11 Oct An entrepreneurial success story — Frank Langley champions biocapitalism
Pel-Freez Clinical Systems, LLC began as a rabbit-meat processing operation in Southern California. The business flourished during the World Wars because unlike other meats, rabbit meat was not rationed. As time went on, Pel-Freez Rabbit Meat, Inc. relocated to Rogers, Arkansas, because the climate there was more conducive to raising rabbits.
During the 1960s, the company’s managers realized that the by-products from processing rabbit meat — things like rabbit tissues, organs, and blood — could be used for testing and experimental purposes in the emerging biotechnology industry. The company changed its name from Pel-Freez Rabbit Meat, Inc. to Pel-Freez Clinical Systems, LLC, and began to create new products targeted at biotech researchers.
Determined to create only those products that their customers actually wanted, the company’s managers sought advice from professors at the Medical College of Wisconsin about the sorts of products that would be helpful for biotechnological researchers. Based on the advice they received, Pel-Freez began to design blood-based products for supporting heart, liver, and kidney transplants. In 1982, Pel-Freez moved to Milwaukee, where it established a strategic partnership with the Blood Center of Southeastern Wisconsin.
In 1996, when Frank Langley became the President and CEO of Pel-Freez, the company employed 25 people. By October, 2003, when Pel-Freez and its sister company, Pel-Freez Biotechnology of Beijing, China were sold to Dynal Biotech ASA of Oslo, Norway, that number had grown to 70.
The company’s rapid growth and successful sale was the result of a lot of hard work and strategic decision making on the part of its then-President and CEO, Frank Langley.
When asked to explain the transformation, Langley said: “We were a blood-based products company selling to a market that was rapidly going to molecular biology.” Although the Pel-Freez of 1996 enjoyed some success selling products for heart, liver, and kidney transplants, its new president saw a demand for products and services related to molecular biology. At the time, Pel-Freez lacked the personnel, products, and equipment necessary to give molecular biology researchers what they wanted.
Determined to seize this opportunity, Langley took a risk. He hired new personnel, bought new equipment, and created a new line of products.
The bet paid off. Within one year the new equipment was functioning and the company was selling its new products to molecular biology researchers.
Between 1996 and 2003, Pel-Freez more than doubled the size of its facility and established a sister company in Beijing, China. “We set a lofty goal,” Langley recalled. “We just said, ‘We’re going to accomplish this.’”
The transformation of Pel-Freez required a great deal of hard work. “I traveled an incredible amount,” Langley recalled. While president of Pel-Freez, Langley established partnerships with companies around the world, including companies based in Canada and Europe. The corporation that ultimately purchased Pel-Freez, Dynal Biotech ASA, is based in Oslo, Norway.
The business contacts that Langley brought back to Wisconsin have had a positive impact on the state’s economy. “We went through this rapid growth, and we only had to relocate three people,” Langley said. The vast majority of the new jobs that were created at Pel-Freez during Langley’s presidency went to highly educated, hardworking individuals who were already living in Wisconsin.
How to sell Europeans on doing business in Wisconsin
Part of the job of selling Pel-Freez to Dynal Biotech was selling Dynal’s European managers on the benefits of doing business in Milwaukee. To accomplish this, Langley emphasized Wisconsin’s fantastic institutions of higher learning, including MCW, Marquette, MSOE, UWM, MATC, UW, and the Blood Center of Southeastern Wisconsin.
Next, Langley reminded the Europeans that the cost of doing business in Milwaukee was much lower than the cost of doing business in other American cities, because of the lower cost of real estate and utilities. Third, Langley emphasized the high quality of life that Milwaukee offers to both employees and business managers. Finally, he talked up Milwaukee’s geographic location, which allows executives to get to major markets on either coast relatively quickly.
Langley’s pitch was effective. When Oslo-based Dynal Biotech bought Pel-Freez, it closed its facilities in Long Island and Philadelphia and consolidated its American business operations in Milwaukee.
After the Sale: Pursuing New Opportunities
Langley left Pel-Freez in March, 2004 on good terms. “It was beyond where I could add value,” he said.
In August, 2004, Langley joined PointOne Systems, LLC, to develop bioinformatic products and get involved with molecular medicine at the point of care.
Langley’s new office is located in a former tuberculosis sanitarium on Milwaukee’s County Grounds. When I visited, the space between Langley’s window-unit air conditioner and the window itself was stuffed with crumpled-up newspapers.
“Aesthetically speaking, we’re one notch above Wal-Mart,” Langley said.
PointOne’s founders made a conscious decision to avoid spending their initial round of angel investment financing on a fancy office. “When you’re developing a business, where do you appropriately spend the money?” Langley asked. “I’d rather spend the money developing products and getting those products in front of customers.”
Business trips to places like Vancouver, Uppsala, Oslo, and Beijing are expensive. While the former tuberculosis sanitarium may not represent top-of-the-line office space, Langley is proud to be getting in on the ground floor of a bioinformatics company that might change the world.
PointOne’s goal is to take its proprietary algorithms and software, identify people who are pre-disposed to certain diseases, and help health care organizations provide treatment for these diseases at the earliest possible stages. To achieve this end, PointOne has already begun to collaborate with Aurora Healthcare to identify patients at higher risk for developing breast cancer and congestive heart failure.
“We’re not doing the physicians’ job,” Langley said. “It’s supplemental to them. We take the results from the human genome project and identify patients who are at risk for certain diseases.”
Langley expects to sell PointOne’s various products to doctors, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance companies, because all of these entities have a need for information.
PointOne is now funded by angel investors. “Our challenge is to generate enough revenue to become self-sustaining,” Langley said.
Teresa Esser is a contributing columnist for the Wisconsin Technology Network and author of the book, The Venture Café. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.