Welcome to the first of a new BioBuzz series, where we talk with Maryland biotech industry executives about their business, and what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.
Company: BridgePath Scientific
Chief Executive: Patrick Haley, Founder, President and CEO
Location: Frederick, MD
Started in: 2006
Products/services: Sells refurbished and new laboratory equipment, and offers contract research services
Customers: research labs at colleges/universities, commercial companies and government agencies
Employees: 10 (veteran-owned small business)
How did you get started?
It was “a complete accident.” I have an information technology (IT) and computer background. I started Frederick’s technology and biotech business incubator, the Frederick Innovative Technology Center, Inc. (FITCI), with a couple other people in 2003, and served as chairman of the board for four years, where I learned a lot more about biotech through FITCI’s clients.
BridgePath started as a consulting company, and I expected to stay in the IT space. Then one of our clients at FITCI needed help negotiating a better price for lab equipment. We were able to help the client get a better price, so they could purchase more equipment with their available funds. Then another FITCI client needed help locating a used microscope. We were able to find one within their budget, and then began helping them source all of their equipment needs.
When we came across a biotech company that was going out of business, we purchased all of its equipment, borrowed some warehouse space, and started calling companies to see if they needed any of the items we now had in inventory. Basically, we saw a big need—affordable, quality refurbished lab equipment—and solved it for the biotech industry.
So the business grew up in an incubator?
Yes. We graduated from FITCI in 2008. (Note: FITCI currently has a mix of IT and biotech start-up clients, and accepts applications on an ongoing basis. Learn more at: http://www.fitci.org/ )
How has the economic climate the last few years affected your business?
At first, our customers were almost exclusively small biotechs and universities. Then, in the last few years, mid-sized and large biotechs started looking at used equipment as well.
“More than last year.”
How are you different?
Instead of the golden rule, we use the “platinum rule”: do unto others as they would like to have done. We want to see our clients succeed so we can continue to serve them. We take what I call the “CarMax” approach to used lab equipment. We take everything that is great about purchasing refurbished lab equipment and make it better, and we take everything that stinks about purchasing refurbished lab equipment and mitigate it. We have a qualification and certification process, and offer warranties for our products.
We learn a lot about the small biotech customer and their requirements, and share that knowledge with our clients. For example, we help them with the details of lab build-outs. Details such as, “what type voltage is available” makes a huge difference in what equipment they can buy, and where they can place it. We want to help our clients succeed, so we can continue to serve them.
It seems unusual for an equipment supplier to also offer contract research services. What’s the story behind that?
We operate a small contract research lab and offer proteomics, genomics and nanoparticle services. We have Ph.D. scientists who verify that our refurbished equipment works properly in a laboratory setting. We have lots of very expensive equipment in stock—equipment that many small research labs could not afford to purchase just to bid on small projects, things like high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) machines and -80° freezers. We can use our inventory equipment to perform work at a lower cost than other service providers, then clean, test, and prepare it for inventory again.
We don’t know of any other companies that follow this model. It gives us a competitive advantage on both sides of the business.
Your website features some items on eBay Live. What’s your strategy there?
At any moment, you can find a quarter million pieces of lab equipment on eBay. We use it to accelerate inventory turns. After a certain amount of time in inventory, we move items into our website clearance section. Then, if they still don’t sell, we discount them further and post to eBay for a quick sale, since it costs us money to have it sit here on a shelf. We also sometimes end up with things we don’t usually sell when we buy lots of equipment at auction. Instead of posting on our website, we’ll post items that don’t fit our regular product lines directly to eBay, so we don’t dilute the brand.
What advice would you offer to entrepreneurs?
1) Don’t ask “Can I?” Ask “Should I?” With the management team at BridgePath, I’ve customized an opportunity matrix to determine what business lines we pursue. If it doesn’t score high enough, we table it for at least six months.
2) Know what to spend money on. The opportunity matrix we use was customized from a template I got as part of my Vistage group. Vistage is a members-only peer advisory group for CEOs and senior executives, and we hold each other accountable. All entrepreneurs struggle, and knowing you’re not alone is important. Investing in this resource was worth every penny. But it’s not easy. It’s a “lifestyle change in how you run your business.” It helps you build good habits; I call it “business Kung Fu.”
3) Book time to work on your business, not just in it. The death knell for most small businesses is that the owner/founder typically has expertise in one thing. They go and do that thing, and don’t focus on the business. Starting and running a successful business takes “inordinate amounts of time,” and can grind entrepreneurs down within a few years. “I have to work ‘on the business’ [BridgePath] because I’m not a scientist.” For the first three years, I just created systems. Put tools in place to address issues, and metrics to tell us how the business is performing. I like to say that achieving success as a business owner means you can leave—and not work—for two weeks, and everything will be where it needs to be when you get back.
4) Know when to hire experts. You need people who are experts at things you’re not. Legal, bookkeeping, websites, writing marketing copy—don’t try to do it all yourself.
5) Don’t focus only on home runs. You need quality singles and doubles constantly. That’s what will build your business. The home runs are just gravy.
Any final thoughts?
It’s not easy. Most people aren’t built for being an entrepreneur. Scientists especially need to recognize that you’ll need help in other areas. Our team here is a meritocracy—everyone’s input is valued. I often ask everyone on staff to give me five ideas on an issue. Ask for help!
This article is based on a conversation between Patrick Haley and April Finnen in February 2013. If you’d like to recommend a CEO for a BioBuzz profile, please contact April.