KALAMAZOO — Richard West developed his expertise in clinical flow cytometry as he worked for several big employers, including Spectrum Health and Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids. He also helped build the stem cell engineering lab at DeVos Children’s Hospital.
But in 2010, West caught the entrepreneurial bug and founded his self-described dream company, West Labs Scientific LLC.
In his new venture, West and a part-time assistant perform flow cytometry, vet hematology and blood chemistry, DNA content analysis, cell imaging and whatever it takes to keep his customers happy.
While he no longer has the immense resources of Spectrum Health or DeVos Children’s Hospital at his disposal, he does have equally impressive, but much less expensive wet lab space provided by the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center at Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research Park.
He’s been based at SMIC since early 2011. Using West Labs Scientific as a guinea pig of sorts, SMIC in November rolled out a new resource for life science startups, called Launch MI Lab. It is a fully equipped and staffed bioscience laboratory “rented” to startups.
“We embrace the whole idea of lean startup, especially in biotech where it’s difficult to get funding,” West said. “I’ve been a client of the core life science lab since early 2011. The big bonus is having all of the infrastructure and the equipment available. It allows me to start a bioscience company at the ground level without a huge amount of monetary commitment.”
Using lean startup principles, West said he tries to fine-tune his services to the needs of his clients, many of whom are also tenants at SMIC.
“If there is something close to what we offer, we can make it fit,” he said. “There is no job too small for us. That’s the biggest difference between us and a larger company.”
One of those SMIC clients that West Labs serves is CeeTox Inc., which has developed a systems-biology approach using in-vitro models to identify new drug candidates, chemicals, cosmetics and consumer products with the lowest risk for toxicity. The company hired West Labs to count cells in a gene toxicity test, said Jamin A. Willoughby, Sr., Ph.D., project manager and study director at CeeTox. He said if CeeTox did the study, it would take a long time. Instead, West Labs performs the work in a matter of hours.
“The data comes quickly,” Willoughby said. “I can even walk down the hallway to (West Labs’) office to pick it up. It means we don’t have to ship our samples out of state. It saves us money and makes us more efficient.”
The other lean startup aspect he cites about West Labs is its willingness to tackle other tough testing problems that may not be among the services the company typically provides.
“We’ll often say to him, ‘Do you do this?’ He’s willing to try. He has that much confidence in himself,” Willoughby said.
Another SMIC client, Proteos Inc., also highly rates West Labs’ flexibility and services.
“Proteos is now able to offer baculovirus titering services in a timely manner to its customers because of the convenience of having West Labs located in Southwest Michigan Innovation Center,” said Martin Deibel, Jr., Ph.D., the chief scientific officer at Proteos. “Proteos is pleased with the accuracy and reliability of the data that we receive from West Labs.”
Launch MI Lab hopes to help create dozens of companies like West Labs, said program manager Greg Cavey, who comes to the job with more than 20 years in proteomics, mass spectrometry and lab management for pharmaceutical companies and the Van Andel Research Institute. He also provides mass spectrometry services and counsel for clients at SMIC as well as for local, regional and national research companies and universities and colleges.
“Most people come to SMIC and rent an empty lab,” Cavey said. “Then they have to buy their own equipment. It’s very expensive for anybody.”
When SMIC was created a decade ago, much of the lab equipment used by the first bioscience tenants was donated from major area companies, Cavey said. But free equipment has since dried up, and with it the employees spun out of other companies that downsized or closed operations.
West Labs, then, is representative of the new wave of tenants who, like West, always wanted to captain their own ships, but didn’t know if their product or service was viable.
“This lab would allow someone to come in here for a few weeks or months and find out if their bioscience product or service works or not,” Cavey said. “It allows them to do lean startup.”
Launch MI Lab, Cavey said, should appeal to trailing spouses who move to Kalamazoo with a husband or wife who was hired by a local company, especially if those spouses have business ideas of their own. The service could also appeal to someone who is retired but wants to keep his or her hand in science. Research professors on sabbatical are another potential tenant.
“Rich was one of the early people involved with us here, but we expect a lot more entrepreneurs to follow him,” Cavey said. “To them we also offer affordable, short- and long-term leases, on-site small-business advisers and administrative support.”
Mike Brennan is senior technology writer at MiBiz. His day job is editor and publisher of MITechNews.com