It’s a bit unsettling to know that the traditional cholesterol test used on patients most at risk for heart disease is inaccurate 60 percent of the time. But that shortcoming presented opportunity for Birmingham-based Atherotech, which has developed into one of Birmingham’s fastest growing and most innovative companies.
Privately held Atherotech Diagnostics Lab is known largely for its patented VAP (Vertical Auto Profile) Plus test, which provides a more detailed and accurate cholesterol profile than traditional testing. That, in turn, allows better risk assessment of heart disease, the nation’s leading killer.
The VAP Plus test has been the foundation for an eight-fold increase in revenues at Atherotech in the past five years — a period in which the company went nationwide, expanding from 15 sales territories in four states to 100 in 48.
The Atherotech story is improbable but rich in innovation. It began with a doctor who had no intention of starting a business and continued with a scary-smart chemist with expertise in machinery instrumentation. Most recently, it has included a CEO — a former lab technician turned accountant — bent on spreading the Atherotech story and fostering innovation in the workplace.
The VAP technology was discovered almost a generation ago at the University of Alabama at Birmingham through the work of Jere Segrest, M.D., an internal medicine physician, acting professor and director of UAB’s Atherosclerosis Research Unit. A graduate of Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine, Segrest never set out to start a business. His VAP research was a “hobby” that morphed into something more, thanks to an innovative culture that gave Segrest’s mind room to roam.
“What I did with VAP was just a chance occurrence, ” says Segrest, now a youthful 74-year-old. “It was nothing I was thinking about that I wanted to do. I tend to take things and think about them for a long time, and I never know where I’m going next week or tomorrow.”
Segrest was interested in separating cholesterol-carrying lipoproteins so they could be better identified and measured in cholesterol testing. He and UAB associates were able to do that by using ultracentrifuge technology, which rotates blood samples at high speeds so that particles are separated by gravity.
Segrest’s team showed that the VAP technology worked, but it was not a commercially viable system early on. Its development reached a point when it was time for someone else to take Segrest’s work to the next level, and that someone was Kris Kulkarni, 60, a native of India who earned a Ph. D. in analytical chemistry at Southern Illinois University before working with Segrest at UAB in a post-doctoral capacity.
“My interest was to develop instruments for chemicals, ” says Kulkarni, who worked several years as a consultant for Atherotech and is now the company’s vice president of research and development. “They had the technology basics, but (the VAP technology) wasn’t ready for testing on any large-scale production. There were lots of issues with the technique. It wasn’t so accurate, it required a lot of blood, and it was slow.
“At that point, Dr. Segrest felt there was a need for improvement, and my background was appropriate to take what he had done to the next level, so that’s what I did. I changed the whole instrumentation, to make it more commercial. I didn’t have a complete picture at that time of what I aspired to do, but I knew how to develop the VAP technology so you’d have much better results.”
“Kris Kulkarni did some unbelievable things, ” Segrest recalls. “After that, we started the company and started to look at the possibility of patents and improving on the devices we had been using. What we had was just jerry-rigged stuff that we had thrown together. We applied for a grant, and that allowed us to hire some people to put our own (ultracentrifuge) machines together.”
The work continued, investors were found and Atherotech has gone from a handful of employees in the 1990s to its current roster of almost 500. In addition to the VAP Plus cholesterol test, Atherotech offers about 100 other diagnostic tests for cardiovascular issues, diabetes and other conditions.
As is the case with Segrest and Kulkarni, innovation is a major driver for 46-year-old Mike Mullen, Atherotech’s president and CEO. Mullen graduated from Auburn University with a degree in laboratory technology and worked at a UAB lab while earning the credentials to be a CPA. He became an accountant for Ernst & Young and was doing well but still didn’t know what he really wanted to do.
“I wanted to learn, ” he says. “I’m just a curious person, and every situation I went into at Ernst & Young, I wanted to know what the business looked like. I wanted to know everything there was to know about it. But I never had a plan. I didn’t know if I would be there four years or two years. In hindsight, I just was not the kind of person to stay at a large accounting firm. I wanted to take more risks.”
Mullen eventually joined Atherotech as its
controller more than 10 years ago and has been president and CEO since 2009. Asked how he would describe his management style, Mullen says, “Hands-off. I like to make sure people that report to me have sufficient objectives with timelines, but I’m also real collaborative.
“I try to lay out over-arching goals and then ask people what they need in their world to achieve them. I get input and we develop strategy that way. I’m hands-off but strategic and collaborative, empowering.”
Segrest says that Mullen has ratcheted up Atherotech’s marketing efforts. “Mike has really gotten into the idea of spending more time showing that what Atherotech does is important, ” Segrest says. “He’s really into ‘Let’s show it in studies. Let’s do studies for people and show how it works.’”
Mullen sees incredible medical breakthroughs as early as 10 years from now. “I continue to believe that with heart disease and diabetes there will be earlier detection methods that will allow physicians to intervene and improve the patient’s outcome, ” he says.
“I believe within our lifetime, or maybe even in the next 10 years, we will see that it’s possible to use a single drop of blood to diagnose all types of cancers. From a drop of blood, there will be information that pharmaceutical companies can use to target and manage cancer just like it’s done now for cholesterol.”
Segrest has not been involved with the day-to-day affairs of Atherotech for years. In fact, he and Mullen had never met until about a year ago. “I started thinking about it one day, ” Mullen says, “and it dawned on me that I had never met the person who developed the core technology that our company was built on. I called and reached out to him, invited him to visit our facility.
“He came out and toured our labs and office and stopped by my office and said, ‘You’ve done a heck of a job, young man.’ That was a really proud moment for me, ” Mullen says.
Segrest, the man who started it all, is perfectly content away from the business world and has no plans to retire from his post at UAB. “I love what I do, ” he says. “I sit at my computer looking at molecules and figuring out how they’re put together.”
Charlie Ingram is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.
text by Charlie Ingram • photos by Cary Norton