You may not have heard of Bacterin, but this small company from a mountain town in Montana is making its mark on the world. Fortune magazine named Bacterin a top breakout company of 2005, singling it out as one of 25 innovative unknowns. Guy Cook, the company’s founder, CEO and chief scientific officer, is recognized as a world expert on biofilms.
What is a biofilm? It’s the plaque on your teeth and the clog in your drain. In fact, any object exposed to bacteria and water can form one of these slimy coatings. When that object is a medical implant, a biofilm can cause infection in the human body. Bacterin has developed coatings for medical devices that help prevent biofilm infection; these products also help the body recognize an implant not as a foreign object, but as something that belongs there.
The company had humble beginnings — it started in Cook’s basement, with used equipment bought on eBay. Cook had previously worked at Montana State University’s Center for Biofilm Engineering, and in 1997 decided to leave to form his own company. Bacterin eventually moved out of Cook’s basement into a larger facility, performing contract research for other firms. In 2001, Cook moved the company to TechRanch, an incubator in Bozeman, with the goal of commercializing its research.
One of the things that Cook liked most about the incubator was the community feeling. "A sense of camaraderie develops, a sense of support and infrastructure, the idea that you’re not alone," he explains. "You tend to make bad decisions early if you’re making them on your own; it’s good to talk to people. You can bounce ideas off of them to help avoid those big mistakes."
The most helpful advice came from professionals the incubator brought in about twice a month to give guidance on everything from public relations to intellectual property, Cook says. Advice on IP was especially valuable. "They brought in patent attorneys from top-tier firms across the country," he says. "It was like Patent Law 101. They really increased awareness of how important that would be to our company."
Bacterin’s ability to stay in the Bozeman area also was due, in part, to the incubator. Without TechRanch’s help in securing investors, Bacterin might have had to move to the East or West Coast, where potential investors were located, Cook says. Working with Bridger Private Capital Network, a local angel network TechRanch manages, the company was able to stay in Montana.
John O’Donnell, TechRanch’s executive director, says the commitment to stay in Montana was one of the qualities that stood out about Bacterin. "We looked at it and realized it could be a big company that could generate a lot of jobs for [university] graduates in Montana," he says. That has certainly been the case; what started off as a two-person company now has more than 40 employees and is helping to make the area a hub for biofilm research and development. Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is learning from Bacterin; in 2003, 13 FDA officials visited the company to confer on how bacteria testing is done in medical device companies.
The company continues to grow. Bacterin, which graduated from TechRanch in 2003, has expanded its intellectual property and patents to include the areas of bone repair and tissue engineering. Its scientists have patented three products and have several more pending; it can boast the federal government as a client, developing coatings with battlefield applications for the Department of Defense. The newest development is the possibility of going public, hopefully in the next three years, Cook says.
"It’s the poster child of a successful company [that] came out of an incubator program," says O’Donnell. "Every incubator in the world would love to have a story like Bacterin."
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