(EDITOR’S NOTE: We regularly look for opportunities to provide updates on the progress of technology companies that we have previously profiled on teknovation.biz. Knoxville-based Phenotype Screening recently announced plans to increase its lab space that will allow a doubling of plants grown at one time and analysis throughput. We asked Co-Founder and President Dan McDonald for an update. His responses to our questions follow.)
- How would you describe Phenotype today versus more than three years ago when we first profiled your work? What has changed in terms of your business, geographic markets, etc.? We found a few niches. One niche was in the size of the company that makes up our ideal customer. Our ideal customer is an ag-chemical company whose annual sales are in the $1B to $5B range. They are in a real competitive commercial space but don’t have the R&D facilities the bigger players have. They come to us for our advanced plant characterization facilities and services. We give them detailed technical information on how their products perform and on what differentiates their product in the marketplace. We also discovered that the information we provide was more useful to the marketing and product development organizations in our customers’ organizations rather than the R&D departments. So we changed who we approached in the organization, we changed our message, and we changed the types of trade shows we attended in order to get our story to these folks. In 2012 interest began to grow in products based upon “biologicals.” Biologicals are a class of natural products based upon plant extracts and naturally occurring microorganisms. These new products show promise is replacing or minimizing synthetic chemicals for protecting crops and for enhancing their yields. It can be quite a challenge to study these new products in the field so our lab based environment can give quicker and more detailed insight to their performance.
- Obviously, growth of some type has caused you to need 2,000 additional square feet of lab space. How would you describe this factor or factors? Farming is a tough business, and it has become heavily science-based. The amount of biology, chemistry, engineering and mathematics that comes up in our first conversation with our clients is incredible. I liken the creation of a new chemical or biological ag-product to the introduction of a new weapon system by the Department of Defense. It has to work well on a wide range of plants, under a wide range of environmental conditions, in all types of soil, and in the presence of insects, fungi, and weeds. So the complete testing of these products is quite an undertaking. We have doubled our lab space in order to test product performance under different environmental conditions. We complete an experiment every six to eight weeks. We can now investigate product performance under optimum conditions and then under excess heat and excess cold conditions.
- How much square footage does this add to Phenotype’s existing space and when will it be ready? Will this expansion allow you add something new (i.e., capability) or will it simply be expansion of existing service(s)? We are adding 2,000 square feet to our life science laboratories. We hope to be operational by May 1. The expansion will allow us to double the number of plants we can grow at one time and double our analysis throughput as well.
- You’ve been at this venture for close to 12 years. In the December 2012 article, you had a really great statement. It reads as follows: “The hardest thing to do is to go from nowhere to somewhere. Once you’re somewhere, you can pivot or change. We’re somewhere, and we’re experimenting with the marketplace on the best way to grow the company.” What’s that journey been like and what general advice would you offer other entrepreneurs who are where you were in December 2012? We asked our customers a lot of questions and listened carefully to what they had to say. The data packages we provided became based more and more on what the customer said gave them the most value. Others saw more value in the improved data packages, became customers, and began offering their suggestions for improvements. It became a self-sustaining loop of improved and more relevant data (our product) attracting more customers. In the process we developed deep loyalty from our customers. They know we always do our absolute best to make them successful.
To learn more about Phenotype Screening, you can review the company’s latest newsletter (Phenotype Screening Spring Newsletter 2016).