The Zymark Story

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Authored by: Frank Zenie, The Zenie Group


(Reprinted with permission from StreetSmart Entrepreneuring Frankly Speaking, by Frank Zenie, The Zenie Group)



The following brief history of Zymark took place in the 1981 – 1982 time period. It’s actually a narrative on entrepreneurship that also happens to be a laboratory automation story. Now, December 2008, I’d like to add additional context.

I understand entrepreneurship far better than I did in 1980. We did believe that understanding your customer’s needs and environment is key to any business’s core belief. We, as businesses, exist only to create and serve customers. Success is the reward for doing this well. As many businesses transition from early stage to maturing, they shift their focus from their customers to their competition. Before long, products become too complex and far too expensive becoming loaded with unneeded features.

In my lectures I advise students and professionals: "Not everyone should be an entrepreneur, but everyone should be entrepreneurial – at least some of the time." Continuous improvement sounds logical, but stifles innovation and simplification.

I suspect most of you are either:

  1. Automation managers and professionals working for a pharmaceutical or similar organization.
  2. Sales or technology professionals working for a lab automation vendor.

So, how does entrepreneurship apply to you?

If you work for an automation user organization, remember your employer cares deeply about three goals:

  1. Productivity – realizing the greatest value from their resources.
  2. Velocity – A sense of urgency – sooner is better than later, it’s a race.
  3. Quality – Ensure your products and services meet you customer’s changing needs. In pharma, compliance is part of quality.

Nowhere is technology a primary goal. Technology is a tool to achieve the primary goals above. So keep your prospective, use technology wisely to quickly deliver maximum value to your employer. Don’t over automate – remember automation leverages people; it does not replace all people. (See Justifying Laboratory Automation)

If you work for an automation vendor, take every opportunity to interact with your customers in their environment. Keep asking whether you and your company are offering truly valuable products and services. Provide thoughtful feedback to your management when you begin shifting away from your customers’ true needs and value.

Enjoy our story. Frank Zenie – December 2008. Please send any feedback to

The People

The Founding Team Our First Colleagues – In Order of Mention
Burleigh Hutchins – Chairman, Chief Technical Officer and Systems Architect Chuck Newhall – Partner, New Enterprise Associates, a Venture Capital firm.
Frank Zenie – President & CEO Lou Abrahams – Engineer & Designer
Bruce Swanson – Manufacturing Engineer Bill Buote – VP, Software Development
Ray Dunlop – Engineer & Machinist Jim Little – VP, Sales & Marketing
Cindy Unklesbay – Office Manager, Purchasing and Technical Support
Larry Finn – Software & Electronics Consultant

Prior History

Burleigh and Frank, along with the founding team worked at Waters Associates when Millipore acquired it in 1980. Our team led Waters to high growth, market leadership and outstanding profitability from its prior technology driven focus. During their Waters time, Frank served as President/CEO (after starting as VP Manufacturing) and Burleigh as VP of R&D.

Burleigh’s position as head of R&D at Waters allowed him to set up a remote, advanced development lab, WA Labs, located on South Street in Hopkinton. Lou Abrahams, Ray Dunlap Cindy Unklesbay and Larry Finn (a consultant) joined him at WA Labs. Following Millipore’s acquisition, Millipore decided to close WA Labs and they asked Burleigh to return to the central Waters facilities in Milford. At this point, both Burleigh and Frank decided to start a new business rather than continue with Millipore or seek new jobs. We proposed that Burleigh’s team finish all current projects for Waters and, when completed, Burleigh and Frank would purchase the lab and offer jobs to the team. The team was offered jobs at Waters or, if they chose, to join the new enterprise.

To ensure a quality transition, the date for launching Zymark was not based on a typical resignation notice, but on completion and transfer of all active projects to Waters. These developments were completed in about four months and all prototypes and documentation were delivered to Waters on Friday, March 6th, 1981. Zymark was officially born on Monday, March 9th, 1981.

