Promega’s da Vinci Center artfully blends exploration and industry
As you roll up toward Promega’s new da Vinci Center on the biotech giant’s Fitchburg campus, you’re struck not only by its 21st century architectural flourishes and attractive brick-and-glass façade but also by the modest, more timeworn structure across the street to its right.
That older, smaller structure is unassuming to a degree (if you’re primarily interested in measurables like square footage and height), but it casts a long shadow over the entire campus — one that serves as a keen reminder of the company’s ongoing role in exploration, discovery, and pure intellectual curiosity.
The building — the University of Wisconsin’s first student observatory — was originally erected on the UW campus in 1880. Today, after having been moved in 1960 to a location that would eventually become a small islet among the wide-ranging landscape of Promega’s campus, it stands as a fitting bookend to the company’s state-of-the-art da Vinci Center, which broke ground in May of 2013 and officially launched in June of this year.
If nothing else, the observatory can serve as a reminder that Promega — while chiefly engaged in creating molecular tools that aid researchers in the fields of genomics, protein analysis, cellular analysis, drug discovery, and genetic identity — retains much of the cultural (and intellectual) DNA of its founder, Bill Linton.
Linton is well known for wading — if not diving into — some pretty deep intellectual waters. Promega’s annual Bioethics Forum, which in recent years has taken an inventive approach to such topics as dying and consciousness, human creativity, and the connection between consciousness and nature, is a testament to Linton’s dedication to intellectual exploration and inquiry.
In a sense, the da Vinci building — an engineering and manufacturing facility that supports some of Promega’s purely utilitarian goals — is an extension of that.
On a recent tour of the da Vinci Center, IB spoke with Promega’s facilities director, Dan Motl; the company’s lead packaging engineer, Marc Janes; and Penny Patterson, senior director, communications and marketing services.
There’s a certain “wow” factor to the facility — with its sleek, modern sustainability features (including solar panels and passive solar features that flood the facility with natural light); its 3D printer, CNC lathe, laser-cutting tool, sample-cutting tool, and FARO arm, which can quickly prototype needed parts and packaging components; and a somewhat incongruous but decidedly breathtaking roomful of classic cars (which, we’re assured, serve a vital client-relations role).
However, what immediately clues you in to the facility’s uniqueness is its name, which signals a willingness to experiment, innovate, and push the envelope toward new possibilities.
Officially, as Promega’s corporate website notes, the da Vinci building provides “company-wide support for new production equipment and processes … [and allows] for design, fabrication, and testing of machine components and control systems using state-of-the-art techniques.”
But that just scratches the surface. For one thing, this level of dedication to engineering and fabrication in a life sciences company is unusual.
“I think it shows a huge commitment on Bill Linton’s part to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to support Promega and give you the tools that you need to do the job right and effectively, in a timely way, cost effectively,” said Motl. “And it’s really opened up a whole new avenue of opportunities for us to get things done.”
However, according to Janes, while the facility may be unusual with respect to the biotech industry as a whole, it’s in no way out of place on the Promega campus.
“I’m not sure it’s so much a departure from the company culture and history, because I think Bill has a history of doing that in other parts of the organization,” said Janes. “I’ve been in several different companies here and around the country. I’ve never seen anyone dedicate this type of facility to the engineering and facilities part of the business to support the business. So I think it’s fairly unique in terms of what’s happening in other companies like ours in the area and around the region and probably around the country to have this type of capability in-house. I don’t know that it’s all that unique from a corporate perspective in terms of the culture that Bill has established.”
The shoulders of giants
If any local company were inclined to embrace the legacy of Leonardo da Vinci — a true polymath who deftly straddled the worlds of applied science and pure science — Promega seems as good a candidate as any.
To Patterson, the company culture to some extent embodies the heart and soul of da Vinci.
“The spirit of da Vinci and the exploration of creating tools that don’t exist yet, and the willingness to explore that uncharted territory is the spirit that a lot of people want to perpetuate, and this is a great place to do that,” said Patterson.
“And I think it reflects the larger part of our business, which is science, too,” added Motl. “I think our scientists, our researchers, have that mindset as well — that exploration of that process, let’s try something new here. Will it work? And to have that opportunity in a more physical environment here with equipment that supports what they do is pretty neat.”
More to the point, perhaps, the da Vinci building’s facilities embrace the animating force of science and technology — namely, trial and error.
“The tools [in this facility] will, I hate to say this, allow us to fail faster, right?” said Janes. “But sometimes that is what we do. We say, ‘I’ve got three or four ideas, I’m going to prototype something and try it.’ I’ve got some good experience with some things that we’ve 3D-printed over the last few weeks to do just that very thing. We were struggling with a particular process that we were trying to dial in, and we tried a few different things.
“We can print something in a couple of hours and try it and say, ‘Ooh, that’s not quite what we want,’ as opposed to sending something out and saying, ‘We think this is what we want. Let’s go have a machine shop make it for us over the course of a week or two, get it back in, and in the meantime, the clock’s ticking again on some deadlines we had for some things.’”
Meanwhile, the creative spirit — and the purposeful energy — of the facility are merging into what’s become something of a corporate-wide exploration in itself.
“I think to some degree [what goes on here] is tinkering with a purpose,” said Janes. “There’s certainly an element for the broader population of the company to tinker and get creative. It’s kind of in its infancy as a building, so we really haven’t scratched the surface of much of that, but some of the benefit for us from an engineering perspective is the ability to support our customers.
“Customers come to us with many different needs, broad and deep and very technical. So this gives us the ability to maybe more quickly get solutions for them. So tinkering, for sure. There’s the creative element of, ‘Let’s try that and see how it works.’ The ability to do that faster and say, ‘Hmm, maybe those two things aren’t a great idea, but it may lead you down a path to something else.’”
The da Vinci Center: Key Features
Rooftop solar panels
The center’s south-facing surfaces include four-dozen 265-watt photovoltaic panels that generate an estimated 15,200 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. The building’s north-facing windows allow ample natural light to flow into the facility.
Laser cutting allows Promega to quickly create change parts and also allows for prototyping of packaging designs.
The company uses sample cutting to prototype paperboard and packaging. This results in faster development turnaround and allows the company to produce custom kit inserts in very low quantities.
This machine can quickly create plastic prototypes for packaging and can make fixtures and jigs for production and other applications.
The FARO Arm
This tool is used to reverse-engineer parts for processing new product components.
CNC Mill and CNC Lathe
These machines can rapidly prototype new component designs and make parts.
Source: Promega Corp.
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