How they became world leaders in blood analysis

Published: 22 September 2023

Text: Anne-Marie Korseberg Stokke

Photo: Angelique Culvin-Riccot

Biotech company Vitas is now a world leader in automated analysis of dried blood. Their story is as much a story about Oslo Science Park.

Several floors above Oslo Science Park's StartupLab, Vitas occupies most of the top floor. It feels symbolic:

The biotech company, led by founder and Ph.D. in chemistry Thomas E. Gundersen, has spent three decades becoming a world leader in automated analysis of dried blood. They are a prime example of how a company can develop slowly but steadily - literally working their way up.

"There are two ways to build a company. One is fast and furios, with investors and everything, which may be the norm nowadays," says Gundersen, and continues:

"We have chosen the other path. It is to build step by step and never spend a penny until we have earned it. It takes time but has much lower risk. We also have no investors, and have chosen to give all employees the opportunity to own a piece of the company."

"The path from research to applied services needs to be shortened," says Thomas Gundersen, CEO of the biotechnology company Vitas. The company itself emerged from academia but turned theory into practice. They have become world leaders in their field and analyze blood from around the world in their lab at Oslo Science Park.

Vitas has its roots in academia but has taken the idea and solutions out into the world - from Oslo and Oslo Science Park. Along the way, the company has contributed to value creation, technological innovation, and prestigious research.

Serving a Global Market

Vitas, also known as Vitas Analytical Services, was established nearly 30 years ago. At that time, Thomas Gundersen was still a master's student - albeit one with an unusually ambitious project.

He wanted to develop technology to automate the analysis of important trace elements in tiny blood samples.

As Gundersen tells it, it started with a project commissioned by Professor Rune Blomhoff, one of the country's leading experts in nutrition. The project eventually received 1.2 million kroner in funding for instrumentation. As per the agreement with the University of Oslo (UiO), half of it became available to Vitas - where Blomhoff and Christian Drevon, another respected nutrition professor, steered the ship. Vitas was the second private company in history to be established at UiO.

"Vitas introduced the possibility of analyzing fat-soluble vitamins - A, D, E, and K - in the Norwegian healthcare system. What we did was to automate and streamline it so that many samples could be processed relatively quickly and at a reasonable cost," says Gundersen.

"That's what Vitas is all about. Our core is to bring methodology for measuring biomarkers important for health and disease to the market. We do it efficiently and robustly with high quality, allowing for mass production. We operate in niches - specialized areas with less competition - and therefore we can serve a global market," he says.

Rapid Growth

Behind the entrance to Vitas' premises on the top floor of Oslo Science Park, there is a shelf with empty champagne bottles. Each bottle marks a milestone in the company's history, with the milestone written on the label.

One bottle reads: "2018 - 100,000 DBS." Four years ago, Vitas completed its hundred-thousandth analysis of Dried Blood Spots (DBS) - the technique in which the company has established itself as a leader and pioneer in the field.

The method was first described as early as 1913 by Ivar Bang, the founder of clinical microchemistry, and has been used since the 1960s to investigate diseases in newborn babies.

Thomas Gundersen and Vitas have modernized this technique, and they now receive letters with dried blood samples from all over the world - from Hong Kong to Johannesburg, from Florida to Australia.

While it took a significant part of the company's history to reach 100,000 DBS analyses, Vitas completed its one millionth analysis in December 2021. And they are well on their way to reaching two million samples. Director Thomas Gundersen states that Oslo Science Park has contributed to facilitating such rapid development.

"It has been brilliant for us to be in Oslo Science Park. When we arrived here, we were able to borrow a lab bench at the biotechnology center because that's what we could afford. As we had better financial means and larger needs, we were able to move into larger premises with the help of Oslo Science Park all along the way," says Gundersen, and continues:

"We have had contracts that have been open and flexible, allowing us to quickly move out of one place and into another, making the necessary changes for us to grow without excessive risk, which is important for a startup."

"Our ambition now is to fill this floor and then move to the new dedicated laboratory wing that will be completed in three to four years," he says.

A Bridge Builder

The story of Vitas is also a story about Oslo Science Park. They are located in the core of the planned innovation district, Oslo Science City, with the University of Oslo as their closest neighbor.

Here, academia and business meets. Vitas is an example of this, and they are part of a growing environment where other new companies are following in their footsteps.

For example, incubators Aleap and Sharelab, also located in Oslo Science Park, are now nurturing other companies in the health and biotech sectors. These initiatives are building important bridges between research environments and commercial activities.

"We have greatly benefited from Oslo Science Park, and we also believe that they have benefited from us. The interaction has enabled Oslo Science Park to facilitate and prepare buildings and services for companies that have come after us."

"We are a classic laboratory with a lot of gadgets and have a strong visual research profile. This helps showcase Oslo Science Park as the serious research center it is," says the Vitas director.

Another area where Vitas has set an example to follow is in seeking collaboration and funding both domestically and internationally. For example, they have received funding from EU-supported programs and from the Skattefunn scheme of the Research Council of Norway. They have also collaborated with major universities internationally, leading to several important publications in journals such as BMJ, Nature Medicine, Nature Communications, and The Lancet.

"It has been and is important to involve small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in the framework programs. Otherwise, there is a lot of important basic research that does not benefit society in the form of applied services," he says.

Such arrangements have facilitated Vitas' ability to turn theory into practice, benefiting many. This has been crucial for the company's development and internationalization, according to Gundersen.

No Need for Satellites

Despite having clients from all over the world - ranging from individuals interested in nutrition to the Norwegian salmon farming industry and major international research institutions - Vitas is still a relatively small company with only a few dozen employees.

"We have many robots, though. I usually say we have 60 employees, of which 24 are human. What humans do is prepare samples during the day and load them onto the robots. Then the machines run all night, producing large amounts of data," says Gundersen.

"A strategy to stay competitive is to have at least two robots per person. The higher the level of automation, the lower the operating cost," he says.

This logic aligns with Vitas' principle of having a sustainable and socially beneficial business - a combination of sound operations and tasks they find important.

"I believe biomarker analysis from DBS is the solution for the future. We have no plans for satellite laboratories around the world because our concept allows for a base in Oslo that serves the entire world," says Gundersen, adding,

"This is not a vision. It is happening now - and has been happening for several years."