Monday, December 14, 2015

Innovative company designs custom solutions for biotech, health and ag industries

Working with SBDC advisors on business strategies "frees up more time to invent"


By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC

SPOKANE, Wash. – It’s hard to classify the types of projects that roll out the door at Empire Technical Development in Spokane.

A few recent inventions include a temperature-controlled storage system for biological samples; a spray system mounted on an all-terrain vehicle for pollinating almond trees; and a machine to test the effectiveness of a cleaning solution on tile.

The company’s project portfolio is exceptionally diverse, especially considering most of the work is done by two partners and two employees in a 2,200-square-foot workshop.

“The whole philosophy behind the company is to build technology that is reliable and innovative,” said Peter Bean, CEO for Empire Technical Development (ETD). Not only do they know how to build things, but they enjoy thinking about how to build things better.

But one thing he and partner Maxwell Yardley hadn’t built before was a business from the ground up.

Local commitment, international reach

Peter Bean, left, and Maxwell Yardley of
Empire Technical Development
Early on Bean called Alan Stanford, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

From the beginning, Stanford said, he was impressed with EDT’s engineering capabilities and potential for growth.

“They ‘MacGyver’ stuff together in their workshop to test out their theories without spending millions for stuff that doesn’t work,” he said.

EDT  is the kind of technology and manufacturing company that can have ripple effects in the region, he said: “EDT keeps local residents employed locally, and it has good reach into the international economy.”

Stanford is one of 29 SBDC business advisors across the state who provide one-on-one, confidential, no-cost advising to entrepreneurs who want to start, grow or transition a business. The Washington SBDC (http://wsbdc.org/) receives support from Washington State University, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and other institutions of higher education and economic development.

“I have the utmost respect for Alan’s experience and expertise,” Bean said, adding that their one-on-one meetings covered a variety of issues, including financing, marketing and capital.

International export advice, too

Although EDT had started on a shoestring budget, the company soon needed more capital to fund growth and development. Stanford guided them through the process to obtain an SBA loan and talked them through countless other decisions about how to structure the company and move ahead.

Since much of EDT’s business is international, the partners also met frequently with SBDC export advisor Vern Jenkins.

“There’s a huge, whole range of areas that these people are able to give advice on,” Bean said. “Those guys are very good at finding ideas that can help people like us.”

Having the resources of the SBDC network at their disposal meant Bean and his colleagues didn’t have to reinvent the wheel when it came to setting up business systems and growing their company. And that leaves more time for inventing other stuff.

“One of the things that differentiates us is that we have a pretty good engineering workshop right here in our office,” Bean said.

Elegant, economical solutions

Because they are a small shop, he said, they have the flexibility to experiment and try different approaches quickly, saving both time and money. Any given problem might have dozens of solutions, but EDT searches for the “elegant solution” that achieves maximum desired effect with minimal effort or resources.

That’s the challenge, he said, and it’s what makes the job fun.

“It’s just fun to create something,” Bean said. “We keep on building new toys.”

Those “toys” are often designed to solve difficult problems, particularly in the areas of biotechnology and agriculture.

From pollination to cold storage

For instance, the company recently built the ETD Cerinthus, an electrically powered, automated pollen distribution system for use when natural pollination is either inefficient or impossible.

The machine allows orchardists to spray pollen into trees at a variable rate without having to stop and refuel or stir the pollen to prevent blockages. For growers scrambling to compensate for a serious shortage of bees, for example, the device could literally save their harvest and their livelihood.

There is nothing very fancy about the pollinator, Bean said, except that it does what it needs to do with a minimum of fuss, bother and expense.

EDT also has created a system capable of storing many thousands of biological tissue samples at temperatures down to -80 degrees Celcius. It allows scientists and researchers to retrieve individual samples, or groups of samples, with variable search criteria.

“These systems are designed and tested at the facility here in Spokane before delivery to foreign research facilities, hospitals and medical universities,” said Jenkins, the SBDC export advisor who has been helping EDT find international sales targets.

Most of their clients right now are overseas, Bean said, but he’s hoping that as Spokane develops further as a regional center for healthcare and biotechnology, the local client base may grow as well.

Contacts:
Peter Bean, Empire Technical Development, 509-808-6050, peter@empirelabauto.com
Alan Stanford, Washington SBDC, 509-358-7892, alan.stanford@wsu.edu
Vern Jenkins, Washington SBDC, 509-358-7998, vern.jenkins@wsbdc.org