristic: They have built strong workplaces that provide stand-out benefits and flexibility. Here are the other winners in the small-company category:

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Among this year’s Top Workplaces, employees singled out several companies for their extraordinary efforts in important phases of workplace life, ranging from leadership to transparency.

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Businesses that suddenly found themselves in the midst of a pandemic that shattered conventional ways of working quickly discovered that a strong workplace culture was vital to surviving and thriving during the crisis.

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We have no idea what the extent of these changes will be or whether this whole notion of “normal” will ever find itself back into our lives.

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Jim Nussle, president and CEO of the Credit Union National Association, spoke about what makes CUNA’s culture special.

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Kathy Marsh, co-founder and vice chair of Musicnotes, shares her thoughts on the workplace culture at the Madison-based digital sheet music retailer.

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Larry Barton, chief executive officer of Strang, talks about creating a strong culture at the Madison-based firm. 

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To become a Top Workplace, organizations instill in their team members a variety of values and approaches that keep their businesses thriving in the marketplace, their employees engaged and their communities strong.

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