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Father & Daughter Science Bond Produces Bia Diagnostics

Bia Diagnostics is the manifestation of a long-term science bond shared by father and daughter, Thomas and Hannah Grace.  One of Hannah’s first memories is of observing, at the age of three, the division of cells through her father’s microscope at a UVM lab.  “I remember that as being the most amazing experience,” Hannah said.  Thomas and Hannah’s mutual love of science deepened over the years and prompted the co-founding of the company in 2007.

Bia Diagnostics, a Burlington food-testing lab, specializes in detecting allergens, gluten and trace contaminants in commercially-produced food products.  With funding assistance from an SBA-guaranteed loan, Thomas and Hannah Grace set up their own lab and office, purchased testing equipment, and began reaching out to potential customers.  “Without the SBA loan, we couldn’t have done it,” Thomas Grace said.  “We used it to buy equipment and create a buffer zone for things like rent and electricity until we could increase our income.”  In the first two months of 2011, Bia Diagnostics grossed more than it did during its entire first year.  Since its founding, the company has quadrupled its income stream.

The lab services offered by Bia Diagnostics not only protect consumers from exposure to food allergens and complications of autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease, but also protect food companies from potential recalls or lawsuits which could cost millions of dollars.  “Fulfilling the responsibility of protecting both the public and the company is the rewarding part of what we do,” said Thomas Grace.  The detective work of identifying the presence of a substance like peanuts or gluten, casein (a protein in milk), soy, or egg, as well as its exact origin in production, enables food companies to avoid costly recalls. 

“Food companies send samples to our lab before they distribute food to the public,” Grace said.  “Our business model is to be the personal laboratory of each customer so they can avoid a loss of credibility and fulfill their promise to those whose very lives may depend on it.” 

Bia Diagnostics has become the lab of choice for many local companies as well as food producers throughout the United States and Canada.  As the company completes the process of lab certification under the auspices of the International Standards Organization, Thomas Grace said he sees a potential for doubling and possibly tripling the business in the next five years.

Asked why food allergies appear to be on the rise, Thomas Grace suggested several possibilities, including the global nature of the contemporary food chain.  “If you and your ancestors have been exposed over many generations to only local foods and suddenly you introduce something exotic into your diet, your body will somehow, somewhere recognize it as a foreign substance,” said Grace. 

Bia Diagnostics analyzes cereals, beers, wines, pre-made packaged, frozen foods and ready-to-eat foods like sausages.  In addition, the business makes and sells nutritional labels, provides research and analysis on food safety issues, and sells testing kits and swabs so companies can check both equipment and product.  Thomas Grace also consults with and trains companies on testing their facilities for allergens, bacteria and mold. 

“Bia” is Gaelic for “food,” reflecting the Irish background of Thomas Grace, who moved with his family from Dublin when he was five years old.  Grace’s extensive background in science includes degrees in biochemistry and chemistry from UVM, research on cancer at Dartmouth and the University of Vermont, and developing testing procedures while employed by BioTek Instruments in Winooski, Vermont.  Having also completed courses in business, Grace helped BioTek develop the North American market for food testing kits, and through that role, generated contacts with major food producers like Kraft, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Post, and Hershey as well as major food safety organizations like the FDA, USDA, and Health Canada.  He recently developed a unique method of speciation for detecting gluten in foods and determining its source, specifically wheat, barley or rye.

“My amazing father has the ability to come up with new technologies at rapid speed,” explained Hannah Grace, who was a volunteer lab assistant before she was old enough to apply for a paid position.  As Bia Diagnostics has grown, she says she has found her own niche in administrative and financial areas, as well as public relations.

The third ownership member of the Bia team is Thom’s wife and Hannah’s mother, Robin Grace, who has recently taken a more active role to help manage the growing company.  Twenty-five years ago, Robin Grace started a home-based baking business while parenting the Grace’s three young children.  The specialty at Skopje Bakery, named after the city in Macedonia where Robin’s grandparents once lived, was “borekas,” phyllo dough pastries based on her grandmother’s recipes.  Robin said her borekas were extremely popular items at farmers’ markets, festivals, and co-ops all the way from Massachusetts to Canada.  Prior to that, she had worked with families and young children in Headstart and pre-school settings.  She has spent the last twenty-five years working with young children experiencing trauma and, in addition to her role at Bia, consults with non-profits and early childhood professionals in the areas of childhood development and the prevention of family violence. 

“An area of passion for me,” Robin said, “is being part of and supporting a socially-responsible, employee-centered company.”  Bia Diagnostics’ is a company of five employees, including all three members of the Grace family team plus two lab technicians, Teri Massey and Luke Emerson-Mason.

Reflecting on their accomplishments, Robin Grace rated starting a brand-new business in a tough economy at the top of her list.   “And,” Hannah said, “we did it from the Old North End of Burlington and reached customers across all of North America.” 

“I feel proud to be part of a company that has created a good place for people to work, and that benefits our community and the society as a whole,” Robin said.  “Being able to work together successfully as a family is pretty amazing too.”

“It’s not just doing our daily thing, which is testing,” Thom added, “but giving back to our community.  If you just think about the bottom line all the time, you miss the important thing, which is the people.”

“To be able to donate a percentage of our profits to important causes like Amnesty International or Women Helping Battered Women is very important to us,” Robin said.

As a whole, the Grace family agreed that social responsibility plays a meaningful role in their lives and their work.  For example, during 2010, Bia Diagnostics donated over 400 hours and more than twenty percent of its profits to Women Helping Battered Women, the Town of Fairfax’s Recreation Fund, The Celiac Sprue Research Foundation, and Amnesty International.  Three years ago, the Grace family introduced and helped implement the “Run for Empowerment” on the Burlington Waterfront as a fundraiser for Women Helping Battered Women.  Over the course of the past three years, this annual event has raised more than $28,000 for Women Helping Battered Women. 

“The state of Vermont is itself like a small town,” Hannah commented.  “And it has provided resources to me personally.  To ensure those resources are here for somebody else is as important to me as having this business be successful.”

Bia Diagnostics was selected by the U.S. Small Business Administration as Vermont’s Micro-Enterprise of the Year.  Nominated by Greg Huysman, Small Business Lending Manager, Opportunities Credit Union, the business was chosen for the award based on growth, rising revenues over a three-year period, and service to the community.  The company was honored by SBA during the Vermont Small Business Awards ceremony at the Shelburne Farms Coach Barn on June 16, 2011.