Izon Science has grown to 17 times its previous size in the past three years. Now the nano company has opened a Massachusetts office to service the burgeoning American market. James Robinson charts its rise and peeks into its future.
One Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts is an eponymously named office building stationed about a kilometre to the west of one of the most vital global centres of scientific research and technology.
It sits a short walk from companies such as Genzyme, a biotechnology outfit with annual revenues of nearly $6 billion, the renowned Charles Draper Lab, whose interests involve national security and space exploration, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which recently invented an oral treatment for Hepatitis C.
It’s a typical block of modern, if nondescript offices. There’s almost nothing unusual about it. Except half the offices have science-y names like Stemgent, or the word ‘pharmaceutical’ somewhere in the name, and every so often you catch an image out of the corner of your eye of a DNA helix on an office wall. It looks like somewhere believable enough that maybe you could work here, if it weren’t for the fact that you couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone is probably smarter than you.
Taking up two back offices in shared second-floor space is the US headquarters for Christchurch-based Izon Science. In the past three years, the company has grown to 17 times its previous size. It’s done so retailing only one product that it’s been developing since 2004 – an adjustable tool for the measurement and analysis of nanoparticles in scientific research, which comes with a $27,000 price tag.
But what might seem esoteric and banal is actually New Zealand-born, world-beating technology. The Izon ‘qNano’ machine provides precise measurements, while tools in its price range only offer averaging techniques. Machines that could compete in terms of the detail offered are considerably more expensive and take days to produce the results that Izon can in minutes.
In effect, the tool allows researchers to gather information about the amount, size and dynamics of really, really, really small things. But in application it has broad possibilities, from blood analysis and studying drug delivery through to environmental research.
Yaniv Ganor, a genial and methodically spoken Israeli-born scientist, is Izon’s research and training manager in its Cambridge office. He was the first of the three staff to come on board here. He sees the Izon difference as one “where before you’re looking at something with the wrong lens and you don’t see colours. You don’t see details and you need to make sure you see everything that is needed. We’re giving people the right lens”.
And so it’s 9am on a Monday morning and the week is getting underway. Kristoffer Bolen, Izon’s North American head of sales, is at his desk with coffee, ready to face the week. Alongside his more than full-time role with the company, he has just finished the fifth semester of six for his High Tech MBA at nearby Northeastern University, which will be his second Masters degree alongside a Master of Science.
“The balance between work and school is that there is no social life,” Bolen says, with a wry smile that is in sum more serious than it isn’t.
Regardless, his soon to be twin Masters degrees provide him with the perfect marriage of skills for his job, which to his description hinges on him being able to both manage the sales process and have an intuitive understanding of what is in reality a very complicated technology.
Bolen’s Cambridge office isn’t tasked with a mere simple sales brief. When a customer buys the qNano device, an Izon representative will fly anywhere in America to train them to use the instrument. The office is heading out to network at conferences and it’s getting out in front of local scientists. It’s checking in frequently with its own clients, to advance and adapt its own vision of what this tool can do and then liaising back with engineers in New Zealand. It’s looking to keep innovative, even when retailing just one thing. All with a staff of three people, Bolen, Ganor and Priya Bhatia, who provides technical support and jumps in wherever help is needed.
The staff of the Izon office in Cambridge know who needs the qNano, but there’s no set sales pitch to push the product.
“There’re so many different variables and applications,” says Bolen. “We just want to come off as scientists who can apply our technology to their problems.”
Because in Izon’s line of work slick marketing gets you so far, but it can get you nowhere if you can’t back it up with a deep scientific understanding of your field and your client’s work.
Bolen was headhunted for his job in November, and started his position with a trip to New Zealand in January to learn about the tool and the company.
“It surprised me at first that something like this came out of New Zealand. But I’d dealt with no New Zealand technology. Once I got to know the group I was not surprised. It’s an extremely sharp group,” Bolen says.
This ball had started rolling eight years ago in New Zealand. In 2004, Hans van der Voorn was aimless. He was one of the initial founders of Nova energy, but it had been sold. His wife had passed away a few years earlier, and he was looking for something a bit more taxing to set his mind to, he says. Van der Voorn was introduced to three scientists with an idea that involved simply a small plastic membrane, with a tiny adjustable hole to measure a range of very small particles. Initially he was an angel investor only, putting forward $1.5 million to bring the idea towards a proof of concept.
“I just thought it was a good thing for New Zealand, and a good thing to be involved with,” he says. So he was in, as a hands-off, part-time chairman at first, but eventually in 2007 he bought the three scientists out in an amicable manner. Two of the three still work with Izon as consultants.
As a former engineer and now executive chairman for a niche nanotechnology company, like Bolen van der Voorn sees himself as being well equipped to bridge the divergent skills needed to understand and market the Izon qNano device globally.
“Engineering skills are a bridge between business and science,” van der Voorn says. “A lot of scientists don’t understand business, but a lot of engineers do.” However, he admits that picking up an understanding of complicated biological concepts took him a while.
In 2010, he began to realise that Izon needed soldiers on the ground overseas if it was going to grow. The company had developed itself past cruder prototypes and was producing much more sophisticated equipment. But selling the machines involved long trips overseas where they would have meetings with only a few people at a time. The company put solitary sales staff in place, working from home in Oxford and Maryland, but each sale of the qNano brings with it a lot of necessary customer support and planning, which was all still being done from New Zealand. The more traditional model of international expansion, working with a US sales agent, was never going to be practical. The company needed to build actual international offices.