The WA Labs purchase was completed on friendly terms and the Millipore management even offered to invest in Zymark - although the offer was not accepted. During the remainder of 1981, Burleigh and Frank invested $600,000 to start the company and fund initial market and product development. This formed the foundation for the new company, but we still had to identify unmet customer needs and convert them to an innovative product development opportunity. To keep the team busy and offset day-to-day expenses, Zymark agreed to develop a new product for Waters.

Our first facilities were the former WA Labs space of 5,000 square feet at 102 South Street in Hopkinton. To emphasize our commitment to innovation, Burleigh was named Chairman and Frank President and CEO of our new company.

Naming the Company

We did not want to name the company after the founders. We wanted a one-word name that sounded "good." The first idea was to name it Highland Labs, however, we found the name was already widely used. We then wanted a name that would be unique in at least the three important "corporate" states of Massachusetts, California and Delaware. (Note. Corporations are chartered by states not the federal government.) We then decided to become the last name in most phone books; the letter Z coupled with the last pronounceable letter, which happens to be Y. We then created multiple name candidates beginning with ZY followed by a range of suffixes. ZyTech and others were already used in one or more of the three states and only Zymark survived as unique.

The Business Concept

Neither Burleigh nor Frank had a non-compete agreement with Waters or Millipore. (No one had been asked to sign one at Zymark as well. We only asked people to commit to non-disclosure of confidential information.) The decision not to develop improved HPLC was a strategic decision to create a new technology (Primary Demand) rather than begin by fighting for market share in an already competitive business.

In the meantime, Burleigh and Frank began working on Zymark’s new product and business direction. We defined our target customers as chemists and biochemists working in sophisticated, industrial laboratories. In order to identify the unmet customer needs, we visited a wide range of labs to understand their real problems and work environment. Zymark’s introductory brochure in 1981 defined a commitment; "Dedicated to increased productivity in chemistry and the biotechnologies…" to introduce Zymark’s mission and help identify our potential customers’ most important unmet needs. (Note: Even though the product direction was as yet undefined, the discussions probed sample preparation and even inquired about robotics.)

Each day, Burleigh and Frank tried to make sense of the insights they gathered. On April 16th, 1981, in a cheap motel room in Pittsburgh, Frank exclaimed that the problem was sample preparation. Burleigh, who was stretched out with his feet on the coffee table sat straight up – this was the proverbial light bulb.

At that moment, we saw a consistent message from our visits – with more powerful analytical instruments, sample preparation became the major source of errors, delays and increased costs in analytical laboratories. Now the ideas started to roll. The first idea was a chain or "train" that would move vials or tubes along as various chemistry operations were performed in an assembly line approach. The second idea was a simple manipulator that would move tubes from the chain to other operations, such as centrifuges or balances. The next idea came from Burleigh's experience at Westinghouse with computer-controlled machine tools. This insight began the revolution we now know as laboratory robotics. Chuck Newhall of New Enterprise Associates, who later invested in Zymark, was the first to use the term "robotics."

The Birth of Zymate

We completed the contract development with Waters/Millipore in June 1981. About July 1st, Burleigh and Frank created the robotics vision. We concluded that existing industrial robots were inappropriate for lab applications and that only an expensive mini-computer (think in terms of 1981 computer technology) was capable of controlling a robotics system. This meant that Zymark would have to develop a robot and a microprocessor-based controller as core technologies. Developing a suitable robot became the first project. On Monday, July 20th, we left for further customer visits and asked our development team to build a wood model of the design concept.

We returned to find a model of the "robot" ready for simple demonstration – not wood, but aluminum. This model became the first prototype and remained outside Frank’s office for some years. This model was upgraded with each new design refinement and was actually used for the initial customer demonstrations.

During the development process, Burleigh and Frank continued their field visits and prepared their "Sample Preparation Questionnaire" as a discussion outline for future customer meetings.

