We recently had the opportunity to meet Bioair, one of the oldest players in the field of Contamination Control Equipment manufacturing. We collected the following interview that drive us through, with a good amount of passion, from the early times of this technology in Europe when nothing was matter of fact and everything had to be invented to the most recent developments in this important field that is involved with everyday safety of so many people working with risky products in laboratories worldwide. The constant search for systems that guarantees the safety for the environment, for the users and for the products handled in these cabinets, is the leading argument on which the whole short history we are reporting in this article, is based upon. Thousand of users worldwide are working every day on Bioair products, trusting them 100% for their personal safety: we thought that having the opportunity to listen directly from the main player, Bioair himself, a short summary of his 37 years experience, might be of interest to all this people, proving how a whole life can be dedicated to one single objective: provide safety. In one sentence, using Bioair's own words: "Your Safety is our Commitment".
Milan, May 2011
Q. Forty years in the Contamination Control Equipment business, sir. Would you mind to tell us a little bit about the old times?
A. Well, when I first started -it was if I am correct, 1971- I remember that it was still unclear which system, between the Isolator technology which at that time was called Isotechnology and the Laminar Flow technology that we call today Contamination Control Technology (CCT) would have been the solution for the future of all the problems of contamination control.
At the end, the two concepts took two different ways and today isolators are mostly used to solve complex cases in Pharmaceutical applications or, sometimes, for preparation of Cytotoxic drugs, and this in some countries only.
The CCT has therefore taken the lead as the most widely used technology for contamination control problems and thousand of Cabinets designed with CCT are sold every year to Laboratories worldwide in order to solve any problem relevant to Operator-, Environment-, Product- or Cross-contamination.
The main reason for this result, being the much higher user-friendliness of CCT vs. Isotech: with this last solution in fact, in order to guarantee a real protection, a very strict and difficult to control absolute air-tightness of the isolator is required. And therefore the use of gloves and of complex and costly barriers and transfer systems are necessary together with slow, lengthy procedures; whereas with a CCT system it is like working on an open bench with, however, the highest level of safety guaranteed; you understand the difference
Q. And how it all started?
A. I was still a young chap, and my name was Gelaire at that time. I remember a small team of young guys working hard, firmly believing that the CCT was the right solution to contamination control, but having no references whatsoever in Europe and just using their fantasy to imagine how the future systems for contamination control systems should have been looking like.
No competitors to look at, nothing: amazing, isn't it? Boy! It was really pioneering, trust me, mate. Anyhow, we started with simple systems, horizontal and vertical Laminar Flow cabinets for the protection of the product, then, suddenly, also thanks to a good connection with a Swiss Pharma Company, we developed a wonder: these Swiss guys wanted us to design for them a system that should provide a controllable cross-protection barrier between a pathogen and the operator working on it; in fact it was a bit more complex than that. We were supposed, in other words, to make up something that was going to protect the operator and the laboratory environment from a dangerous product, but also the product itself from the lab environment and the operator that was working on it: this is what is called a cross-protection, you see what I mean? So in a matter of days of hard work and inspired design sessions, the first partially recirculating cabinet in Europe was born! We almost did not know how to call that thing then, but it was indeed the first European Biohazard Cabinet that was standing there in front of us, or as we would say today, the first Microbiological Safety Cabinet Class II (MSC) designed and manufactured outside the USA!
The USA believe me, it was really a distant Country at that time; no internet, no mobile phones, not even faxes, you know just telex and difficult long distance calls; we knew however that there was a Company over there that had developed and manufactured a MSC which was sold in the States. It was a quite massive think, looking like a submarine, with the fan blowing contaminated air in positive pressure plenums (a big mistake this one, that required, to be safe, a 100% air tightness of the plenums to avoid leakages of contaminated air). Actually our first system had the same mistake built in, but, despite the absence of any international standard (NSF was only going to be published in 1976), we thought about all this and solved simply the problem a couple of years later with our revolutionary BH NG. Great old BH NG! (NG stands for New Generation): we sold hundreds of it, a lot in Switzerland as well. Great feeling to be alone in manufacturing these things: we took a long advance and, when, around the second half of the seventies, some other manufacturer started to appear in the European market, we had no problem to keep the lead and stand of as the unbeatable European leader, with the other following from a long distance.
Q. We still are talking about the mid seventies and you were already the market leader here in Europe tell us what other wonders Gelaire developed later.
A. Well, then it was time to think about something less bulky and cumbersome to use and install in labs where space was at a premium! And the mythical BSB, the first bench top MSC ever, was designed. Bench-top, you understand? Not a bulky gigantic floor-standing unit, no! it was a nice looking posh and stylish design Microbiological Safety Cabinets. It was a typical Made in Italy sort of looking thing: white and blue full of user friendly options, attractive and, hear this: the first, the first! Microprocessor developed for a MSC was going to be installed on the second generation of BSBs in 1984!
