OraSure and other innovators that got their start with Bethlehem business incubator – lehighvalleylive.com

The following story is part of our Stronger Than Steel series, an in-depth look at how the Lehigh Valley has made a remarkable comeback since Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces went cold in 1995. Read more about what inspired the series here and check out additional Stronger Than Steel stories here.

Ben Franklin TechVentures opened in 2007 on Lehigh University’s Mountaintop Campus in Bethlehem, in a 62,000-square-foot former laboratory of the Bethlehem Steel Corp.

A business incubator owned and managed by Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania as it regional headquarters, TechVentures more than doubled its space with expansions in 2011 and 2017.

Since beginning operations in 1983, Ben Franklin Northeast says it has typically been among the top 5% of the nation’s most active investors and has helped to create 20,688 new jobs for Pennsylvania workers and to retain 56,268 existing jobs; to start 535 new companies; and to develop 2,456 new products and processes. Since 2007, Ben Franklin Northeast reports its clients have generated more than $1.7 billion in additional funding. The statewide Pennsylvania Ben Franklin Technology Partners network has returned $3.90 to the state treasury for every $1 invested in the program.

Among Ben Franklin Northeast’s biggest success stories is OraSure Technologies Inc. — a company on the front lines of global battles against infectious diseases that just celebrated the opening of its newest manufacturing facility in Northampton County.

We recently asked the folks at Ben Franklin Northeast for a glimpse into some of their other successes — both established and on the rise.

It’s a list that starts with OraSure. The NASDAQ-traded company (OSUR) has a market capitalization in the neighborhood of $290 million, and is an increasingly important partner with the U.S. government in combating the spread of COVID-19, Ebola, monkeypox and other illnesses.

According to Ben Franklin, the OraSure family of companies is a leader in the development, manufacture and distribution of rapid diagnostic tests, sample collection and stabilization devices, and molecular services solutions designed to discover and detect critical medical conditions.

“OraSure’s founders initially formed SolarCare Inc. to develop and market a sunscreen towelette. The startup launched in the Ben Franklin Business Incubator, predecessor to Ben Franklin TechVentures,” according to a company bio put together for lehighvalleylive.com by Laura Eppler, who retired in October from full-time work with the region’s Ben Franklin group and is continuing on as special marketing adviser. “SolarCare successfully licensed its sunscreen towelette to Schering-Plough, and quickly expanded into enzyme immunoassay tests for the insurance risk assessment market.

With three investments from Ben Franklin totaling $232,000 and an additional $9.1 million in private investment, the company merged with Epitope Inc. based in Beaverton, Oregon, to become OraSure Technologies.

OraSure opens new manufacturing facility

Carrie Eglinton Manner, president and CEO of OraSure Technologies Inc., speaks at a ribbon-cutting Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, for the Bethlehem-based company’s new manufacturing facility at 2685 Opus Way in Bethlehem Township.Courtesy OraSure | For lehighvalleylive.com

In September, OraSure announced it had been awarded an $8.6 million contract with the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to develop a second-generation Ebola test on its OraQuick testing platform. OraSure says its current OraQuick Ebola Rapid Antigen Test is authorized for use with whole blood or cadaveric oral fluid, and received authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019 as the first and only rapid antigen test for the detection of Ebola virus.

On Oct. 3, OraSure was joined by Pennsylvania representatives in Congress, other federal officials and state Department of Community and Economic Development Acting Secretary Neil Weaver to celebrate the opening of its new manufacturing facility at 2685 Opus Way in Bethlehem Township. Among others on hand was OraSure founder Sam Niedbala, who started the company in 1987 with Mike Gausling and Bill Hinchey.

The opening of the facility follows receipt of $109 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to ramp up production of InteliSwab COVID-19 rapid tests as part of the nation’s pandemic preparedness plan. The facility is creating or retaining more than 400 jobs in the Lehigh Valley, OraSure says.

“InteliSwab is our COVID-19 Rapid Test to identify the SARS-CoV-2 antigen,” Carrie Eglinton Manner, president and CEO of OraSure Technologies, said in remarks prepared for the ribbon-cutting. “Like each of you here knows firsthand, it’s been an ‘all-in’ effort for everyone serving to address the pandemic, and our endeavor to launch this test required marshaling all of our resources.

“Success also required overcoming numerous challenges. Today, I am proud to share the results here — that we have built the capacity to manufacture almost as many tests in a single week as we used to produce in an entire year, and we will continue to ramp production as we bring this new facility fully online.”

