Chroma diversifies into life sciences with 89 North

BURLINGTON, VT--Chroma Technology (Rockingham, VT) is an employee-owned company known as a manufacturer of precision optical filters.

BURLINGTON, VT--Chroma Technology (Rockingham, VT) is an employee-owned company known as a manufacturer of precision optical filters. Not long ago, the company added a metal halide-based fluorescence light source called Photofluor II, to its lineup. “We’ve long wanted to diversify Chroma and our product line,” explained president Paul Millman. “Diversification will not only help insure Chroma’s future but it will also expand the community of employee-owned companies in Vermont,” he said.

Now Chroma has taken the next step down the diversification path and launched a wholly owned subsidiary to “develop innovative products for the life science imaging market,” according to its news release. The new company, called 89 North, is headquartered about 2 hours’ drive up Interstate 89 in Burlington, VT. While still at the starting gate, the company already has a product: Photofluor II. Chris Baumann, general manager of the new company, said that Chroma will focus on its core--filters. And 89 North, while taking responsibility for Photofluor sales and support, will build from that basis a line of high-power light sources for fluorescence imaging.

Born green

In announcing the spinoff, Vermont newspaper the Brattleboro Reformer painted the company with a green brush, noting that its light sources will use “much less mercury than traditional lights.” The new lights also last longer, and the company hopes to develop LED lights that are even more stable and cost effective,” the article said. Mercury, of course, has been found to be a health hazard. Baumann noted that mercury arc lamps, the standard illumination source for fluorescence microscopy, incorporate significant amounts of mercury and last just 200 hours--whereas metal halide sources such as Photofluor use less but boost illumination lifetime by 10 times.

Stepping further up the environmentally friendly ladder, Baumann says the company is working too on LED light sources--which involve no compounds known to be harmful. “We think there is a significant market for LEDs,” he told Optoelectronics Report. While most LEDs lack sufficient power for most life-sciences applications, Baumann said that 89 North’s LEDs provide power comparable to metal halide sources.

Bauman said that environmental consciousness is “part of the corporate fabric,” explaining that the employee-owned “Chroma has always been focused on social consciousness.” He illustrated his point by telling how, when Chroma was ready to move from the facility it rented earlier on, the company invested in a high-efficiency water recirculation system that dramatically reduced usage of the water it needs for production.

Competitive strategy

Baumann admits that there are “lots of players in the metal halide market” already. He intends to compete on performance, emphasizing output stability. A/C power supplies dip and spike, he explains, and can cause light intensity to vary by 10%. But 89 North’s D/C power supplies are very stable, he says. “Biomedical imaging used to be more qualitative,” Bauman said, “but now the market is moving toward more quantitative imaging.” He said that much of the effort in this regard has been focused on the camera side of the equation and never really followed over to the source side. But a 10% intensity shift can have a big impact on life sciences work, and 89 North would like to raise awareness of this fact.

In addition, 89 North will compete in terms of price, and will “incentivize” the company’s dealers and distributors with earnings based on sales.

While it’s too early to say how the company will evolve, Baumann said the company could grow in either of two directions: it could focus entirely on biomedical imaging and look to fill gaps in that market, or it could look to apply its products to other markets as well, such as machine vision. In any case, though, Baumann said 89 North will “never leave the biomedical market.”

Location and leadership

Baumann is a former employee of Chroma who also has served as a systems product manager at Photometrics (Tucson, AZ), a manufacturer of CCD and EMCCD cameras for life sciences applications, and as an application scientist at Optical Insights LLC (Santa Fe, NM), provider of optics-based technologies for commercial and defense-related imaging applications. He also was a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health after earning his PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1996. In addition to Baumann, 89 North has three employees.

From its headquarters, the new company will be able to leverage resources from the Burlington, VT area including the University of Vermont (UVM) and the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET), a university-affiliated technology business incubator of which 89 North is the newest member. “The resources available through UVM and VCET will be a tremendous asset to us as we move forward,” Baumann said.

In the virtual world the company is also leveraging its resources, having established a Facebook page, Twitter account, and RSS feed. You can find links to these, as well as further information on the company, at www.89North.com.

--Barbara G. Goode

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