Spokane Journal of Business

Engineering trio launches laboratory automation venture here

Design-manufacturing company tiny, but has global aspirations

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-—Katie Ross
ELAS CEO Peter Bean and CTO Mike Everett manufacture metal parts for their automation projects with machines like this original 1950s lathe

Three Spokane engineers have joined to launch a company named Empire Laboratory Automation Systems LLC that will design and manufacture products for the laboratory, biosciences, pharmaceutical, educational, and agricultural industries.

For now, the company is devoting about 90 percent of its efforts to developing product prototypes, but it also has begun marketing some products as its transitions more into commercialization activities, says CEO Peter Bean.

 “We’ve got a few things that are getting close and we’re marketing them, but they’re not completely built yet,” Bean says. 

He says that while the company is making prototypes, it also is generating some revenues through contract manufacturing. 

 “My goal is to have $1.2 million in revenue in 2014,” Bean says. “That could come in two or three orders, but it’s much more likely to come in five or six orders.” 

ELAS, which officially launched last August, manufactures products that it designs and also products designed to clients’ specifications. 

“It’s kind of a mix at the moment; there’s some core products that we’re manufacturing,” Bean says. “But we’re actually doing some contract work in industrial automation as well.”

He says the company also has landed contracts for some projects that it then intends to market. 

“We have a system that’s designed for pesticide analysis; it extracts pesticides from fruits and vegetables,” Bean says. “It’s a completely custom system designed for a client, but we’re also marketing it to others, although it was initially designed for a single customer.”

This year, he says, the company hopes to expand its employment beyond the three founding engineers by adding a fourth engineer and a sales and marketing person, he says. 

“If we do well and get those two employees, we want to go farther afield, maybe Australia,” he says. 

Bean says he hopes the company will be able to add more employees in 2015 as well. Currently, the three founders are the only employees. 

“If things go as well as I hope, we probably will be at seven to 10 employees by the end of next year,” Bean says. 

A majority of the company’s market will be overseas, which Bean says is partially the result of his previous work in international sales. 

“A lot of my contacts are out there in the rest of the world, outside the domestic market,” he says. “So it’s a natural thing to start hitting those contacts first.”

Bean says that some of the businesses the company sells to, such as biorepositories and biobanks aren’t as prevalent here as they are in Europe. However, Bean says ELAS does have some regional clients and is working to grow its domestic presence. 

“We actually want to grow the regional market and we’ve started to try and do that now,” he says. “We have a Web presence here and we’re starting to look at ways to improve our profile.”

The business occupies 2,200 square feet of leased space at 2704 N. Hogan, says Bean. About 1,800 square feet of that is workshop space, he says, and the rest is office space. 

“There are a couple of front offices and one large office the three of us share and a fairly well-equipped workshop facility where we can manufacture our own parts and machinery,” he says. “We’re not dependent on external suppliers.”

With the equipment in the shop, Bean says, ELAS has the ability to manufacture metal parts, bend sheet metal, weld, and do some plastic molding. It also uses SolidWorks software to design mechanical and electrical projects. 

Bean, a mechanical engineer who specializes in automation, and Chief Technical Officer Michael Everett, an electrical engineer and machinist, are the main founders of the company. The other part-owner of the company is design engineer Douglas Pooler, who is the company’s chief operations officer.  

All three were already living in Spokane, Bean says, and working at other tech companies here when they made the decision to form a new company. Bean was vice president of international sales and Everett was a lead electrical engineer at MatriCal Biosciences before Massachusetts-based Brooks Automation Inc. bought the assets of that company last July and changed its name to Brooks Life Science Systems. MatriCal developed products designed for scientific research. Douglas Pooler also formerly worked for MatriCal, but left there more than a year ago, Bean says. 

As an example of the kinds of products ELAS makes, Bean says, the company recently designed a product for spreading flower pollen over agricultural fields. 

“Most of the farms and orchards use supplemental pollination to increase crop yield,” Bean says. 

Typically, that process is done using machinery that’s cobbled together from devices designed for different uses, Bean claims, such as taped-together leaf blowers. ELAS designed a product that’s for the specific purpose of spreading pollen.

“We designed this product just to do this purpose,” he says. “And it’s not gas powered. It’s powered by the electrical power from the vehicle you’re driving around the fields. It doesn’t have the traditional liabilities that have to do with feeding the pollen into the machine, and it’s not taped together.”

The company also is in the initial stages of marketing the software and hardware for a semi-automated walk-in storage system, called the ELAS Quantum, for use in storing and retrieving biological samples. The software component is called the iGuide system, Bean says.  

“It’s very sophisticated technology designed to allow you to retrieve samples or store them in temperatures from ambient to minus 80 degrees Celsius,” Bean says. 

Fully automated storage systems already are available on the market, but those systems can have flaws, Bean asserts. They typically are expensive, upwards of $750,000, he says. Fully-automated systems also use robotics that are programmed to perform only a specific task, he says, without much room to modify. 

“We replaced the robot with an intelligence system meant to guide a human,” Bean says. “A system like this would be one-third to half the price of a fully-automated system, and it can be scalable.”

Bean says the system would start at around $220,000, with the price going up from there depending on the number of samples needing to be stored. For a 1 million-sample storage system, he says, the cost likely would range from $550,000 to $600,000, depending on the required temperature controls. 

The company has begun marketing the Quantum system, Bean says, but hasn’t sold one yet. It currently is building a demo prototype that clients will be able to see prior to purchasing the full-size system, he says.

The company has several other projects in the works, Bean says, including a tissue-sample storage system and a product to hold biological samples at the correct temperature during transportation.

Along with launching the company, Bean and his co-founders have been reaching out to local schools in support of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. Bean and Everett have been mentoring a team at Medical Lake High School that’s trying to make it to the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) international robotics competition. 

“I’ve always thought it was a great thing for local companies to do,” Bean says. He says he has also reached out to North Central High School and is collaborating with the school on a design project so students there can see how the robotics design process works. 

Since launching, ELAS has been focused on building its business volume and product lines. 

For example, it’s currently in the pre-order process for a laboratory storage and preparation system for pesticide analysis for a client in the Netherlands, Bean says. He says the company is also pulling in revenue from smaller projects and some contract engineering work. 

“We’re ticking along,” he says. 

Bean says the company has received advice and assistance from the Washington Small Business Development Center. Bean says the organization helped ELAS contact banks about possible Small Business Administration loans, put it in touch with Greater Spokane Incorporated, and assisted with press and advertising. The center also sometimes brokers grants between the state and small businesses, Bean says.

The company was initially funded through the investments of the three founders, Bean says. The three then worked with the WSBDC to secure a SBA loan through Washington Trust Bank here to give it some working capital, Bean says. 

In Spokane, Bean says, the WSBDC has an export trade expert who has also been assisting the company with its overseas clients. 

“He’s been very interested in helping us,” he says. “Most of our market is overseas.”

 

Bean says the state business development center has been helpful in getting the business up and running.

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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