Following is a look at additional Ben Franklin TechVenture success stories compiled by Eppler, from Ben Franklin Northeast, beginning with some of its past tenants like OraSure and continuing with some up-and-coming companies:

Bio Med Sciences Inc. (now part of Lubrizol), Allentown

Mark Dillon developed the initial technology for BioMed Sciences while in college, and launched his company in the Ben Franklin Business Incubator, where the startup resided for five years. Bio Med Sciences produces innovative and specialized materials for burn and wound care, and aesthetic skin care. Ben Franklin invested in the early-stage firm, and continued to invest in his company as an established manufacturer 30 years later. With Lehigh University’s Enterprise Systems Center, the company implemented a new Enterprise Resource Planning system. Expected growth necessitated a robust information technology system to improve operational efficiency, provide scalability and flexibility of operation, and meet customers’ demands.

EcoTech Marine LLC, Bethlehem

EcoTech Marine, which manufactures aquarium equipment, was launched by three undergraduates at Lehigh University. Those founders built the company into a multi-million-dollar enterprise with the help of several regional partners including Ben Franklin Northeast. The company’s success represents true regional economic development collaboration. In addition to Ben Franklin Northeast, the company received support from the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone, the City of Bethlehem, Lehigh University’s Integrated Product Development Program, the Small Business Development Center, the Manufacturers’ Resource Center, and Northampton County. Ben Franklin Northeast invested a total of more than $110,000 in the company since 2006, providing strategic plan development and branding, marketing planning, a software assessment and CFO assessment, and comprehensive support developing EcoTech’s Enterprise Resource Planning system.

FMI, Allentown

FMI provides contract manufacturing for a wide range of clients in the skin care, personal care, hair care, home care and pet care markets. Its materials are sold throughout the world and comprise products in most major domestic retailers. The road to success was challenging for founder Kevin Rhodes, with slow initial growth exacerbated by the economic crisis of 2008. But the FMI team persevered, and their tenacity was rewarded. In 2000 through 2002, Ben Franklin invested $267,000 in the company as an early-stage firm to work with Lehigh University to develop a strategic information systems plan. From 2016 through 2018, Ben Franklin invested $77,500 in FMI as an established manufacturer to upgrade its Enterprise Resource Planning system, again with Lehigh University assistance, to improve operational efficiency and provide scalability and flexibility of operation. Beginning with a single founder, the company now employs more than 100.

Up-and-coming companies

Mussel Polymers Inc., Ben Franklin TechVentures, Bethlehem

Mussel Polymers has applied the binding properties of mussels to develop a series of adhesives that very effectively bind in wet environments and enhance the binding characteristics of existing adhesives. The company uses Poly(catechol-styrene) to provide superior performance to existing materials. Initial applications include defense — adhesives for mission-critical military ships and vehicles; coral reef reclamation — adhesives to propagate and plant coral safely and effectively; dental — adhesives for fillings, crowns, caps, implants, and orthodontia; and electronics — adhesives for PCBs, solar panels, and batteries. Ben Franklin invested $100,000 last year and provided comprehensive support to this promising firm.

Orbweaver Sourcing LLC, Bethlehem

Orbweaver Sourcing is the first and only provider of complete, real-time supply chain integration solutions for the electronics manufacturing industry. Orbweaver’s suite of software solutions empowers distributors and manufacturers to instantly and securely transfer and use critical supply chain data to dramatically increase efficiency, reduce cost, and improve customer service. The firm started in Ben Franklin TechVentures in 2013 with two employees. Ben Franklin invested $400,000 in the company over four years. By 2016, Orbweaver had outgrown Ben Franklin TechVentures, and it now has 21 employees, a significant client roster that includes industry leaders, and has raised substantial follow-on funding to complement the Ben Franklin investment.

U.S. Specialty Formulations LLC, Allentown

Millions of Americans require specialized and custom-manufactured drugs, and the current infrastructure is insufficient to support their therapies. U.S. Specialty Formulations LLC (USSF) is a bio-pharmaceutical contract development and manufacturing company that produces sterile injectable pharmaceuticals used by healthcare providers or therapy inventors. The facilities used to manufacture these specially prepared drugs are inspected by the U.S. F.D.A. or other regulators to ensure strict compliance with pharmaceutical standards. USSF, in conjunction with Ben Franklin client Vaxform LLC, developed an oral COVID-19 vaccine that allows greater worldwide vaccine access and provides more effective protection in parts of the world where the needle vaccine is difficult to store and administer. This game-changing oral COVID vaccine also provides a platform for the development of other oral vaccines in the future to combat additional infectious diseases. USSF currently employs 21 and plans more hiring. The company launched and located its first cleanroom in Ben Franklin TechVentures in 2013, received three Ben Franklin investments totaling $225,000, then graduated from the incubator and purchased a 41,000-square-foot building in Allentown to scale manufacturing.

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Kurt Bresswein may be reached at kbresswein@lehighvalleylive.com.