Spokane Journal of Business

Empire Technical Development finds fresh focus on bugs

Company CEO prepares for entomology conference

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-—Kevin Blocker
Intern Benjamin Hutchens, left, and shop manager Bryan Butcher operate a milling machine at Empire Technical’s facility here.

Peter Bean had no idea when he co-founded Empire Technical Development LLC three years ago that he’d one day pack his bags and travel to the Entomology Society of America’s annual trade show to try to drum up new business. 

“No, it certainly wasn’t what I had in mind,” says the 56-year-old Bean, a native of Great Britain who emigrated to the U.S. in 2001 and still speaks with a thick British accent. “That was not in our area of expertise, but it’s pretty cool to be going there.”

For Bean, business from entomologists, those who study insects, is slowly creeping up. Next month, he will travel to Orlando, Fla., for the entomology society’s 25th annual trade show. He’ll take with him examples of parts and products that Empire has designed and manufactured for its current customer base.

With the use of basic machining and fabrication tools—such as lathes and milling machines—Bean estimates that 75 percent of all the company’s business is now related to manufacturing and distributing parts for entomology-related companies. Empire’s customers grow insects in laboratory settings before selling them to private and public researchers for scientific study.

Empire has the ability to manufacture metal parts, bend sheet metal, weld, and do some plastic molding. It also uses SolidWorks software to design mechanical projects, Bean says.

“There’s significant growth potential in this area of entomology we believe. Automation would benefit this area of science greatly,” he says.

Empire operates in 2,200 square feet of industrial space at 2704 N. Hogan on two floors of a multitenant industrial complex near Gonzaga Preparatory School on Spokane’s North Side. The lower level is near capacity with machinery, and an upper-level loft is all but filled with inventory and supplies. Including Bean, Empire employs seven people, who include an intern and a part-time worker.

With the increased business and added staff since starting the business, Bean says the company is nearing capacity in its current manufacturing space.

“I like our location. We have a great relationship with the landlord, and the lease is reasonable. I see us staying here and probably trying to secure another unit at this location,” he says.

In the last year, Empire has received several orders from companies that reproduce bugs for scientific studies. Empire developed pre-poured plates, which are small containers that scientists use to cultivate insects in laboratory settings, Bean says.

The idea of manufacturing the pre-poured plates came from a life sciences company based in the Raleigh, N.C., area. The company, which Bean declines to identify, is one of Empire’s customers and needed a way to be able to grow insect populations more quickly for its customer base.

Empire makes the pre-poured plates, which are essentially petri dishes, in various sizes, shapes, and types of material. Entomologists then use the plates for growing insects. The company is currently in the process of upgrading the machine it uses to make the plates, which would give it the ability to produce up to 300 plates per day, Bean says.

Empire uses a clean room to assemble and package the plates, which cuts down on dust and particulates that accumulate during the manufacturing process.

“The clean room has its own interior filter to remove particulates from the air. You have to wear a cap and gown in there to reduce contamination,” says Bean, adding that Empire does have the ability to manufacture products in a sterilized environment at a client’s request.

Bean says most of Empire’s service contracts are with life sciences companies that have strict confidentiality agreements in place, preventing him from identifying them. However, he says Empire’s clients include agribusiness and life sciences global giant Syngenta AG, based in Switzerland. Empire also serves smaller clients such as Carlisle, Penn.-based researcher Benzon Research.

Benzon is an independent contract research lab specializing in bioassays of insect control agents and laboratory efficacy testing. Benzon maintains lab colonies of many insects, and supplies them to government and academic researchers.

Empire Technical Development’s CEO says the company is on pace to generate its highest annual revenue, and he expects it to be debt free by year’s end.

With the help of the Washington Small Business Development Center, Bean secured a $70,000 U.S. Small Business Administration loan through Washington Trust Bank here to give it some working capital before opening for business.

“We’ve paid off the bulk of that debt. For the first time, this year we’ll be in the black,” Bean says.

Bean told the Journal in February 2014 he hoped the company could generate $1.2 million in revenue. He says it wasn’t able to achieve that goal, and he declines to disclose the company’s annual revenues to date, but says it’s on an upward track.

“The first year on the road isn’t always smooth. We’re doing a lot better now than when we first got going,” Bean says.

In August 2013, Bean and two partners, both of whom left the company last year, founded Empire Laboratory Automation Systems LLC with the intention of designing and manufacturing products for the laboratory, biosciences, pharmaceutical, educational, and agricultural industries.

Bean says he streamlined the company’s focus and changed its name to reflect its mission more accurately.

Last year, Empire partnered with Proctor & Gamble Co., in Brussels and helped the company build a benchtop machine to simplify a lab process in its testing center for cleaning products.

Reflecting on the company’s performance to date, he says, “We had a roller-coaster revenue stream. Since our first year, we have pursued service contracts for existing machines (that its customers use). Last year was a lot better.”

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