When patients around the world are being tested for tropical diseases such as the Zika virus, dengue fever or yellow fever, it is highly likely that the diagnostic kit will utilise products developed and manufactured by Dublin company Aalto Bio Reagents. Founded in 1978 to supply raw materials to the global diagnostics industry, the company now has a range of 300 different reagents – 150 antibodies and 150 proteins – which are used for the identification of a vast range of pathogens.
CEO Philip Noone, an entrepreneur with a long track record in the diagnostics space, acquired the company in 2014. “I began my career in the area with a start-up company called Biotrin,” he says. “It was a small spin-out from Trinity College Dublin which made biomarkers for kidney and liver conditions. I worked there for six or seven years, during which time its turnover went from zero to €10 million. I then joined Quest Diagnostics in the US, where I built up its business there. That grew from a turnover of a couple of hundred thousand dollars to $53 million and a suite of more than 50 diagnostic products.”
Noone was attracted by the company’s existing product set as well as its potential. “Aalto Bio had some interesting diagnostic products and I wanted to look at other areas, including dengue fever and the Zika virus,” Noone recalls. “I also thought a good area to look at was the chikungunya virus and we launched a material for that in 2015. We then targeted the Zika virus, and the late 2015 outbreak in Brazil triggered enquiries from hundreds of companies around the world. When the noise died down, we were left with five or six key players building diagnostic solutions for the virus and we are working with all of them. The mosquito which carries the Zika virus also carries chikungunya and dengue. We have the materials to test all the diseases from that vector.”
Aalto Bio supplies all main global players
He describes Aalto Bio as akin to an engine builder for a leading automaker. “Our brand doesn’t appear anywhere, but we make the key component,” he explains. “When someone goes to be tested for a tropical disease the assay will probably use an Aalto Bio biomaterial. We supply the materials to all the main global players. They build the assay and coat our material onto a plate in it. If the sample reacts with that material, they have a positive diagnosis. What’s happening now is that our customers are asking us to build biomaterials specifically for them. They will identify a disease. We will go out, inoculate an animal, take a sample, grow the virus, build the antigen and then produce it synthetically to the scale required.”
The company has grown rapidly, with staff numbers doubling and turnover rising in double digit growth to €3.3 million. “Our target is to double the size of the business within the next five years through a combination of new product development and new customers,” he says. “We are interested in looking for solutions to emerging pathogens and building materials that help patients get diagnosed faster. If you want to be at the leading edge you’ve got to move fast.”
The development cycle is quite long, however. “By the time you identify and build the biomaterial and get it through approval processes with the FDA and so on, it can be 18 months,” Noone notes.
The focus will continue to be on export markets. “As a company, 93-94% of our sales are exports. Almost all of our business is generated outside of Ireland,” he says. “Enterprise Ireland [the national export agency] has been very helpful. We are setting up partners in China at present and took part in an Enterprise Ireland trip there earlier in the year. We have set up our first China partner as a result. We are now doing the same thing in Japan and we have just signed up a partner there as well. We are also working with a manufacturing partner in Brazil and are targeting Germany and France for future growth.”