When a new microbiology company was looking for a place to lay down some roots, it chose the only incubation center in southeastern Wisconsin with laboratory space. The historical, five-story, red brick building located within the Milwaukee County Research Park had everything they needed to begin their business, not to mention the perfect address – 10437 Innovation Drive.
Since its founding in 2013, Agro BioSciences, Inc. has grown from five to 36 employees, occupying eight offices, five labs and a conference room at the Technology Innovation Center (TIC). The company focuses on three core technologies:
- Direct-fed microbials to reduce antibiotic use in animal production agriculture
- Probiotics supplementation to promote human health and wellness
- Natural food ingredients to reduce the use of chemical preservatives
“The Technology Innovation Center offered us speed to development,” shares Tom Rehberger, Ph.D., president of Agro BioSciences. “We didn’t have to spend a bunch of money to construct labs before we could get to work.” Having started a different company in 1993 – AgTech Products, Inc. (which was later bought by Danisco) – Rehberger understands the significant expense and labor associated with building out a lab and wanted to avoid this headache the second time around.
Their initial startup space at the TIC even included lab equipment, such as an autoclave sterilizer and special water filtration systems, saving additional costs for the new company. “We then expanded into a second lab built to meet our specific requirements yet flexible enough to accommodate any type of microbiology work,” shares Rehberger. With their bench-top fermenters set up in the basement lab, Agro BioSciences is just one step away from manufacturing at this location.
The company farms out their strains locally to get live cultures manufactured. “We then formulate the concentrates that become the final product here in our dry blending facility,” says Rehberger. “We close the loop on everything, which has enabled us to expand and grow the company without having to move.”
Rehberger describes the Technology Innovation Center as a well-lit, excellent place to work. This special environment is perfectly suited to facilitate the scientific discoveries occurring under its roof. “The TIC is a great place for new companies with limited resources,” confirms Rehberger. “And the low startup cost makes it an especially attractive option for a life science company to call home.”
Customers of Agro BioSciences are intrigued by the building and its storied past. Built in 1913 as the Muirdale Tuberculosis Sanitarium, the TIC is a quirky but fascinating structure. “We embrace the building’s history as part of our story,” explains Rehberger. “For example, our conference room is located in one of the old sunning porches used back in the day to help heal tuberculosis patients. We do our dry blending in the old chapel, and we perform research in what was formally the cafeteria. We’ve aligned with the space’s historical use of food prep and safety since it’s been repurposed for some of those same applications today in the development of our food ingredients.”
Rehberger cites the building’s close proximity to the rich research community found at the Medical College of Wisconsin as another reason for setting up shop here. “We’ve had at least one pivotal collaboration with the College,” he notes. “There will be even more networking opportunities in the future for startup companies and businesses at the TIC as universities and other research-focused businesses move into the Park.”
Rehberger credits the stellar leadership at the TIC as one of the chief reasons startup businesses thrive here. “Guy Mascari, the Research Park’s executive director and facility manager Kay Van Hecke are extremely flexible,” says Rehberger. “They are willing to work with new companies to help them succeed and are well-connected in the area. As a result, the TIC is stimulating economic growth in this part of the state.”
Experiencing 45 percent growth year to year, Agro BioSciences has outgrown the TIC in just four years. Due to this tremendous success and the need to meet the rigorous standards required to manufacture products of a food-grade quality, Agro BioSciences is moving out of the building at the end of May. The company will return to the original AgTech location in Waukesha – a newly renovated 20,000 square-foot manufacturing facility complete with office and lab space.
It’s an exciting time for this young company that will now operate under the new name of Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition after being acquired by Arm & Hammer’s parent company, Church & Dwight Co. Inc., for $75 million. There’s a potential for even greater earnings – up to $25 million – based on future business performance, making this one of the largest exits for a Wisconsin startup in years.
“We’ve “graduated” from the Technology Innovation Center,” says Rehberger, “but it was the perfect location to get our company off the ground. This building is a real gem.”