No one else had such a thing.
The customers loved it! Would you believe that there are still dozens of those old chaps working in many labs worldwide? Recently, in Scotland, a nice customer brought me in front of a door and said to me: "Wait and see": he opened the door and there it was; a BSB 4 fully operational after approximately 23 years of hard and humble work providing safety to more than two generations of users. Boy, I really felt emotional at that time, believe me!
But, what if I tell you that later, in the early eighties, we designed the first ever Cytotoxic drugs handling cabinet in the world? No one had even thought about it, you know? Just imagine that the Germans were not even yet working on their DIN 12980 when we were already manufacturing something that was going to be described in that standard almost identically! Great stuff, mate, great stuff! We sold a lot of those cabinets in Australia that was, at that time, the only country with a published Cytotoxic cabinet standard.
Q. All right, you sounds very excited about those times, but then, after that, what happen? Why have you changed name? Something mysterious behind it?
A. Nothing mysterious my young friend, nothing. Just things that happen in life: I mean in those years, it was 1981 I guess, we where acquired by a large American Multinational company: Flow Laboratories it was called, you know, but you cannot remember, young boy as you are. So we were acquired by them and then the great years started: we had subsidiaries worldwide: from Australia to the USA, from Switzerland to France, Germany and even South Africa. Boy it was great. We were manufacturing 3,000 cabinets/year. We were going to be # 1 in Europe for almost 10 years, then! How sad, then something changed.
Q. What happen?
A. Well, you know how things change; another big Company acquired the whole thing, the whole Flow group I mean. And we went down the tube! Almost down the tube, actually. We, a few of us, had enough gut to put some money together and start a new small company, with the authorization of the new owner to use the drawings, getting all the machinery, but without the authorization to use the brand Gelaire. That's when I had to change name, you see? We decided that I was to going to be called Bioair, that's it. How things change! Just a couple of years before we were the biggest producers in Europe of Contamination Control Equipments, the European market leader, and now just a few of us trying to keep things alive, yes a few, but with all the know-how of the previous 20 odd years in our pockets. You see? That's how we were able to survive for some time. Then things started to fall in pieces again but like in a nice movie, one day, the former Vice President International of Flow Labs, a gentlemen who now owned a medium sized company with the name of Euroclone showed up and offered to give us a help.
Q. Approaching an happy end, then?
A. You bet no, actually not! Not an happy end, but having a new great, fabulous happy start indeed, a Renaissance, you see?
Yes a Renaissance, let me call it like this: we are now back again, actually since almost 10 years already we are back again, (man how time goes by!) and we feel as young as 35 years ago.
So in these years 3 new different series of MSC have been developed with many options and different versions that make the choice of the customer a simple thing. We have all these cabinets certified at TUV Hamburg according to EN12469. We have launched a new Cytotoxic drugs handling cabinet with a revolutionary bag-in bag-out patented 3d stage HEPA filter changing system, that no one else can offer; and this for the safety of the service engineers that will operate in 100% safe conditions thanks to the provided continuous hermetic separation between contaminated areas and the external environment. See?
We always are one step ahead. Always with that fixed idea in mind: safety, for all
Actually as we say at the company: Your Safety is Our Commitment!
And this, my friend since 1971! Safety in our mind, safety mixed with fantasy and know-how, that summarize pretty well what we are and always will be.
So again, thousand of other happy customers are working with Bioair cabinets worldwide. Big names such as Roche, Novartis, Pfizer, Institut Pasteur, Bayer, large hospitals such as HUG in Switzerland, large schools like the one in Strasbourg, France that have acquired over 80 Class II in one single order, and the and the ANU in Camberra with 90 MSCs, are using our cabinets and Contamination Control Equipments everyday; we are # 1 in Australia, would you believe it, and in Italy; we are becoming very well recognised in key markets such as Switzerland, France UK and Germany, we are successful in South America and Vietnam, as well as in Poland, Check Republic, South Africa and Russia.
I tell you, I feel as if we were back again in the oldies-goldies times with a major difference though: now, once again, a brand new generation of young engineers and colleagues has taken over and they are full of enthusiasm, the same as we were at that time, in the early seventies, but with a plus: these guys can in fact benefit of 37 years of experience that we are leaving to them as our most precious gift. I can tell you, my young friend, I feel good with them working for us now. I feel like I could go away and take some rest...
Q. Do you really mean you will retire soon, sir?
A. Who? Me? Are you joking young chap? Their future is my commitment now!