Atypical Manufacturer Thrives In Atypical Manufacturing Hub

Kent Peterson, CEO of Fluid Imaging
Kent Peterson, CEO of Fluid Imaging

Fluid Imaging isn’t your typical manufacturing company and Maine isn’t your typical manufacturing hub.

Perhaps, that’s why the two go hand in hand—the Pine Tree State has been the perfect place for the particle analysis instrument manufacturer to grow as a company, says CEO Kent Peterson.

“We have a quite unique, high-value added product that we can afford to manufacture in Maine and not have to go elsewhere,” he says. “There’s a great work ethic up here and can do attitude, not affected by some of the other issues you may find in major cities. Plus, there’s no traffic.”

Fluid Imaging’s instrument embodies a digital camera, a microscope and flow cytometry, controlled by a software program. It’s able to look into aquatic water and examine algae cells at a sub-visible level, Peterson says, along with a number of other applications. Peterson recently sat down with Chief Executive to talk about the challenges of educating the marketplace on the technology, the culture of innovation at Fluid Imaging and more.

Below are excerpts from this conversation.

What are some of the industries that really benefit from your technology?

Well, the initial [application] was the marine or oceanographic industry, whereby they wanted to look at algae cells in the ocean. Of course, 20 years later, that’s still a hot topic given the sign of toxic algae blooms down in Florida and elsewhere. But the oceanographic applications spilled over into municipal water resources, monitoring for algae, and of course, recreational supplies and things like that. So, you could say aquatics is a big part of our business.

The other big part is it’s used for an industrial commercial application… [you can use] this technology to look at microscopic particles in biologic or injectable drugs. [So you can use this technology on] all kinds of food products, chemical products, minerals, oil and gas applications, wherever you have sub-visible particles that you would either use a manual microscope or not bother because it’s so much work to use a manual microscope, you can now use our technology.

What are some of the big challenges that Fluid Imaging is facing in your industry?

I would say and I have said this since the day we started, it’s the education of the marketplace. In other words, if I’m selling tables, everybody knows what a table is. And then I just have to describe the different colors or materials of construction. If I called you up and I said, “Do you want to buy a digital imaging flow cytometer?” I probably wouldn’t finish that statement and you’ve already hung up on me. I’m being facetious, but this is not a technology about which you can send out an email or a brochure.

So, we have focused heavily on attending technical conferences or trade shows where we have an instrument and we can either run the instrument in front of people or have a movie loop that shows how it works. Without exception, the people who knew nothing about this automated microscopy, flow imaging technology stand there dumbfounded. And we call it the wow factor. And the wheels start turning about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it now and what they could be doing much better if they have [our technology].

So, our biggest barrier to further growth—and we have grown almost consistently for 20 years—is having people know what this can do for them. Word got out very quickly in the oceanographic market because that’s an area where researchers have to publish or perish. But when you go into the industrial commercial markets, it’s more hush-hush and some are under [non-disclosure agreements].

How have you become innovative outside of a traditional manufacturing hub? I love Maine, I’ve been there many times. I’m from Massachusetts. But it’s obviously not maybe the most traditional hub, so how do you guys stay innovative?

You’re right. We’re not exactly at the center of the Raleigh-Durham [manufacturing scene] or Silicon Valley. But what we do have is a very technical workforce that has been encouraged and incentivized for product innovation. And my partner and I are in lockstep when it comes into ensuring that anything that we show this year will have something better next year. And that has trickled down into the organization whereby we regularly have reviews of the software and new ideas that employees are encouraged to bring forward. And any new ideas from when our salespeople listen to our customers. That’s all categorized, organized, and then triaged into figuring out what we can do.

I mean, we’re a small company, Gabe, and we can only do so much, but the intent is to bring in these ideas not only for the software but for the hardware. And all employees know without exception that they’re encouraged to [aim for a] continuous improvement/feedback loop, and that more importantly, that we’re willing to fund experiments and trials, and nobody gets hurt professionally or financially. Not everything is a winner. But they know they’re not sacrificing anything if it doesn’t work out. You know, everybody goes into it wide-eyed and hoping for the best.

What advice do you have to your fellow CEOs in terms of trying to grow the business and evolve as a leader?

A few things come to mind. I think our culture of continuous improvement is something that should be embraced and encouraged, so you don’t get stale. Secondly, look for international opportunities for geographic diversification. A lot of companies would be surprised that something they may take for granted in a domestic or regional market could be of significant value in other cultures or other countries. We’ve been very successful in that regard. And finally, I think developing a collaborative environment where teamwork is appreciated. It allows you to compete in this tight labor market.

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