by Pia K. Hansen
Kevin Oldenburg had a problem. While working at the chemical giant DuPont, he needed an automated system to handle and store, say, two million compounds at a time. This is not an uncommon situation in the medical field, where researchers who develop new medications against diseases such as Alzheimer's simply test and test and test, over and over again, until they find the compound that works to inhibit the protein that starts the disease. The challenge is always to keep the tubes marked correctly and stored in a way that makes it easy to find the right tube again. Clearly, Post-it notes are not an option.
"I called around, and the companies I talked to said a system like that would be somewhere between $5 million to $7 million. I mean, that's just crazy," says Oldenburg. "So I designed the system myself and built the first one while I was still at DuPont. We can sell the one you're looking at for $1.5 million."
The system is called MatriStore. It's basically a robot arm mounted on a huge rack that holds tray after tray of little test tubes. To be exact, this system -- which fits in a cube less than 10 feet on a side -- can handle 11 million samples. And targeting a market of some of the wealthiest companies in the world -- pharmaceutical companies -- means there really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
"We have a huge capacity in a very small space," says Oldenburg of his robotic machine. "That's an obvious benefit. The other benefit is that we can build a system that's 27 feet tall, and it only costs 15 percent more to do so. We just delivered one of those."
Working today in the lower level at SIRTI, Oldenburg -- who says his title is "president, founder and janitor" -- started MatriCal in May 2000 with just one employee.
"Well, there was just me. My business partner Dan Roark was in golden handcuffs where he was at, but he told me that if I started a company, he'd come join me as soon as he could," says Oldenburg. Golden handcuffs are often applied to engineers and researchers who develop new medication or equipment which becomes the property of the company they work for. To keep such employees from taking their inventions elsewhere, the company simply pays them enough to stick around.
Every time someone purchases a MatriStore unit, they also sign a contract for supplies -- test tubes and other plastic containers -- that runs about $200,000 to $300,000 a year per unit.
MatriStore isn't the only innovative product Oldenburg and his company have created, however. The Sonicator is a brand-new product that, simply speaking, breaks up samples of cells, DNA or other compounds by driving high-energy sound waves through them.
The trick is, says Oldenburg, that no one has ever been able to develop an apparatus that can do so with more than one sample at a time.
"This one allows us to do 2,000 probes at the same time," he explains. "That has applications in homeland defense, for instance. If you look at anthrax, the only way to find out what you have is to break up the spores and look at the DNA. We can do 10,000 of those samples within five minutes, instead of one at a time."
So there are plenty of reasons for Oldenburg to be very optimistic about the future.
"In 2001, we hired two engineers; in 2002, we moved to Spokane and to SIRTI. And today we employ 15 people," says Oldenburg. "We grew really fast from three to 15, and I'd say we support at least five employees outside of the company. We use H & amp; H Molding out in the Valley, and L & amp; M Fabrication to do the sheet metal work." He says he likes working with local contractors and that smaller companies like MatriCal often are much better off striking deals locally.
"I'm not big enough to go overseas. I mean, these people are just down the street and they are willing to build me the one or five units I need," says Oldenburg. "That is how we keep manufacturing jobs here in the country."
Oldenburg and Roark haven't received a lot of help from the Chamber of Commerce or any other economic development organization.
"When we came out there to look at Spokane, the people from the Economic Development Council showed us around and that was very nice and all," says Oldenburg. "But we are a small company, and a small company will never get help from the state, city or whatever, no matter where it's located. They have to go after the big guys. We are so far under their radar."
Regardless, Oldenburg highly recommends doing business in Spokane.
"There are so many reasons for doing business here, it's not even funny. I mean, it would cost me 50 percent more for the same staff if I was located in California," he says. Washington's high minimum wage doesn't matter to companies like MatriCal, Oldenburg adds, because engineers are so highly paid in the first place.
Low rent is also a good incentive to move to Spokane.
"A similar space would cost 10 times as much in San Francisco," says Oldenburg.
His only complaint? The B & amp; O tax.
"That sucks. I mean, any tax dollar that's taken away from me means a dollar less for me to hire another person," says Oldenburg.
The main attraction for people to come work at MatriCal is the technology.
"You know, all that talk about having nap rooms and stuff, that's b.s. There is only one reason people stay in a job, and that's because they're having fun," says Oldenburg. "We develop technology that's new and exciting. The engineers come in at all hours to 'play' in the lab. They like what they do. If you get up in the morning and go, 'Oh God, I don't want to go to work,' then I'd say you need to go get another job."
Publication date: 02/26/04