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Published 05 August 2010 06:51, Updated 09 September 2010 04:15
Chief executive: Graham Milliken
Revenue: 2008-09: $30 million
Fast 100: 1994 (ranked 34); 1995 (47); 1996 (49); 1997 (71)
Scientists are clever people. Few are clever with computers.
Knowing this was enough for two scientists and a clever entrepreneur to start an Australian software company, ADInstruments, and create a global success story – and keep it growing.
It began with Professor Tony Macknight. In the 1980s when Macknight, a Harvard Medical School graduate, became a professor of physiology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, research projects involved endless mechanical recording of data.
Testing a new drug, for example, involved measuring and recording by hand every trial patient’s temperature, blood pressure, respiration, heart function and oxygen levels; then introducing the drug and measuring everything again. They had to look for tiny variations or correlations – across patients, across time, then across experiments. It was slow, difficult, laborious work.
In 1984, the first Apple computers appeared. Macknight loved the ease of using them. He turned to his son Michael, who was starting a masters degree in computer science, and asked: Could they be adapted for scientific research? Could they convert the mechanical and electrical data into digital data? Could they crunch it all quickly and easily? Michael wrote his masters thesis on the subject, and developed software to run on his father’s Apple computers that did what he needed – and later named it the MacLab.
Boris Schlensky, an electrical engineer, met Michael Macknight by chance at a computer trade show in 1986. The two tech-heads got talking and Schlensky twigged to the business opportunity in Michael’s thesis instantly. Michael, Tony and Schlensky pooled $4000 and ADInstruments was born in 1988.
With a $70,000 grant, they refined the software for the mass market and within five years, had 22 staff and sales of $6 million, with 75 per cent coming from overseas.
By the mid-1990s, Microsoft had adopted the mouse and graphic interface of Apple. ADInstruments produced a version of its software for the personal computer (PC).
Schlensky moved to the United States to build up that big market, and set up partnerships with local distributors.
However, when he retired in 2002, cracks appeared. Graham Milliken, who had taken over as chief executive from Schlensky, found the partners and the company had different ideas for growth.
Milliken ended the partnerships and built a sales force to service customers and distributors. The sales force also feeds ideas to the research and development department, which consumes about 20 per cent of
revenue – or $6 million.
“Our sales force is out there every day,” Milliken says. “We don’t quote the product; we show the product. And when customers say, ‘Can it do this?’ we start working out a way to make it do what they want.” The process is simple – just pick up the phone and call Milliken, or Michael or Tony, or email the idea.
The company now has 60 products of its own, but sells 1500. “Our focus has shifted to providing a complete package for scientists,” Milliken says. “If someone wants to measure an ECG [electrocardiograph], temperature and blood pressure, we sell the devices to connect people to the data acquisition package.”
ADInstruments installed Salesforce.com, online customer relationship management software with an ideas component, about 18 months ago. “You just click on a tab and log an idea,” Milliken says. “We are going to deploy that straight to customers.”
The company has 160 staff, of which only 45 are in its Sydney headquarters. Its customers are in universities and pharmaceutical companies in 50 countries and include physiologists, biologists, psychophysiologists, neuroscientists and exercise scientists.
In managing the company’s global operations, Milliken travels about 160,000 kilometres a year. Of the total revenue last year, about $30 million, 95 per cent was from exports.
The company is expanding its education-level products: for students’ research projects, and for allied health professions, where there is a big push to train staff.