Bia Diagnostics LLC
The perfect time to drop in at Bia Diagnostics LLC in Burlington, Vermont, is when you’re hungry. The large, open room that functions as a combination office/conference/lunch space is a veritable warehouse of snacks. And if you’re someone who has a food allergy, no worries. Since this rapidly growing company’s business revolves around food-allergen testing, you can be sure that if the pretzels, chocolates, crackers, cookies, bread, etc., are labeled gluten- (or soy-, or peanut-, etc.-) free, they truly are.
Food, neutraceutical, animal feed, and other manufacturers from all over North America and Europe—and even one recent client from South Africa—rely on Bia Diagnostics to accurately determine whether food allergens are present in their finished products, in the raw materials used, or on their production equipment. The company employs simple, proven, antibody-based immunological assays, using both polyclonal and monoclonal antibodies. They offer allergen testing, assay development, and method-validation services.
Right from the start, say the Graces, the Bia Diagnostics business model was “to provide our customers with the most reliable and highest standards in food-allergen analysis.” Given the complexity and wide variety of products to be tested, doing this is no easy feat. According to Thom, “Food samples are probably a thousand times more complicated than samples used in animal diagnostics.” Even when products contain identical ingredients, he explains, the manufacturing process often varies significantly. Processing steps, such as heating and extrusion, can denature or sequester antigens, and other components in complex mixtures, such as fats, can interfere with immunological assays.
Thom and Hannah initially planned to use commercially available ELISAs for their testing, but they found that, for many allergens, they simply did not provide accurate, reliable results from the complex, processed samples their customers needed to analyze. Antibodies directed against processed, rather than native or unprocessed, antigens are needed for these matrices. The Graces developed a very close collaboration with a laboratory in Oregon to produce antibodies to their specifications, antibodies which the Bia Diagnostics team then uses to develop ELISAs for quantitative testing at their Burlington laboratory. The antibodies are also used in lateral flow devices (LFDs)—think drugstore pregnancy test—that are developed at Bia Diagnostics and manufactured in various facilities in the US. These LFDs are designed for customers who need rapid, on-site food-allergen analysis. Companies use them to fulfill their regulated testing requirements (e.g., HACCP, GMP, AOAC, Health Canada) for label verification. LFDs offer a convenient and reliable method for checking raw materials, swabs from machinery and manufacturing lines, and finished products for food allergens.
As of last week, Bia Diagnostics cemented their relationship with their antibody producer by launching a new partnership, called Elution Technologies. This new company will market the LFD testing kits and will also make ELISA kits commercially available, and Bia Diagnostics will focus on service offerings.
I asked the Bia Diagnostics leadership team, which now also includes Robin Grace (Thom’s wife and Hannah’s mother), to describe the pros and cons of operating a bioscience business in Vermont. They mentioned that the weather can sometimes interfere with shipments to and from their facility, and that travel often requires more than one connecting flight, but they consider these to be minor inconveniences that are easily outweighed by the many benefits of their Burlington location. Thom cites the opportunities available for trading ideas with researchers at the University of Vermont as a big plus, and he says that their geographic proximity to UVM “creates a feedback mechanism” that has been very helpful at times; Hannah values and appreciates being part of the vibrant and supportive Burlington business community; and Robin mentions the large pool of educated, creative, and social-minded applicants who have responded to employment opportunities with Bia Diagnostics. (On that note, the company looks forward to giving consideration to a fresh pool of applicants in the near future as their needs continue to grow.)
Bia Diagnostics has clearly given back to the Burlington community—donating many hours and over 20 percent of their profits to local organizations, such as Women Helping Battered Women, the 5k/10k Fairfax Egg Run, and Vermont’s Recreation Fund; and international causes such as the Celiac Sprue Foundation and Amnesty International. Social responsibility is a very important part of the company culture. It guides how Bia Diagnostics interacts with employees, customers, neighbors, and the wider community. And clearly, it’s working—in 2011 Bia Diagnostics was named the U.S. Small Business Administration Vermont Micro-Enterprise of the Year. They were chosen based on growth, rising revenues over a three-year period, and service to the community.
One last thing to know about Bia Diagnostics is the correct pronunciation of the company name: bee-uh (not by-uh) diagnostics. The name is a clever fit. First, bia is gaelic for “food” and Thom was born in Ireland. Secondly, BIA is an acronym for biospecific interaction analysis, which could be used to describe their testing methodology.