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In 1976, Watertown native Randy Yerden was a lab technician at the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine when he found he was unable to control cellular oxygen levels using conventional lab equipment. Necessity is the mother of invention, and when Yerden realized he could create a new design to provide a better environment for cell cultures, the first product that would eventually evolve into the Xvivo System was born.
Yerden started manufacturing and selling the device from his garage in 1982 and worked for years developing and selling improved versions of the invention. After hiring several employees the garage space quickly became inadequate and Yerden relocated the business. With room to grow in Lacona, NY, staffing levels grew to more than 20 as Yerden developed new designs for incubators, glove chambers and other laboratory equipment. The Xvivo System is a modular, scalable and custom configurable “clean room in a box” that allows for cell incubation and experimentation in a closed optimized environment. By approaching equipment design from the perspective of cellular needs, Yerden’s fully realized Xvivo System is able to offer new capabilities to any laboratory previously available only to cutting edge scientists.
“Our unique equipment means that cell therapists are no longer dependent on the limited number of multi-million dollar clean rooms, usually only found in large tertiary hospitals and research centers. The Xvivo System’s modular nature fits any cell production process, and is extremely affordable,” explains Yerden.
Though not Yerden’s intended market, medical researchers discovered the Xvivo System’s capabilities for cell research and the global demand for the Xvivo System spiked dramatically. Yerden turned to the Oswego Small Business Development Center in 2010; with their help, Yerden developed a business plan to target foreign markets and for economic development funding from the Oswego County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) for increased production capacity of the Xvivo System. The company was able to ramp up production to meet demand, and with product exported all over the world, has grown to employ 58 in a rural Oswego County town with population of 582. Today there are hundreds of Xvivo Systems currently used in biomedical research to find cures for numerous diseases, including in Hong Kong for leukemia and neuroblastomas, in Finland for diabetes, in Canada for lung injury and cornea repair, in Scotland for cancer and in Poland for skin and cartilage repair, among many others.
In April of this year the Xvivo System was used in a revolutionary operation at Children’s Hospital of Illinois to produce a tissue-engineered trachea for a 32-month-old Korean toddler born without a windpipe. The little girl’s stem cells were isolated from a simple blood draw and seeded onto a trachea-shaped plastic scaffold provided by Harvard BioScience. The new man made trachea was produced and grew inside the Xvivo System and then successfully implanted, marking the first time a child has received a tissue-engineered trachea. Avoiding donor tissue virtually eliminated the chances of her immune system rejecting the transplant. The ability to locate the Xvivo System inside the surgical suite made the innovative procedure much safer and much easier. The new trachea was only transported a few feet to the patient instead of a 150-mile flight from the nearest clean room in Chicago.
Yerden views the company’s experience in the ground-breaking surgery as pivotal: “Our company was able to quickly build and deliver the FDA compliant system for the trachea production in a matter of weeks. This is unprecedented in the history of the industry. It proves these exciting new therapies can be performed in any hospital.”
Under Randy Yerden’s leadership, BioSpherix has grown from a startup in a garage to a multi-million dollar business with innovative products shipped across the world. Last year, experienced business executive Michael Bovalino was hired to run day-to day operations and Yerden’s son Peter started learning the different company divisions on a rotational basis. The growth and success of the company was highlighted when Yerden was honored as the SBA Syracuse District Small Business Exporter of the Year in 2012. Relentless growth is anticipated, and BioSpherix is expanding to a second location in Oswego County in order to accommodate swelling demand for the Xvivo System. Yerden has spent 30 years building his business by staying one step ahead of the competition with lean manufacturing and nimble design processes, and plans continued growth and commercial success for many years to come.
Twenty-three years ago, Kelly and Garry Brown’s wedding toast was made with a different drink than traditional champagne: Garry’s home-brewed beer. Although Kelly was a flight attendant and Garry was a newspaper photographer, their passion for craft beer inspired them to start the first brewpub in the Capital Region a few years later.
“We bought an old, dilapidated building in Troy in 1990 because it was a great location on the Hudson River and it was affordable. We spent the next three years renovating it. Garry would work on the building during the day and then work nights at the paper. I continued working for the airline and we were able to use my miles towards research trips to the West Coast and Europe to see how beer could really taste,” said Kelly.
The startup went through a few name evolutions, opening as Brown and Moran, changing to Uncle Sam Pub & Brewery the next year and finally changing to Brown’s Brewing Company in 2006. The Browns wanted to open just a brewery but realized that the concept was too new to succeed in the local marketplace without food. Opening a brewpub with a full scale menu including nachos, wings, burgers and sandwiches was the right choice, customers came in the doors, giving the Browns the chance to build their brand and beer reputation.
