Avi Lasarow is riding the crest of a wave. In the past year, his UK-based biotech company, Trimega Laboratories, has opened a world-class R12 million hair substance abuse testing lab, begun a research project to formulate a hair test for anti-retroviral compliance, and been recognised at the inaugural SA Business Awards in London where Lasarow was named the 2010 Business Leader of the Year.
The last year, however, is just one in a series of high points for Trimega since its inception six short years ago. With facilities in the UK, South Africa, the United States and Germany, the company has developed a range of innovative techniques for testing substances of abuse.
It’s core business is hair testing that detects drug and alcohol abuse, and is recognised internationally as a gold standard in the industry. “Urine and blood tests can only provide you with so much information, whereas hair testing reveals a pattern of abuse over a period of time,” explains Lasarow. The Hair Alcohol Testing product provides an accurate historical record of an individual’s alcohol dependency over a one to 12-month period, while urine, blood and liver function tests only relate to recent consumption.
Understanding the market
The science behind the products is complex and yet Lasarow has no formal training in biotechnology. But quite apart from finding this a hindrance, it’s something he believes has given him an edge. “The science is one thing but making a successful business out of it is another. Because I’m not a biotechnologist I could translate the science into what the market needs and understands, and then commercialise it. As an entrepreneur you need to become a subject matter expert in your area, but you don’t necessarily need to have a qualification,” he says.
He might add that you need to understand your market, and this has undoubtedly been one of Trimega’s key success factors. In most cases, the information obtained from hair testing is used by family law specialists, social services and the courts in child custody cases where decisions need to be made about the future of vulnerable children whose parents are substance abusers. In the UK alone, for example, around 20 000 hair and alcohol drug tests are requested in child custody cases each year.
But Trimega’s products are commercially viable across a wide range of other applications and in a growing number of countries. The company receives requests from doctors who need to test a patient’s suitability for transplant surgery, and lawyers involved in employment tribunals, or for routine testing in safety-critical jobs such as aviation and for steroid testing among athletes. In Germany, its products are used to assess the eligibility of banned drink-drivers to get their licenses back, while in North America they are used to confirm suspected cases of foetal alcohol syndrome, where mothers have drunk excessively during pregnancy.
Bringing it home
Lasarow has actively grown each of these markets, familiarising himself with the opportunities for Trimega’s products in each of the countries in which it operates. Describing himself as a ‘global South African’, he’s particularly passionate about ‘bringing it home’ to South Africa, and two of the company’s latest innovative developments focus on the key needs of the South African market.
In 2008, in a joint venture with Real World Diagnostics, Trimega launched its DrugAlyser product in South Africa, which allows traffic officials to test drivers for drug use via a sample of sweat or saliva. “I knew that road fatalities were also the result of drugs, not just alcohol and I knew if I could get the data to prove this, it would be extremely valuable,” says Lasarow.
Thanks to excellent stakeholder relationship communication, Trimega Labs was afforded the opportunity to work in partnership with the Department of Community Safety and Traffic Law Enforcement to test over 500 motorists at roadblocks for various drugs, including cocaine, opiates, ecstasy, dagga and Tik. The survey not only has the potential to impact South Africa’s traffic laws – it provided Trimega with the data it needed and established it as the brand of authority when it came to roadside drug testing. This has opened up new opportunities for the company, which has since been involved in drug abuse trials among industry heavyweights such as DeBeers, Transnet and BHP Billiton.
Most recently, Lasarow has turned his attention to South Africa’s challenge of HIV/Aids. “One of the exciting things about our new lab is that we’re busy formulating a test to measure ARV compliance, which will help to highlight patients who are not taking their medication and are therefore at risk of developing viral resistance,” he explains. The research project is part of a bilateral biotechnology skills transfer that Lasarow hopes will benefit South Africa in the long-run. “The South African Government has sent expatriate entrepreneurs a strong and welcoming message to ‘bring it home’ and that is precisely what I hope to do,” he concludes.
Seeing a gap for reduced rental
Lasarow has an entrepreneur’s knack for spotting an opportunity. When the company was looking for space to set up its new laboratory he approached other tenants who were locked into a four-year lease, negotiating with them to take over their lease for 70% of its value, thereby saving Trimega a considerable sum.
Lasarow knows from first-hand experience just how important it is from a legal point of view to keep certain things documented. “Early on, I did a lot of things on trust with a former business partner in South Africa and was unfortunately let down.
But because I had certain legal documents in place I could go to court and be assured of having clean hands. These things are never pleasant, but my advice to other entrepreneurs would be to document agreements, decisions and meeting minutes for later reference. Hopefully they won‘t be needed in future, but if you ever have to go to court, they are invaluable.” Entrepreneurs often go into business with someone they trust and not expecting that they might run into a dispute later on, which is why they don’t formally document things like partnership agreements. Having things written down and agreed upon helps to make expectations and deliverables clear. It pays to invest in a lawyer to get these documents drawn up.