By Don Shilling
If a Hubbard company’s products do create a new type of scientific testing, it would reduce the need for petri dishes.
HUBBARD — It’s an unusual place for the future to be.
To one side is a restored steam engine that pulled mining trains in the first half of the 1900s. On the other side is a 70-year-old diner and a restored version of one of Hubbard’s first general stores.
In the middle of this Main Street nostalgia is something different: a biotechnology company that promises to change laboratory testing in the future.
NanoLogix quietly has been conducting experiments, amassing patents and meeting with scientists from the government and major corporations. All of the work revolves around something that company chief executive Bret Barnhizer calls revolutionary.
“It’s stunning someone didn’t come up with this decades ago,” he said.
NanoLogix’s products promise to create a new type of scientific testing. If Barnhizer’s vision comes true, petri dishes — the staple of lab tests for more than 100 years — would hardly be needed.
New technology can confirm the presence of bacteria and viruses in two to six hours, instead of 24 to 72 hours that are needed now, Barnhizer said. Treatments for all sorts of threats — meningitis, salmonella or anthrax — could begin much quicker if identified sooner, he said.
Barnhizer is still working to get people to buy into his vision, so the company is small. Administrative work is handled by four people who work in a small, two-room office at 843 Main St. that sits on an historic site created by accountant Jim Marsh. The research work is performed by a scientist in Cincinnati.
But Barnhizer has plans for rapid expansion. He has production equipment on order because a customer intends to order 7,000 testing kits a week. He declined to identify the customer but said it has multibillion-dollar revenues.
Barnhizer plans to begin production in December with four additional workers churning out 8,000 kits a week. He and his landlord are working on locating production at the current site.
Once the customer announces its results in scientific journals, Barnhizer figures demand will explode and he will need hundreds of employees. Expanding in Hubbard is possible, but Barnhizer has spoken with state officials and local development leaders about other sites as well.
One believer in Barnhizer’s vision is Mike Saul, who owns CL Solutions, a one-person company in Cincinnati. He has been testing the NanoLogix products and is nearly ready to show them to his customers, who clean up contaminated industrial and military sites.
“I don’t think there’s anything else like it,” Saul said.
He sells bacteria that can remove contaminants from sites. He is counting on the NanoLogix tests to bring him more customers because the tests offer quick results.
He said contaminated soil or water often sits for a month so lab tests can be run, unless companies pay extra to get results in a week. With the new technology, tests can be run in the field with results coming back in less than 24 hours, he said.
“I think it’s going to open a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Barnhizer also has been meeting with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about how NanoLogix tests can be used to identify water contamination.
Jerry Stelma, a senior scientific adviser at an EPA research lab in Cincinnati, said the agency is exploring the local company’s testing methods to see if they fit with its needs. He declined to comment further.
The company’s progress as yet hasn’t impressed investors. The company’s stock is trading for about 6 cents a share, less than half its value a year ago. Barnhizer owns 5 percent of the company’s stock.
The stock doesn’t meet the financial requirements to trade on a large stock exchange. It is among the thinly traded stocks that are known as over-the-counter stocks, with transactions being handled by brokers.
Barnhizer said he expects investor interest to build once a major corporation adopts NanoLogix’s technology.
NanoLogix uses two methods for providing rapid detection. Both were developed by Sergey Gazenko, a microbiologist who works for the company in Cincinnati.
In a test using a petri dish, a microorganism is placed into a nutrient solution and given time so that it grows enough to be seen. Growth of the organism indicates a positive test.
One of the new tests developed by Gazenko uses a membrane that speeds up the process. The membrane keeps the microorganism on top but allows the nutrients to flow up so the microorganism can grow. This allows a concentrated form of the microorganism to be placed on the membrane. A staining is used to reveal growth under a microscope.
The second method uses tubes instead of dishes. A small disk with many tiny holes is coated with antibodies of the microorganism that is being tested for. If the microorganism is present, it will adhere to the disk and will show up as fluorescent.
Barnhizer said the first method is likely to be more popular because it is an extension of the existing petri dish.
Also, the use of dishes is less expensive. Dishes are to be sold for about $3.50 each, which is about $1 more than a traditional petri dish. The disks used in the second method cost $96 each, but they are reusable.
Although its products are just being introduced, NanoLogix was founded in 1989 under the name Infectech. It was formed in Sharon, Pa., by Dr. Mitchell Felder, a neurologist, and Dr. Robert Ollar, a mycrobacterioloist who is still on the company’s board of directors. Dr. Ollar is the director of the core molecular biology program at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan.
Barnhizer, a Mahoning Valley native, was overseeing the European operations of a Canadian oil and gas exploration company in 2005 when he first heard of the local company. His brother, a patent lawyer, told him about the patents that the local company had in alternative energy.
Barnhizer said he quickly invested $560,000 in company stock after speaking with another brother who was a county planner in Erie, Pa. NanoLogix is working with Welch’s and Gannon University in Erie on a project that produces electricity from a generator that runs on hydrogen. The hydrogen comes from bacteria that eat sugar residue in juice tanks at a Welch’s plant in Erie.
As he grew more familiar with the company, Barnhizer pushed to create marketable products out of its patents. In March 2007, he got the support of other shareholders and was named chief executive of the company.
Despite his initial interest in the energy project, Barnhizer shifted the focus of the company away from the hydrogen project and onto the medical testing because he saw more near-term revenue potential in that area.
He also moved the company to Hubbard to be closer to his home in Poland. Barnhizer said he intends to keep the company in the Mahoning Valley.
“This is an area where people would appreciate a high-tech job,” he said.