And so in August 2011, Izon opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the second international office of note for the company, alongside a base in Oxford, England.
Van der Voorn says that for now Izon trades in the US as a foreign company. It’s positioned under the radar to avoid the high level of compliance and bureaucracy that comes with being in the American tax system. But he sees that one day soon this will change, as Izon’s current position disallows it from locally available grant money and entering into research partnerships.
Expanding Izon is complicated and needs to be done systematically and thoughtfully, van der Voorn explains. There’s huge potential to grow Izon by 10 or 20 times its current size. By not taking on venture capital, to date it has been able to grow at its own pace, and in the right ways. It broke a profit for the first time in April this year.
This delicacy is required because selling the qNano is complicated.
“The size of the sale is one thing. The technical nature of the sale is another thing,” van der Voorn says.
“We need to have highly qualified people in offshore offices, making sales peer to peer.”
The scientific community is small and Izon needs the scientists it sells to to act as advertisements for the product. So as a company it needs to tread carefully with its customers.
“The science world may seem like a big playing field, but it’s a small group. If you’re not taking care of your current customers, you’re dead in the water,” Bolen says.
For him, the articles that clients publish from research they’ve performed with the qNano are a critical part of the company’s marketing. From this end, Izon is doing promisingly, with the qNano in use in laboratories at Oxford University, the Salk Institute and Harvard Medical School, among many other places.
So for Izon in Cambridge, the sale isn’t enough in itself. It also has a stake in how its customers are using the qNano.
This is where Yaniv Ganor comes in. As research and training manager, he’s involved throughout the sales process and manages much of a customer’s post-sale experience.
“I try to solve customer problems and to make sure they know about the product.”
The sales process is new for Ganor, who moved to Boston from Minnesota, and switched from a role as a research associate at the University of Minnesota to his first private sector role with Izon.
“It’s tricky, it’s challenging, and it’s not in my comfort zone,” he says.
It’s also a much different customer relationship than you’d find in most sectors. Imagine if Apple sent a technician out with you when you purchased an iPhone, to make sure you were using all of its functions to the best of its capability.
Ganor says that sometimes people do use the qNano in the wrong way, and it can cause a lot of damage. Sometimes teaching someone who is having difficulties can be frustrating, but solving those difficulties is rewarding.
“Coming from academia, I was a teacher and I was an advisor. I have that patience,” he says.
Its users are mostly post-doctorate researchers and graduate students. Sometimes Ganor says they’ve forgotten things, and gaps have emerged in their knowledge. He says that he goes back as many times as is needed, because that is Izon’s commitment to making sure its machines are used well.
Nine out of 10 times, Ganor guesses, if there’s an unhappy customer, they’re able to flip their experience around.
There’s an added quirk to this, because through sitting with customers as they learn about the qNano tool Ganor gets to view and respond to their own ideas about the product.
“People ask very good questions, and those questions are great triggers for future development,” he says.
It means the companies Izon are selling to are then, in a sense, driving future development of the qNano. It has yet to figure out everything the qNano can be used for and it puts the company in a unique position, with its customers serving as unofficial collaborators.
“All of our customers are our researchers, except we don’t pay them,” van der Voorn says. “It’s a two-way street. They all have ideas we can use to refocus and remodel.”
Van der Voorn hopes Izon eventually ends up in something approaching an open source market model. The company will carry out its product development in New Zealand and then develop applications – be they in diagnostics, drug delivery, blood analysis or environmental research – in tandem with other companies.
He says Izon is already looking at half a dozen partnerships that would dwarf its own current scope.
“Our business is selling research tools,” van der Voorn says. But he knows that the application range of this tool is wide. For instance, Izon is engaged in a project with Harvard, looking for a particular type of particle in blood that is a symptom of thrombosis. If they can solve this issue, which both parties are confident they can, they can develop a diagnostic technology platform and sell a small testing kit along with the qNano.
It’s a partnership that Izon’s clients are happy going along with.
Jim Felton is a Harvard researcher working with the tool, and he says that he thinks what Izon offers with the qNano is unparalleled. Its results are quick and detailed in a way no other of its competitors can match.
Still, he has some concerns. Samples have to be loaded manually into the machine, and he wishes he could boost the pace they could be pushed through. He also wishes that areas of interest within test results could be tagged. But he has had a lot of contact with Izon and wouldn’t be surprised to see these things addressed in a next generation model down the track.
Aaron Colby from Boston University agrees with Felton, and says that Izon provides him with options that no other tool could. Colby is researching drug delivery to tumours, which vary dramatically in size, and the qNano captures this easily.
It’s a very technical tool to use, and it took him a good deal of training, but eventually he says that using it becomes second nature.
All of these signs for Izon are good: a good product, happy customers, and an innovative business model that seems to be producing the right results.
This positive outlook is reflected in Izon’s plan to soon open smaller satellite offices in Brazil, Canada, California and Texas.
The Cambridge office, envisioned as a sort of mothership for Izon in the Americas, will be shifting out of its small, shared confines into its own office space across the other side of town. It’ll be in Porter Square, a few kilometres from the Kendall Square power hub, but still very near key Cambridge players.
With larger headquarters it will be able to bring clients into Izon for training rather than vice-versa, and engage in even more research and development. “You get a bit of respect with the address,” Bolen says. “It is a centre of the US here for what we do and it’s important that we mix with these types of people.”
Van der Voorn, in Wellington, checks in frequently via Skype with all of Izon’s expanding arms. He sees the company as poised for much bigger things.
“A few years ago we were very niche and no one had heard of us,” he says. “Now I feel like everyone has.”