How a Small Town Tech Startup Became a Key Player in the Global Fight against COVID
Dave Alburty isn’t afraid to think outside of the box. When he started his business, he didn’t want to live close to work. He wanted to work close to home.
“I chose Drexel, Missouri, for my first company because I wanted to start a company where I wanted to live,” he says.
With a population hovering between 900 and 1,000 residents, Drexel is a hidden gem south of Kansas City, and it has been perfect for Dave’s ventures. He started AlburtyLab and then microbiology tool manufacturer InnovaPrep LLC in the town.
Today, InnovaPrep employs 40 people — and they’re all busy. In addition to making next-gen sample prep tools for microbiology, the company is very involved in the public health fight against coronavirus. The InnovaPrep story is one of flexibility and drive, and many Resource Partners have played a role in its success.
Anticipating and following market needs
InnovaPrep provides scientists with ways to make microbiology sampling faster, more sensitive and more efficient. The company’s technology is used in fields ranging from industrial microbial control to veterinary diagnostics. But with the pandemic, one particular use of InnovaPrep’s technology came to the forefront: wastewater monitoring.
“In the beginning, it was mostly university research labs that were doing the monitoring of wastewater,” says Ann Packingham, InnovaPrep’s marketing and distribution director. “The publication of peer-reviewed articles painted a convincing picture to government entities of how effective monitoring wastewater is in tracking outbreaks and variants.”
Since home testing is now widely available for coronavirus and people aren’t necessarily reporting positive cases, wastewater data can provide important insight into the volume and type of virus in any given community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System in 2020, and state governments have funding to monitor wastewater for the next few years.
Now, InnovaPrep has public health lab customers in 20 of the 37 National Wastewater Surveillance System reporting states. The interest in wastewater monitoring is expanding beyond COVID to now include polio, the monkeypox virus, some foodborne pathogens and even anti-microbial resistant bacteria. Fortunately, InnovaPrep is prepared for this growth.
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Since its founding in 2009, InnovaPrep’s leaders have taken advantage of programs and assistance from a variety of organizations.
“We took part in the ELEVATIONLAB™ Tech Venture classes, and Dave is taking advantage of Pipeline,” Ann says. “We’ve used lots of different assistance programs at the Missouri Small Business Development Center at UMKC: grant writing in the beginning and then commercialization. They’ve connected us with all kinds of resources.
“I also participated in and enjoyed ScaleUP! KC,” Ann continues. “The mentors, like Jill Meyers and, again, Sally Williams and several others put their heart and soul into mentoring growth-stage companies like ours with all kinds of business training, advice and resources.”
In addition, the Missouri Department of Economic Development, its Global Market Access Program, the Missouri International Trade & Investment Office and MO STEP=UP have aided InnovaPrep in finding distributors throughout the world. The company also works closely with the Missouri Biotechnology Association.
When it came to the nuts and bolts of manufacturing, the Missouri Technology Corporation provided training. The organization also helped InnovaPrep with proper documentation. The company earned ISO certification last year with MTC’s help.
It might sound like the team knew exactly who to contact for what help. But the reality is that they figured it out as they went along.
“I wish I’d known about Missouri SBDC when I first started out,” Dave says. “That was great, great helps to me since I jumped into the deep end of the pool.”
A small-town location that’s ideal for big growth
So back to Drexel. When it comes to attracting and retaining team members, the location has been a draw, not a hindrance. Employees who travel from the metro have a reverse commute. And for those who live around Drexel, InnovaPrep offers interesting work.
“It’s a place to for science and engineering in the country, and that’s unusual,” Dave says. “Drexel is cost effective. We make stuff, so we need space. We can put money into growth instead of into rent. Drexel is an entrepreneurial town. People are pretty feisty; it’s a lot of fun.”
Remote work and easy shipping empower small businesses like InnovaPrep to select locations that are right for them — not necessarily in traditional centers of commerce. And these choices can help communities thrive.
Advice and more resources for entrepreneurs
InnovaPrep is enjoying success — and failure.
“We fail spectacularly here all the time,” Dave says. “Failure is the first attempt at learning. So pretty much everything we’ve achieved here, we failed at first. You have to fail and get back up.”
Ann also sees the value in missteps — and focusing efforts.
“We have a technology that spans all kinds of very large markets,” she says. “We really tried to address all of the potential markets instead of picking one and conquering one first. I think that’s the biggest mistake we made.”
Dave suggests that prospective entrepreneurs take the leap — and make peace with the difficulty of starting a venture.
“If you’re thinking about starting a business but haven’t started yet? You’ve got to throw down and grind — just go for it,” he says. “If this were easy, I wouldn’t be doing it — that’s what I tell myself and my team. It’s going to be hard. But there’s a lot of help available in the entrepreneurial community.”
If it sounds like he’s speaking directly to you, you won’t be grinding alone. MOSourceLink has your back.
The Resource Navigator™ lists more than 230 organizations that can help you reach your goals.
The MOSourceLink Calendar is the metro’s most comprehensive collection of upcoming classes and programs that can help you make it happen.
And if you don’t even know where to begin? Our Network Navigators can create a free Personal Action Plan that’s tailored to your unique needs and dreams and lists exactly which experts to contact in Missouri to help you move your business forward.
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