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Instrument Maker Wyatt Charts Its Own Course

California firm values independence as it flaunts its technical competence

by Marc S. Reisch
January 21, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 3

Credit: Marc S. Reisch
From left, Clifford, Philip, and Geofrey Wyatt of Wyatt Technology.
Clifford , Philip, and Geofrey Wyatt of Wyatt Technology.
Credit: Marc S. Reisch
From left, Clifford, Philip, and Geofrey Wyatt of Wyatt Technology.

Every year, big companies buy their smaller competitors; it’s the way of the world. In fact, some small companies actively seek larger owners. But that is not the case for 30-year-old Wyatt Technology, a quirky family-owned maker of particle analysis instruments in Santa Barbara, Calif., that vows to stay independent.

Wyatt is a maker of instruments for laser light scattering, which is a technique that harnesses lasers and photon detectors and is used by researchers in areas as diverse as polymer design, cement quality control, and drug development.

The firm leads the $250 million light-scattering instruments market, logging annual growth rates in the high single-digit percentages, estimates Michael Tice, vice president of instrumentation consulting firm Strategic Directions International. Its competitors, generally larger instrument companies, have been growing at about 5%, Tice says.

Wyatt, which claims its scientists were the first to incorporate lasers into commercial light-scattering instruments, doesn’t reveal sales data. But Tice attributes Wyatt’s faster growth to its leadership in the hot protein-analysis market. Sales of Wyatt’s larger competitors, including Beckman Coulter, Malvern Instruments, Horiba, and Brookhaven Instruments, are spread more evenly across mature industrial and life sciences markets, he explains.

Wyatt’s leaders attribute the firm’s success to solid scientific grounding and some flights of fancy. The firm offers intensive instrument training and service to its customers, and it has built a portfolio of patents and measurement methods in protein characterization and other applications. Wyatt treats its employees to some atypical perks, and it showcases its independent streak in the playful series of magazine advertisements it has run over the past few years.

Each instrument Wyatt sells includes a three-day, all-expense-paid training course for two at the company’s headquarters. “Everyone in the industry has a training course, but ours is intense,” says company founder and Chief Executive Officer Philip J. Wyatt, 80, a nuclear physicist who got a Ph.D. from Florida State University, Tallahassee. Philip runs Wyatt Technologies with his two sons, President Geofrey K. Wyatt, 52, and Chairman Clifford D. Wyatt, 46.

Those who complete the class get a degree written in Latin from the Universitas Lucis Spargentis, or Light Scattering University. A South Korean researcher submitted the degree to his employer to justify a salary increase and received it, Philip says with great delight.

One graduate of the company’s training program is Linda Randall, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Missouri, Columbia. A protein chemist, Randall says she uses Wyatt’s instruments all the time.

Now one of the firm’s two science advisers, Randall has coached Wyatt scientists on how they might contour instruments and software for protein analysis. The firm’s other science adviser is the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Robert H. Grubbs, who uses Wyatt’s instruments for polymer research.

The 85 chemical engineers, physicists, biochemists, and other employees at Wyatt’s 30,000-sq-ft headquarters work in offices that have skylights and are dog-friendly. Many of them bring their dogs—from tiny mutts to Great Danes—to work. “Dogs have a calming effect on employees working under deadline,” Clifford says.

Cats, on the other hand, aren’t allowed in the office because “they are a distraction,” says Clifford, who has a B.S. in genetics from the University of California, Berkeley. He owns two Rottweilers who sometimes come to work with him.

“Employee turnover is low. We don’t celebrate when someone leaves; we celebrate when they join,” says Geofrey, who has a B.A. in English from Yale University and an M.B.A. from Harvard University. Veterans are acknowledged as well. Those who reach their 10th year receive expensive Oris watches.

Employees working in this environment are motivated to support their customers, the Wyatts claim. “We give our customers deep technical support above and beyond our detectors,” Geofrey says. “Many of our scientists have the title of ‘applications scientist.’ ” The firm also has published 200 application notes to guide customers in the use of its instruments.

About 30,000 scientists have used Wyatt’s instruments, and over the years the devices have generated data for more than 8,200 peer-reviewed articles, the company says. Customers are not just universities but also chemical companies including DuPont, Dow Chemical, and BASF and biotechnology firms such as Amgen, Genentech, and Biogen Idec.

The company’s idiosyncratic advertising campaign, which takes occasional digs at competitors, makes plays on words and invokes science controversies. One ad places Michelangelo’s painting of creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel next to a picture of evolution theorist Charles Darwin. In bold type, the ad asks, “Are Wyatt instruments the product of intelligent design or evolution?” The answer to both questions, the ad states, is “yes.”

Tweaking competitors’ instruments intended to test the charge on proteins, nanoparticles, and macromolecules, another ad shows test clips attached to either side of a fried egg. The boldfaced copy observes: “To measure electrophoretic mobility of small molecules, we crank up the sensitivity. Sadly, others crank up the voltage.” A customer’s comment about a competitor’s instrument that “fried” his samples catalyzed that ad, Geofrey says.

Although the Wyatt family won’t discuss financial matters, Philip makes it clear that the firm is doing well. “We are fortunate; we have no debt,” he says. And so “we have no motivation to sell and no desire to get rich quick. No one needs the money,” he says, referring to his sons.

But money was an issue 30 years ago. Philip’s first laser light-scattering company, Science Spectrum, had gone bankrupt. He had started that company in 1964 after working for a number of West Coast defense contractors.

The small operation had succeeded in attracting several clients, including the U.S. government, which financed research in laser light-scattering techniques to detect aerosolized bacteria that an enemy might use in a biological attack. But cash flow problems sank it, Philip recalls.

Philip initially started Wyatt Technology in 1982 to wrap up the government research contracts he had undertaken. But then pluck and serendipity conspired to give the new company a boost.

Philip published a letter in 1981 in Science, titled “Days of Wine and Lasers” (DOI: 10.1126/science.212.4500.1212), about measuring wine quality with laser particle analysis. SC Johnson, the cleaning products firm, saw the article and wanted to study wax particles with an instrument similar to what Philip used for wine. “They didn’t balk at the then-price of $22,000,” Philip says, and Wyatt Technology got ­going. Soon thereafter, the Army awarded the firm a $50,000 research contract to detect toxicants in drinking water.

But Wyatt’s biggest boost came 20 years ago from Amgen, the pioneering biopharmaceutical company up the California coast from Wyatt. “They thought they could use our instruments to measure the molecular weights of proteins,” Geofrey explains. And when other biopharma researchers saw what Amgen was doing, they had to have Wyatt instruments too, he says.

The firm ran into some bad luck in 2004 when it made its first and only acquisition: the DynaPro line from bankrupt Proterion. Although the deal brought Wyatt a premier line of dynamic light-scattering instruments with high-throughput plate-reading capabilities, it also put the firm at loggerheads with Malvern Instruments, a competitor and an unsuccessful bidder for DynaPro.

In 2007, Wyatt sued Malvern in federal court seeking $25 million in damages. Wyatt claimed Malvern violated trademarks and intellectual property it owned through the DynaPro purchase. Malvern denied the charges, and Wyatt lost the first legal round in 2010. Wyatt is now waiting a judgment on its appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Despite the legal entanglements, the Wyatts claim to have no regrets about the deal. Geofrey says the DynaPro line has enabled the company to continue its growth in the biotech market. And as he sees it, “There is no end in sight for the needs of the biological community. We just need to keep a few steps ahead.”


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