The annual Pittsburgh Conference (Pittcon) was, and remains, the premier exhibition and conference for new analytical technology. If you want the industry’s attention, bring your product to Pittcon. In order to introduce our product at the upcoming Pittcon in March 1982 (Atlantic City), we needed to go from concept model to working prototype in just nine months. In addition to the robot and a few peripherals, a system controller (computer) also had to be designed from scratch - so Larry Finn designed the electronics and Bruce Swanson (who joined in the spring) designed its chassis. Ray Dunlap and Lou Abrahams designed the robot, power and event controller, and the master lab station. Bill Buote (who also joined on the spring) developed the operating system and all related software. Burleigh guided the overall system architecture and designed the robot wrist and robot electronics.

The tension increased throughout the remainder of 1981 as the Pittcon deadline approached. Finally, in December, the Zymark team set out to preview our new concept to potential customers. On December 8th and 9th, two "customer previews" were held in Hopkinton, MA. About 40 people visited during the two-day program. In its very first public demonstration, the robot picked up a test tube that had been placed improperly in its rack and preceded to smash it - with glass pieces spraying around the bench. While the overall response was reserved and almost skeptical, we decided to proceed, and thereby further increasing the Pittcon deadline tension. After all, missing Pittcon would delay access to the most important new technology forum for a full year.

We then prepared a second corporate brochure to introduce Zymark's lab robotics strategy. Jim Little, who was driving our commercialization program and Pittcon introduction, created our first Product Brochure and Price List - prepared using an early word processor and Kroy lettering machine.

Entering 1982, the team knew it would be difficult to explain lab robotics. The word robot conjured images of R2D2 (Star Wars) in most peoples mind. This was a first-in-class lab product with nothing to compare it with. We needed live demonstrations at the upcoming Pittcon to help potential customers visualize the concept and enable us to begin selling.

Eight days before Pittcon, we had prototypes for all the individual elements needed for the demonstration application, a solid phase extraction. By this time, Zymark was open 24 hours a day on rotating shifts for our then 13 person staff. In these remaining eight days each element still needed to be connected and tested. We had used the "big blue box" (Intel's Microprocessor Development System) to emulate our system controller until now. Note: Zymark adopted Intel's microprocessor architecture long before it became the industry standard.

The Pittcon demonstration system included the robot, system controller, master lab station, racks of test tubes and interchangeable robot hands. The original goal was to depart Hopkinton, MA for Atlantic City (a 300 mile drive) on Thursday prior to Pittcon's Monday opening. Serious technical setbacks, however, kept everyone working in Hopkinton. Scheduled departure slipped to Friday, but that also was not to be. Finally, if all went well, our rented van (to carry all our equipment to Atlantic City) would leave Saturday morning at 4:00 AM, with Burleigh at the wheel and Lou riding shotgun. Everyone else would get some sleep and meet Burleigh and Lou in Atlantic City late Sunday afternoon. To get some rest prior to departure, Burleigh went home Friday night. We told him to set his alarm for 4:00 AM and if the van was parked in his driveway, it was a go. If not, Pittcon was out. At 3:00 AM Saturday morning, Bill Buote was still inserting program ROMs into the system as the van was being loaded. At 3:30 AM, Burleigh woke up, saw the van, mounted the driver's seat (which was still warm from driving there), and drove to Worcester, MA to pick-up Lou and they were off to Atlantic City. Now real customers would react and provide feedback on the viability of our strategy.

Arriving at Atlantic City, Burleigh and Lou checked into the Best Western hotel. The Best Western was cheap, but off the boardwalk and distant from the convention center. Our development support computers were installed in the hotel room and the demonstration prepared for delivery to the convention center. The bellboy who helped Burleigh and Lou bring all these electronics to the room thought they would use it to "beat" the tables at the casinos. No, our gamble was different. Saturday night when they went out to dinner their waitress asked if they were in town to gamble. Burleigh responded; "Lady, were the biggest gamblers in town!"