The Browns haven’t stopped making beer since and today loyal Capital Region patrons count on their ‘Dependable’ ales and lagers. Brown’s Brewing Company’s 25 beers range from traditional Pale Ale to earthy Pumpkin Ale, available only when locally grown pumpkins are ripe in the fall. At the company’s Taproom, customers can enjoy a dozen or so different beers on tap made right below the floorboards. The two-level interior has a traditional bar, stage for musical performances, and a windowed view into the brewing operations where brewers create Brown’s award-winning beers. Outside, the large deck area and beer garden offer an expansive view of the Hudson River.
“We discovered that Troy has wonderful water quality which has really helped our brand. All of the hand-crafted beers are made with water from the Tomhannock Reservoir, and we decided to give back. Garry serves on the Rensselaer Land Trust board that works to preserve watersheds in the region. Our company does several fundraisers for RLT such as an annual Oktoberfest event. We also donate a portion of proceeds from our Tomhannock Pilsner sales to the Trust,” explains Kelly.
Innovative marketing ideas have helped Brown’s Brewing Company ride the rising tide of awareness and appreciation for craft beers. The large beer corporations have noted the increasing popularity of craft beer as their brands lose market share, and often purchase small breweries or repackaging existing beer lines to look more homespun and less commercial. Customers might not know independent looking beers brands such as Blue Moon, Batch 19, and Shock Top are really owned by Coors, Miller, and Budweiser. To separate their beers from the crowd, Brown’s Brewing holds “Beer 101” classes to demonstrate what the big beer companies actually make beer with, including surprising ingredients such as corn, rice, and corn syrup, compared to Brown’s traditional craft beers made with just hops, yeast, barley and water.
The Taproom’s beer-paired wild game dinners and other special beer-themed events became so popular the Browns moved into the building next door to add catering and large event capability. Named Revolution Hall, the European-style beer hall setting can accommodate up to 300 guests for weddings, private parties and community events. The Browns added a prep kitchen in the second building to provide more kitchen space for catered events in the hall. The couple has developed the pub and catering menus to reflect the top-quality of the beers and ales; hiring Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Chef Luca Brunelle has broadened the fare to include gourmet flavors ranging from burgers with cherry raspberry ale barbeque sauce to pan-seared sesame tuna with wasabi risotto.
“Over the past six or seven years, we’ve doubled sales at the pub alone. With experience, we’ve learned how to put better controls in place for our 125 employees. At our Troy operation, our general manager, Paul Minbiole, is also a CIA-trained chef and having someone who knows the line well has been invaluable to making the restaurant side of the business function smoothly,” says Garry.
The growing company made enough beer to keep up with demand at the Taproom, but operating only one brewing tank limited their ability for regular distribution to retailers. Kelly and Garry realized the time was right to find a larger production facility. Staying in Rensselaer County was important to the Browns and in 2011 they found the right property at a 19th century empty hydroelectric power plant in their hometown of Hoosick Falls. The 40,000-square foot building complex has plenty of space for four brewing tanks, a large bottling assembly line, and even a tasting room for the public in the future.
Garry and Kelly scoured online listings nationwide for used equipment from other breweries to keep costs down, saving $4 million on the project. The Browns were able to support most of the expansion costs, and the final piece of their financing puzzle was an SBA 504 loan through Pioneer Bank and the Empire State Certified Development Corporation. Beer production will increase to 20,000 barrels of beer per year from 3,200; the dramatic increase will enable Brown’s to increase distribution from the Albany area to southern Vermont and western Massachusetts. Brown’s head brewer Peter Martin and a team of 10 will work at the Hoosick Falls operation, with more anticipated employees when the tasting room is opened.
As any business owner learns the hard way, the sailing isn’t always smooth. In 2011 Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast, causing flooding in both the Brown’s riverfront locations. Though 30 miles apart, the Taproom is directly on the Hudson River and the production facility is next to the Walloomsac River.
Garry recounts the tale: “During the hurricane, the Walloomsac River rose and came into the new building, with two-and-a-half feet of water coursing through the downstairs level. We had a crane come in and move all the equipment we purchased to higher ground. Then we realized that all the water in the Walloomsac was heading right for Troy because it feeds into the Hudson River. The next day there was seven feet of water in our Troy location. Fortunately, with the help of our employees and customers we were able to have the Taproom brewery and restaurant back up and running just seven days later.”
