Sept. 19--Three weeks before the grand opening of his company's new, $120 million biotech manufacturing facility, Promega Corp. chief executive Bill Linton said he's starting to think about what the Fitchburg company -- founded in 1978 -- will be doing on its 100th anniversary.
"We only have 65 years to go," Linton said.
Linton was the keynote luncheon speaker Wednesday at the Bioscience Vision Summit, the annual conference for Wisconsin's biotechnology community. About 300 people attended the daylong event at Monona Terrace.
Promega has been called "the granddaddy of biotech" in the Madison area by Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Fund. The company is known for its bioscience research tools, including DNA identification kits.
On Wednesday, Linton delivered a personal speech about how he became interested in biotech and created a company that employs more than 1,200 people in 15 countries; sells more than 2,500 products; and recorded $335 million in revenue in 2012.
Linton, 66, said since his early childhood he has had "relentless curiosity" about the way things work as well as a strong sense about events of the future.
Linton said he remembers, at age 6, having a "deep fascination" with rockets and space exploration. In sixth grade, his classmates voted him "most likely to become a mad scientist," he said, adding, "I think that did come true."
His interest in biochemistry was stoked by a National Science Foundation program he attended when he was 16, and Linton said he discovered a treasure trove of discarded lab supplies in a trash bin behind the pharmacy lab.
"That was my first exposure to what Dumpster diving was all about," Linton said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
With the experience of graduate studies at UW-Madison and three years of working at Scientific Protein Labs in Waunakee, Linton, then 31, started Promega as a company that would provide enzymes for scientific researchers. It took two years before the company had enough business to move into a small, cinder block building in Fitchburg.
In 1980, "it was a fairly challenging environment to start up businesses," Linton said. There were no Venture Investors -- a Madison early-stage investment firm that eventually did invest in Promega -- and no business incubators, he said. Some startup money from Michigan and Iowa, along with one year's use of a UW Pharmacy School lab, helped get Promega off the ground.
On Oct. 11, Promega will open its latest building, the Feynman Center, 2780 Woods Hollow Road, to the public. A manufacturing plant that will make products for in vitro diagnostics, the two-story, 260,000-square-foot building is also expected to contain some unexpected features, such as a "living wall" covered with live plants and a "crossroads" for employee collaboration. It is expected to add as many as 150 jobs over the next five years.
Linton said his goal is for Promega to stay independent and privately owned, though that is "unique in the industry."
His view of business is not just to make money -- Promega has been profitable since 1984 -- but to help employees achieve their goals, to look to the future and to take opportunities to pause and imagine the future, Linton said.
"See things with new eyes," he said. "It can lead to new discoveries every day."
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