At the convention center, our robotic system was installed in the Zymark booth, a very small booth at the rear of the convention center reserved for new companies. The demonstration was the chemical separation (by solid phase extraction) of grape Koolaid into its three component colors, red, blue and clear. The separation solvent was vodka, convention center acceptable and readily available in the middle of the night. Our slogan was; "If there’s a problem with the chemistry, we’ll drink it". Until then, very few companies demonstrated real chemistry at Pittcon - and avoided bringing real chemistry reagents into public conferences. The Zymark demonstration was also unique in that it actually moved materials around a lab bench. Most analytical instruments at that time looked like boxes with lots of lights and a bell or two.

Atlantic City's weather that March was cold and wet. Although our demonstration system ran all week, we uncovered numerous reliability problems. For some reason our controller memory board occasionally lost its memory and Larry Finn would run back to the hotel, about a mile away, and reload the memory board from the blue box development system. It seemed that there was also a timing problem with the main processor chip that caused the memory board to completely erase itself. Back at the convention center, Bill Buote stood at the keyboard and typed programs one command at a time. Other problems occurred and were solved quickly. Some, however, were spectacular, such as when we launched an entire rack of test tubes into the air.

All in all, Pittcon was truly exceptional. As word spread that there was something interesting in the back area, Zymark's aisle filled with crowds watching this strange machine. Nearby exhibitors complained that our crowds obscured their booths. Our demonstration robotic arm kept working (except for a few one or two hour shut downs) and the crowds continued to come. Local (Atlantic City) TV news featured Zymark as one of only two companies illustrating Pittcon’s high-tech theme. Our system ran perfectly in the background as Jim Little was interviewed on TV. Right after the interview, however, the system quit and Larry Finn was off on another run. Zymark's lab robotics innovation became the news event for the industry’s technical journals as well. Zymark's debut was altogether sensational.

After a few days off, our team digested the experience and went back to the drawing board. Something had to be done to improve reliability. Initially, we just replaced the defective chip that erased the memory board. With the replacement chip, however, the system didn't work at all. We tried a second and third replacement and nothing worked. Somehow, we had used the one chip in our 10-chip inventory that worked at all.

After calling Intel, we discovered that their manufacturing tolerances simply didn't meet our needs. The 086 microprocessor chips were the early version of the 286, 386 and 486 chips that later became industry standards. Only by chance, Bill Buote selected the one chip that actually worked for us. We needed to redesign around available technology.

Following Pittcon, we also needed to address a marketing challenge. Potential customers, who missed Pittcon, had no way to visualize lab robotics. We needed a "film" of the robot at work. 1981 was before the wide use of video, so Jim Little drove to the local drug store and purchased several rolls of 8 mm movie film. Bill and Burleigh then started filming the robot in action. As unexpected thing happened, Jim went back for more film and then returned for more until he had purchased their entire film stock. We then rented a film splicer and Bill and Burleigh sorted through the many feet of film, cutting and pasting, they had one reel of a perfectly mannered robotic system. We were now ready for face-to-face sales calls.

This was only the beginning of a long process. Many good things and challenges followed. Building a successful business is never easy. It's refreshing, however, to reflect on the earliest days to remember how fragile this process is.

About the Author

Frank Zenie spent twenty-five years as an entrepreneur and chief executive, building innovative, market leading and profitable companies. Served as President/CEO of Waters Associates (Now Waters Corporation) from 1969 through 1980 and co-founded Zymark Corporation in 1981, serving as its President/CEO through 1996.

Frank is currently an entrepreneurial coach, investor and director for a number of early-stage, technology based companies – many healthcare related. He currently serves as Chairman of VelQuest Corporation and Process Packaging and Control Corporation. He’s also a trustee of the Zenie Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to education support for deserving students who are often unable to access traditional financial support.

He was appointed an MIT Senior Lecturer to teach "Starting and Running a Successful Technology-based Company."

Frank has a BS Electrical Engineering from MIT and an MBA from the University of Rhode Island.

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