Eight years ago, Mark Hanna decided to invest in a small, Columbia-based startup. He had a sense it might really lead to something extraordinary, and his hunch was spot on: Integrated Micro-Chromatography Systems, Inc. has become one of the nation’s most innovative and successful biomedical technology companies.
“What we do is provide technologies to pharmaceutical companies to perform drug discovery,” Mark says.
The company’s products are used in labs around the world for everything from drug testing to discovery of antibodies that can be used to fight diseases like COVID-19. As the pandemic has continued its spread across the globe, IMCS has been working behind the scenes with many of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies to introduce applications for antibody drug discovery. They also have a group working on COVID-19 diagnostics.
“Our diagnostics work is not ready for release yet, but we continue to work through the discovery process and hope to have something to market in the next eight to 12 months,” Mark says.
IMCS is also in the process of developing new enzymes to create drugs for treating neurodegenerative diseases, thanks to a $900,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.
“This is a relatively new science,” Mark says. “We’ll be developing low-cost kits to enable scientists to make new discoveries to potentially develop therapeutics for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
Regardless of the biomedical tech project, IMCS ultimately aims to free up scientists to do their most effective work to improve human health and lives. They accomplish this through developing tools for researchers to use in their labs, like chromatography technology and robotic programming.
“Our goal is not only to enable the chemistry the scientist is looking for, but to simplify implementation so they can execute more effectively,” Mark says. “If time consuming experiments can be run by a robot, then the scientist can focus on the outcome of the study and what the next study will be.”
In 2013, Mark’s brother, Tony Hanna, introduced him to William Brewer, a University of South Carolina scientist. William had previously founded DPX Technologies to produce the pipette tips he invented for use in chemical analysis in forensic, food safety, medical, and pharmaceutical environments. Now, he was working with fellow USC scientists Qian Wang and Andrew Lee to found a new medical technology company, IMCS. Mark immediately jumped at the chance to invest.
“We saw a real opportunity for our technology in large molecule chromatography applications,” Mark says. “In 2013, applications for large molecules for antibody drug discovery had really started to take off as a result of significant advancements in understanding DNA and genetics.”
Andrew now serves as the company’s CEO and chief scientific officer, and Qian, Tony, and Mark all serve on the company’s board. IMCS has 43 full-time employees on its payroll, including 12 Ph.D. scientists, and serves 600 clients in every state in the United States as well as 15 countries.
“For a small biotech company, we have had some tremendous opportunities,” Mark says. “We try to be prudent in what we select to pursue in order to be true to our skill set and provide the best results to our clients.”
Though initially Mark had no intention of working for IMCS, the company grew so rapidly it soon became apparent his skill set was needed to guide its development. He joined IMCS as chief revenue officer in 2015 and has not looked back. He previously spent 20 years working in health care information technology for companies like Aetna.
“I’ve always been interested in finding ways to bring health care solutions to people to make their lives better,” says Mark, who attributes the company’s growth to its willingness to change and adapt. “We definitely have a spirit of flexibility and it has served us well.”
Though IMCS was founded as a chromatography company, early on William suggested the team look into enzyme technology, which coincidentally Qian had been working on in his lab at USC. It turned out to be a smart move for the fledgling company.
“Our enzyme product really took the industry by storm, as it was much cleaner and provided significantly better results than any other product at the time,” Mark says. “That’s really what launched us.”
IMCS started as an incubator company at USC, mentored by the school’s leadership and built by some of its top scientists. Though it has certainly grown beyond the bounds of campus, the company has built a meaningful and lasting relationship with the university that has contributed to much of its success. From contracting with the school for lab services to recruiting top talent from its pool of graduates, IMCS continues to rely on strong local partnerships like the one it has with USC.
“We’ve had great luck with hiring USC alums and growing the business locally,” Mark says. “We’ve developed a really strong talent pool here, most of our people have ties to the community and want to stay here.”
From accounting to sales and marketing, production, and chemistry, USC grads fill positions throughout IMCS. According to Mark, many of these professionals are thrilled to be able to hone their craft locally rather than having to take their talents out of state. And thanks to Columbia’s reasonable cost of living and of doing business, IMCS is not going anywhere.
“A byproduct of the affordability is it enables us to hire more people and contribute more significantly to the community,” says Mark, who relocated to Columbia from Atlanta one year ago with his wife, Michelle Hanna, and their two teenage daughters.
For Mark, being closer to the IMCS team has been one of the biggest benefits of the move, along with the lifestyle shift for his family. The Hanna family enjoys visiting Lake Murray regularly and exploring the local restaurant scene.
“It’s been a big change, but we are all really enjoying it,” Mark says.
For IMCS employees, community partnerships are key. From education projects in local schools to churning out hand sanitizer for health care institutions and service organizations during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are always looking for ways to get involved and give back.
This year, IMCS announced its ultimate local partnership: a $4.1 million local expansion project, in part thanks to a special source revenue credit approved by Richland County Council. The credit will reduce IMCS’ property taxes by 35 percent over a period of 10 years.
“Richland County has been just fantastic to us,” Mark says. “They’ve welcomed us and enabled us to provide additional investment in the community.”
Planning for Expansion
As IMCS continues to expand across all its product lines, its need for greater space and manpower has become hard to ignore.
“One of our largest clients has just increased their orders,” Mark says. “Is there a lot on our plate? Absolutely, but they’re all good problems, and our team is very well positioned to execute them effectively to continue to grow in Richland County.”
Over the next five years, IMCS plans to add 31 positions to its roster, hiring at all levels and in nearly all its departments. They plan to recruit as many employees locally as possible and promote existing interns and employees. While they’re on the hunt for talent, IMCS is also in search of a building that can house the majority of its operations. Fortunately, board member Tony is also co-owner of Carolinas Retail Partners and a commercial real estate veteran.
“He’s definitely got his eye out for any opportunities that come up,” Mark says of his brother.
Ideally, the company is looking for an existing facility between 25,000 and 30,000 square feet, located somewhere between Irmo and downtown Columbia, to maintain its proximity and relationship with USC.
“With that type of expansion, we can get all of our team under one roof to help facilitate communication and coordination around projects and initiatives,” Mark says.
IMCS hopes to have a building secured in the next two years. The next steps will be to restructure the facility to house the company’s laboratory. This can involve everything from refitting air handling and mechanical infrastructure to installing lab benches and specialty electrical and plumbing. Perhaps the most critical feature of any IMCS lab facility?
“The building’s generator is very important because our products are perishable,” Mark says. “In the case of a power outage we need to make sure they stay refrigerated or even frozen.”
Though the move is an extensive process, IMCS is no stranger to the process of relocation. The company started out in the USC Horizon building on the school’s campus, taking up a majority of the research facility’s laboratory. When it outgrew that space, IMCS purchased its first facility in Irmo in 2016 and migrated that way. In 2019, they bought a second building nearby and began occupying it last year. For IMCS, the upcoming expansion might be its most exciting move yet.
“This will now be our next evolution,” Mark says. “We’re excited to be a part of Richland County and grow the business here. We look forward to a prosperous future.”