Last week could prove to be a key mile-marker for the City of Brotherly Love on its path to being considered on par with Silicon Valley or Boston as an incubator of emerging companies.
After years of admiration from afar and a three-month courtship, France’s BioMérieux decided to acquire West Philly start-up Invisible Sentinel for $75 million. That doesn’t happen often enough in Philadelphia.
The marriage combines Invisible Sentinel’s technology that detects pathogens and spoilage organisms in food and beverages with the French company’s capabilities in infectious-disease diagnosis. Local operations will remain here, making Philadelphia a food-safety research hub for BioMérieux, which can take Invisible Sentinel’s products to customers around the world.
BioMérieux, which has 11,000 employees, started 55 years ago as an offshoot of a group founded at the end of the 19th century by a student of Louis Pasteur. Invisible Sentinel, with 40 employees, was founded in 2006 by two local biotech entrepreneurs.
BioMérieux had $2.5 billion in sales last year; Invisible Sentinel, $9 million.
In an interview at Invisible Sentinel’s headquarters and lab facility on Market Street Tuesday, Nicolas Cartier, 52, executive vice president of the industrial microbiology unit at BioMérieux, which performs diagnostics for manufacturers to help them ensure product safety, and Nicholas Siciliano, 40, CEO and cofounder of Invisible Sentinel, detailed what attracted the two companies to each other.
They also talked about future plans, Philadelphia’s role, and why they’re so bullish about the food-safety industry.
Invisible Sentinel started its growth at the University City Science Center — an urban research park and incubation center — with help from regional life sciences pioneers such as Paul Touhey. But its ultimate valuation “is a testament to how the innovation ecosystem can and should be operating in Philadelphia,” said Stephen Tang, the Science Center’s president and CEO for 10 years, who resigned last March to lead Bethlehem-based OraSure Technologies Inc., developers of medical diagnostic kits.
Questions and responses have been edited for brevity.
How did you find each other?
Cartier: At food-safety conferences there was an Invisible Sentinel booth somewhere, a BioMérieux booth somewhere else, so we got to know and respect each other. And this being not such a big field, when a company like Invisible Sentinel decides to look for a partner or an exit ... we are part of the few companies they think about as a possible option.
Why did you think you were a good fit for each other?
Cartier: For us it was strategic to have a solid research, manufacturing base here in the U.S. Nick and his team developed a very strong position in the beer and wine testing businesses with a unique product which is recognized very much here in the U.S. and starting also in the rest of the world. We are in many food areas and some beverage areas, but hardly in beer and wine. So there’s a great fit in terms of customer segments and targets we may address. Last, and maybe eventually the most important, there was a great interpersonal fit, because bringing companies together is about bringing people together.
Siciliano: BioMérieux is the market leader in the food and beverage industry as far as in vitro diagnostics goes. We’ve built a great deal of respect for them and admired them. And when the time came for us to explore strategic partners, strategic relationships, they were one of the top groups on our list to reach out to.
What was important to Invisible Sentinel in a partner?
Siciliano: That it was going to be a partner that allowed this company to realize its full potential and ... allow us to stay intact. Every employee here has been retained and we’re going to get to continue to work together in the next chapter or natural evolution of this business and do it with a partner who has a very rich scientific history and a spirit of innovation which has been one of the important pillars of our own business and our philosophy on how to build value. We couldn’t have found a better partner. Also, our values are aligned as far as how we treat people, think about people, and value people as really the heart of the organization.
For Invisible Sentinel, what is “full potential”?
Siciliano: It’s to allow our technology and our products to get into the hands of more end users internationally, [Invisible Sentinel has customers in 60 countries]. Their commercial infrastructure ... is going to really allow our products to get into more end users’ hands, also to be able to get into new markets and new industries. Our custom-solution program where we build unique diagnostics for specific end applications for some blue-chip clients, that’s something we’re going to be able to build on. And also our existing client base ... having the resources of a BioMérieux is going to allow us to provide them additional support, additional technologies.
What is BioMérieux’s opinion of Invisible Sentinel’s growth strategy since its commercialization in 2013?
Cartier: They’ve been super smart in very deeply talking to those beer and wine customers, understanding where was the gap and tailor designing something that was the perfect fit, something that would be tougher for a large organization to put together. They grew the company carefully [raising $24 million from 70 investors.] They’ve been very careful and smart in investing and they got their reward.
What does the future look like for the company in Philadelphia and the food-safety industry?
Cartier: For us, Philadelphia will be a strong center of scientific know-how in the field of food safety. I really think it’s a need that can only grow. The more we know about the food-safety risk, the more the population is aware of it, the more big brands want to be protected. At the heart, there will always be a living microorganism and a food product.
Siciliano: Microorganisms evolve faster than we do. So there will continue to be emerging needs. More and more developing countries are now exporting food and to be able to do that, particularly into developed nations, everybody’s auditing the food and ensuring that it’s undergone the proper testing.