The recovery from the hurricane demonstrated to the Browns how vital the new production facility was for their business. Renovating the property over the past three years has been a labor of love for both Garry and Kelly, and though they have built a successful business from the ground up, neither is ready to hit cruise control. The large-scale brewery operation represents a dream fulfilled for two newlyweds 20 years in the making and they are passionate about the future for the company.
Twenty years later, the couple lives with their three daughters on their farm house in West Hoosick where they farm some of their own hops. Kelly sums up their entrepreneurial experience: “We had our light bulb moment. It’s a calling. To be your own boss and do your own thing is so empowering. It thrills me when I see one of our six-packs on a store shelf or someone orders a Brown’s beer at the table next to us.”
“I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, even in the seventh grade, I just didn’t know what kind of business to start and pursue. I remember seeing a news story about Ashley Qualls who had started her own online company called WhateverLife.com to provide layouts for MySpace pages. She built the website at 14 and over the course of five years built it into a $1 million company. I was about the same age and to learn how she started a business, took it to the next level and became really successful was very inspirational for me,” recounts Matthew Turcotte. “It also opened up my eyes to starting an internet business because it could be done at home with low upfront costs.”
At just 14, Matthew Turcotte developed his first website and hasn’t looked back. His web development company, North Shore Solutions, counted his hometown of Clayton, its fire department, and the local opera house as his clients just two years later. Since he hadn’t earned his driver’s license yet, Turcotte’s mom had to drive him for his first appointment with Watertown Small Business Development Center business advisor Sarah O’Connell. The SBDC advisor was able to help him obtain an employer identification number, review tax forms, and understand eligible business expenses. Turcotte’s company revenues increased and he was able to purchase a better computer and upgraded software to serve his expanding client base.
By the end of his junior year at Thousand Islands High School, Turcotte’s business won the top prize at a local business concept competition for high school students. That year he also published his first book, “From Main Street to Mainstream, the Essential Steps to Getting a Small Town Business Online,” sold as an e-book on his website and Amazon.com and in paperback. Appearances on local television news programs for his book and award-winning business generated positive publicity for North Shore Solutions, resulting in more clients in the Watertown area.
“In my senior year, I was looking at universities and colleges and wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do after graduation. With the cost of a higher education, I was looking at taking out student loans to attend college,” said Turcotte. “Fortunately, all of the publicity for my business caught the attention of Clarkson University’s President Tony Collins. I had already scheduled a campus tour and the president met with me when I visited the university. I talked with him about my business and he encouraged me to attend Clarkson. I said I would love to, please make me an offer.”
Shortly thereafter, an amazing opportunity was developed for Turcotte. His business acumen was recognized with Clarkson University’s first-ever Young Entrepreneur Award, where he was offered full tuition valued at $150,000 for four years, office space and mentoring in exchange for a 10% equity stake in his business. This unique arrangement has enabled other promising young entrepreneurs to follow in his footsteps and garnered Clarkson national attention. Turcotte’s story has been featured in Business Week’s online magazine and Money Magazine, and may even inspire the next generation of student startups.
Turcotte’s advice for young people who might want to start their own business: “Take business courses, talk to other entrepreneurs. Depending on what the business is, you may be able to start it while still in school. If you can’t start it until after graduation, think about getting a job in that field and see if an owner or manager will mentor you. Stick with it if it’s truly what you want. Consider finding a university with a great entrepreneurship program where you can be with like-minded people.”
North Shore Solutions has grown tremendously during Turcotte’s time at Clarkson, increasing revenues to six figures, while he has maintained a Presidential Scholar grade point average. Attending college while running his company sometimes requires 100-hour weeks, but the coursework in the innovation and entrepreneurship program has been a natural fit for Turcotte. North Shore Solutions has expanded its services to offer logo design, web hosting and marketing for clients ranging from 35 municipalities in Upstate New York to small and large businesses as far away as Canada, England and India. In 2013, Turcotte expanded his horizons to real estate and purchased a commercial office building and a storage unit facility, called U-Store of Watertown in Watertown, NY.
The most recent recognition of Turcotte’s success was his selection by the U.S. Small Business Administration Syracuse District Office as the 2013 SBA Young Entrepreneur of the Year. But all the accolades haven’t changed the humble North Country native. As Turcotte enters his senior year in college and eighth year in business, his passion is contagious. “As time has gone by, I have found that I really like being an entrepreneur and running my own business. I find it fulfilling. The risks and rewards of entrepreneurship are greater than if you worked for someone else, and I love it. I’m in it for the long haul.”