Ann Arbor's SoloHill Engineering experiences rapid growth due to vaccine development
SoloHill Engineering, a biomaterials research and manufacturing company tucked away on Varsity Drive in Ann Arbor, experienced what it calls "100 percent growth" in 2009, but not for reasons it would have anticipated.
During the last four years, SoloHill has raced to develop new technology for creating influenza vaccines using a cell-based, protein-free process. This is unique, because most vaccines distributed in the United States are created through chicken eggs.
The new technology "provides a safe, fast and cost-effective approach," says SoloHill Director of Research and Development Mark Szczypka, Capping perhaps the greatest achievement in SoloHill's 26 years of existence, the company secured a patent for its technology.
File photo | AnnArbor.com
Then came time to sell it. SoloHill sought manufacturers in North America and Europe, but came up empty. The greatest interest, it turns out, came from large manufacturers - which SoloHill says it can't name - in India and China.
Even more surprising is that that interest, particularly in the case of India, had little to do with flu vaccines. The Chinese and Indian manufacturers wanted to use the technology to develop rabies vaccines.
"Rabies is a huge issue in both China and India," SoloHill CEO David Solomon said. "That's where our interested partners were, so we said, let's use this opportunity."
The company is constructing a $200,000 rabies lab as part of a $1 million renovation to its facility. The work in that lab will be done exclusively for overseas partners.
Of course, with fast expansion in foreign markets, SoloHill also had to develop something else: cultural sensitivity. The company has gotten used to working with translators, but it has not quite mastered the art of gift-giving.
When officials from a Chinese manufacturer came to town, they brought with them a stunning piece of art that is on display in SoloHill's conference room.
"How do you top that?" President and Chief Operating Officer Timothy Solomon said. "We've had many surprises, but no major gaffes" in foreign relations.
SoloHill continues to do well in the domestic market. Even as the company expands overseas, it anticipates 70 percent of its business will still be in the United States at the end of the year.
"We've had enough to do domestically," David Solomon said. "Our focus overseas is looking toward future growth."
And if SoloHill's rapid foreign expansion is a surprise, its success with vaccine technology especially comes as gravy.
"We didn't intend to ever become a vaccine company," Timothy Solomon said. "Our focus is on building the micro-carrier."
SoloHill's primary competition is General Electric Corp. The gigantic nature of GE comes with both challenges and advantages for SoloHill.
"It's such a big company that we can steal a significant portion of their market share and they'll never notice it," David Solomon said.
"But there is competition, so we have to keep moving. That's why we're investing heavily in research."
James Briggs is a freelance reporter for AnnArbor.com.