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Globe 100 | Top biotechnology company

The tools of discovery

New products help push the limits of science - and boost profitability

David Dufault is a technician with Harvard Bioscience, which is expanding beyond its traditional business of making lab instruments. David Dufault is a technician with Harvard Bioscience, which is expanding beyond its traditional business of making lab instruments. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff Photo)
By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2011

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In the gold rush of the biomedical world, Harvard Bioscience Inc. has long made the pickaxes and shovels.

Researchers use its scientific instruments to study drug absorption, long-term safety, and the impact of a drug on a single cell.

The Holliston company traces its roots back more than a century, when a Harvard Medical School doctor, tired of paying for shoddy lab equipment, began crafting his own in the school’s basement. The company went public in 2000; It made more money in 2010 than in any previous year, with $108 million in revenue — up 26 percent from the year before.

Harvard Bioscience president David Green attributes the recent success to three factors: solid growth in its traditional laboratory instrument business, an acquisition late in 2009, and a push into the field of regenerative medicine, the scientific effort to build replacement body parts. “The recipe is the same for 2011,’’ he said.

Green said the company boosted sales of existing products by 6 percent last year, describing that increase as “good, but not spectacular.’’ New products will continue to be its source of growth going forward, he said.

In late 2009, Harvard Bioscience purchased the assets of Denville Scientific Inc., a New Jersey-based distributor of lab products, for about $23 million. The acquisition, which started making money for Harvard Bioscience in the fourth quarter of 2009, “has turned out quite well for us,’’ Green said, boosting its profit margin, which rose by 108 percent last year.

Not yet evident in the numbers is the company’s foray into the field of regenerative medicine, still in its early days. The federal government has projected the potential market for regenerative medicine in the United States alone to be $100 billion, and Green estimates his company’s share could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Harvard Bioscience has headed into a part of the field in which a “scaffold,’’ the organic framework for building a replacement organ, is “seeded’’ with cells from the patient. That way, the patient’s body won’t reject it. .

“We make the equipment the surgeons use to regenerate the tissue,’’ Green said.

In a study published in The Lancet in 2008, researchers proved that this idea can work by providing a patient with a new tube into her lungs. They took a trachea from an organ donor, stripped it down to a cellular scaffold, and then grew the recipient’s cells along the tube. It marked the first time an organ recipient other than an identical twin didn’t need to take heavy-duty immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection. Harvard Bioscience holds an exclusive license to the technology used to do this procedure, and is working with the lead scientist on the study, Green said.

“Already, the technology is moving up into the much more complicated organs like the lung,’’ Green said. The company is interested, he said, in finding strategic or financial partners to expand its work into other organs, helping transplant patients avoid a lifetime on drugs that suppress the immune system.

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