Vector Laboratories CEO Lisa V. Sellers, PhD

If you’ve worked in a biomedical lab, there’s a good chance that you’ve used products from Vector Laboratories, pioneers in state-of-the-art labeling and detection technologies. Vector Laboratories was the first company to commercialize avidin-biotin enzyme complex kits for immunohistochemistry and antifade mounting media for immunofluorescence.

In the past 45 years, Vector Laboratories has introduced more than 600 reliable reagents and kits. Now, Vector intends to build on its distribution network and manufacturing facilities while reinvigorating its marketing to strengthen the company as a standalone brand.

In early September, Vector Laboratories announced a $124-million cash buyout from Maravai LifeSciences backed by private equity firm Thompson Street Capital Partners to accelerate its expansion into protein detection. This new funding enables Vector Laboratories to embark upon an acquisition strategy while accelerating the commercialization of innovative labeling and detection technologies for immunohistochemistry, immunofluorescence, glycobiology, and bioconjugation. Through this buyout, Vector Laboratories has gained the flexibility of a well-funded startup combined with a market-tested product portfolio driving innovative research by academic, industrial, and clinical researchers worldwide.

GEN Edge met with CEO Lisa V. Sellers, PhD, to discuss why Vector Laboratories closed this buyout and how it intends to grow as a standalone company.

GEN Edge: What was the mission and vision you inherited at Vector Laboratories?

Lisa Sellers: Since 1976, Vector Labs has been providing technology and tools for various laboratory techniques. It has been wonderful to hear that they used a Vector product when they were in graduate school. We’re continuing to build off that nostalgia by serving academic customers with tools for chemistry, immunofluorescence, and glycobiology. As a testament to the brand, for 45 years, life science tools providers and diagnostic companies have been coming to us. We’ve been a component in their total solution. They’re doing the value add for their intended application.

GEN Edge: How has Vector Lab’s mission and vision evolved since you joined one year ago?

Sellers: Maravai hired me as Chief Operating Officer but still ran Vector as an independent business. The opportunity that I saw coming into Vector Labs, given my commercial and business background maturing technologies, is to be more proactive… Venture capital is all about investing and furthering technology. In contrast, private equity involves investing in systems, processes, and people to get scale and value out of the investment. Typically, private equity companies buy founder-run companies, much like how Maravai bought Vector at the time. Vector was the first acquisition under Maravai. In acquiring other companies, Maravai ended up having a wonderful portfolio, including TriLink BioTechnologies. With COVID-19, Maravai started to serve biopharma with their technology concerning SARS-CoV-2 and mRNA vaccines.

Now, with Thompson Street Capital Partners investing in Vector Labs, we can go forward with more focus to harness the portfolio and make proactive partnerships with these customers. We’re focusing more and more on enabling our partners in life science tools and diagnostics to help them bring their products to market by being an expert in bioconjugation formulation and tissue analysis. We’re not just getting a product to them; we’re bringing expertise as they’re developing their products to accelerate discovery and ultimately utilize these tools for human health while still adhering to that brand of quality and performance.

Thompson Street Capital Partners came to the table and said that they valued Vector as a platform business, that they viewed Vector as a business to bolt on other assets and acquisitions to fill the bigger business strategy in protein detection. This allows Maravai to focus on serving the biopharma customers while Vector, through focused investment from Thompson Street, can focus on serving the academic scientists as we have in the past and be that partner for these industrial and diagnostic companies. It’s fortunate that Maravai played a significant role in the mRNA vaccines and great that Thompson Street came around to help me realize the vision for Vector.

Sometimes businesses carved out of a bigger business will be absorbed into another existing business by the acquirers. But in this case, Vector is now officially a standalone business. Vector Labs is the primary focus for Thompson Street, and we’ll get the focused investment. I couldn’t ask for a better outcome because Maravai has been a great organization, and Thompson Street is a great private equity partner.

GEN Edge: What new challenges will Vector face as a standalone business?

Sellers: It’s an excellent position to be in because Maravai spent five years investing in our systems, processes, and people. In this next phase, we are trying to expand our portfolio and capabilities, capitalizing on the history and brand of Vector. We already have a lot of infrastructure, including enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and manufacturing and e-commerce processes, that will be carried over with Vector as a standalone company. We’re fortunate that we have all of this under one roof. We’re not starting from scratch; instead, we get to build on top of that. We can now spend more time looking at companies to merge or acquire to accelerate our strategy.

GEN Edge: What is Vector’s strategy for new products?

Sellers: It’s a two-pronged approach. We have a huge portfolio of products today, and industrial customers are coming to us. In many cases, they can use the catalog product integrated into their product development. In some cases, we do custom bioconjugation for them. Once we start to move to that customization, bringing in and leveraging our formulation and chemical expertise, that’s when we can begin to change the relationship to this partner model. It’s no longer purely transactional. One prong of our strategy is fielding out more capabilities to better serve those customers with not just catalog product and more customization but their end application. That’s one prong of the strategy.

The other strategic prong is, while we have a great toolset for protein detection, we want to keep up with the needs of those customers as they move into more applied uses like diagnostics. We have a wonderful foundation in glycobiology and glycan detection. We see that the worlds of genomics and proteomics are very exciting. There’s also opportunity in the area of glycobiology. So, we want to participate and continue to invest in innovating tools to better enable out-of-the-box detection of sugars and carbohydrates on tissue samples. We’ve got a little over 30 lectins today that we sell to customers and even in applied uses and customized for them for their end applications. Still, there’s an excellent opportunity for us to do more in that area. This taps into what the founder was doing when he started Vector, making innovations in glycan detection and glycobiology. So, it’s interesting how we’ve come almost full circle to our roots.

Those are the two areas for us. There’s so much more innovation that can happen in glycobiology, and Vector is in a great position because we have a portfolio today that serves that space. But commercially and operationally, there’s that partnership model that we can invest and be more purposeful in. We don’t want to go and be competitors to our customers. We want to enable their success. Our expertise is in the tools and technologies today. We’ll look to expand those capabilities for our translational and clinical customers. But we intend to serve them for accelerating their innovations and not to participate directly. It doesn’t tap into our core capabilities and strengths.

GEN Edge: How is Vector organized to achieve this business strategy with far-reaching international customers?

Sellers: Vector is actually really small. We’re just under 70 employees. Having Thompson Street invest in us is fantastic because we can get more scale out of what we do today. As customers come to us, we want to scale not just reactively but proactively to serve these customers. We’ve brought in talent and best practices around the customer’s voice, which is the first step in innovating tools through the traditional Stage-Gate product development process. We’ve had that process in place while focusing on market research resources to define those unmet needs to develop the products that will serve academic and industrial researchers. We want to make bigger teams with broader reach and capabilities.

We need to expand partnerships with customers beyond what we’ve done today. We rely on many distributor partners to enable our reach. We’ve got a wonderful partnership in the U.K., China, and Japan. We need these partnerships, and they’ve done great things in helping reach customers globally. These folks already have the relationships and the support structure, so we’ll continue to use them.

Our advantage and core competency is having the know-how to twist the knobs and pull the levers throughout multi-step syntheses that take a lot of time to have different outcomes for different end applications. We can do it faster, cheaper, and with high quality and performance than the customers can do themselves. Instead of investing in that expertise, they can invest in other areas. That’s mainly what we see with clinical diagnostic customers. Their expertise is in patient samples and how to get through clinical trials to get the data needed to sell a test. That way, they don’t have to worry about expertise in bioconjugation and tissue analysis; they can rely on us for that.

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