Lighthouse Instruments sprang from a graduate program in physicsSeptember 29, 2011 6:00 AM
by Joan Tupponce
Photo by Mark Rhodes
Lighthouse Instruments can test up to 400 pharmaceutical containers for defects in just 60 seconds, thanks to laser technology. Company founders Jim Veale and Bobby Anderson worked on the development of high-sensitivity laser spectroscopic methods during a graduate study program in physics at the University of Virginia. “We also worked on applications for those methods,” Veale says. “We started looking for an industrial application for the technology in the mid- to late-1990s.”
Veale and Anderson started the Albemarle County company in 1995. It manufactures test and measurement equipment for the pharmaceutical industry. The equipment can identify quality defects in pharmaceutical containers, or as Veale puts it, “We look for leaks. The products we test are sterile injectable drugs such as vaccines, cancer drugs and antibiotics that are administered intravenously.”
Currently, the company’s 10,000-square-foot facility manufactures two product lines using laser technology. The first consists of lab instruments used for measuring oxygen and moisture in pharmaceutical containers. The second includes machines used by the manufacturing facilities of companies such as Merck and Pfizer. “They manufacture thousands of containers,” Veale says.
He began focusing on the pharmaceutical industry in 1997. The company’s customers range from large corporations such as Merck and Johnson & Johnson to startup biotech companies and small contract manufacturers such as Afton Scientific in Albemarle.
Lighthouse began selling in the U.S. in 2000, initially targeting the East Coast. In 2004, it expanded to Europe and a year later moved into Asia with a focus on Japan. Since its inception, it has grown from two to 23 employees.
In 2000 the federal Food and Drug Administration awarded Lighthouse an $850,000 small business innovation grant. “That allowed us to commercialize these systems,” Veale says.
Since then, the company says, it has been doubling in size and revenue every three years. In the past year, sales have grown more than 25 percent, although Lighthouse declined to give specific figures.
Veale likes the company’s Albemarle location because of its proximity to the university and its resources. “U.Va.’s science, business school and engineering faculty played a role in Lighthouse being successful,” he says. “The area also has a good work force and community college programs.”
The strong entrepreneurial environment in Charlottesville is another plus. “There are dozens of small technology companies,” he says. “There is a lot of support and interaction between people.”
Away from work, Veale enjoys the area’s abundant outdoor activities. “There is lots of hiking and camping on the edge of the Blue Ridge,” he says. “Also Charlottesville is culturally diverse. We have big-time college sports and great restaurants.”
When it comes to outdoor adventures, Albemarle County offers 28.5 miles of walking, running and hiking trails. The county’s nine parks span more than 2,000 acres. Popular attractions in the Charlottesville area include Monticello, Michie Tavern and the picturesque grounds of the university. The Charlottesville area also is home to a number of Virginia wineries such as Barboursville, Veritas and King Family Vineyards.
The county’s economy
Albemarle County’s diversified economy includes sectors in manufacturing, education, tourism and technical and professional services. Major employers include GE Information Systems (programmable controls) and Northrop Grumman (navigational instruments), with more than 600 employees. Other large employers are Defense Intelligence Community – Rivanna Station with more 2,500 employees, the University of Virginia Medical Center with 5,500 workers and the university itself with more than 12,500 employees. In March, McLean-based CustomInk.com started a new digital and screen-printing operation for custom apparel in the county. The project is expected to create more than 100 new jobs in the next few years. CustomInk, founded in 2000, currently employs more than 275 people including 30 now working out of the Charlottesville location.
Where to stay
The Charlottesville area is home to many quaint inns and bed and breakfast establishments. The Boar’s Head Inn, owned and operated by the University of Virginia Foundation, sits on 573 acres in the countryside close to the Blue Ridge Mountains and numerous wineries. The 170-room resort offers a sports club, tennis, golf, spa and meeting space. South Street Inn, a combination of two restored houses, is located near the University of Virginia in the historic downtown district. Accommodations include daily breakfast. Clifton Inn, once a private residence, has 17 rooms and suites, each with different décor. The AAA Four-Diamond and Exxon Mobil Four Star property is located on 100 acres near the Blue Ridge Mountains.
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