Editor’s note: Charlotte Beat is a regular feature on Wednesdays.

MATTHEWS…CEM Corp’s new Odyssey microwave system for the life science market released this spring is cooking up business faster than the company can make the equipment, says Michelle Horn, marketing manager.

The once public 26-year old company, which chief executive officer Michael Collins took private in 1999, saw its Q2 revenue increase 17 percent to $12.2 million this year.

In June, the CEM received a patent on the PowerMax technology for its Discover line of microwave synthesis systems. Collins attributed the growth in the quarter to CEM’s expanding life sciences unit, which experienced a 66 percent growth.

R&D Magazine in June gave the Odyssey system its R&D 100 Research Award. The system decreases the time it takes to create peptides from days to minutes, Horn tells LTW. Peptides are the amino-acid building blocks of proteins.

The 200-employee company is hiring sales staff and chemists and taking steps to ramp up production to meet demand, says Horn. Three-quarters of its employees are in its Matthews-based corporate headquarters and production facility. CEM also has subsidiaries in the UK, Germany, Italy, and France.

CEM also works with Durham-based Synthematix.

Days to minutes

It sells products from its three divisions worldwide. In addition to the Odyssey chemical systems, it sells microwave instruments for chemical analysis, processing plant use, and academic research. It released the Odyssey system in March. Its Voyager System (for scale-up operations in pharmaceutical and biotech companies) came out last fall.

The Odyssey peptide system decreases chemical reaction times with its guided microwaves that heat a sample to a precise temperature. Will Grooms, director of marketing, tells LTW that inexpensive home microwave ovens fluctuate in temperature for several reasons.

“It’s basically a big reflecting box,” he says. “The home oven expands and contracts as it heats and cools, the microwaves pulse on and off, and the glass door is there to absorb microwaves so they don’t melt the unit onto the countertop.”

The CEM systems maintain a continuous field of microwaves and waveguides focus them on a small area, maintaining precise temperature. The systems are used by researchers doing drug discovery on the front end of the life sciences process and by those who build the drugs on the back end, says Grooms.

The systems sell for $50,000 to $60,000, less expensive than the much slower conventional method equipment, says Horn. She adds that they literally turn the work of days with the conventional methods into minutes with microwaves. “It’s totally automated, gets greater purity, and takes up less space than conventional systems,” Horn says. “Conventional systems require floor space. Odyssey can be mounted on a bench top or fume hood.”

Good listeners

Grooms points out that many life science companies do not make the peptides they need for research or drug production themselves because of their complexity. Instead, they buy them from smaller companies, most of whom CEM expects may buy a microwave system to give them an edge in the industry, he says.

The company has tens of thousands of units from all its divsions working worldwide, he says. “We got into the life sciences area because of what we were doing in the analytical division. Some of our clients were asking for this and we’re good listeners.”

Grooms says taking the company private helped spur its development of innovative new technologies. “When you’re public you have a responsibility to stock holders that may make you more conservative,” he says.

Prior to an industry conference, Collins told an interviewer, “Words such as revolutionary, which is very much overused in many fields, are appropriate to microwave synthetic organic chemistry. Over the next five years we can change the basic energy source used to do necessary chemical transformations.”

Grooms notes that many synthetic chemists are still in the dark ages when it comes to those energy sources now. “They still using hot plates and oil baths. It’s what an alchemist would have used. They’re getting rid of those things.”

Horn points out that microwave systems are quickly becoming standard equipment in their labs.

Bank of America supported Collins’ buyout in 1999.

Slow light conference

About 30 world renowned scientists in the fields of optico electronics meet at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Slow Light conference from July 12-14 sponsored by the Charlotte Research Institute’s Center for Optoelectronics and Optical Communications (COOC).

Deborah Clayton, director of CRI, tells LTW, “The upcoming conference on slow light technology is the Charlotte Research Institute’s inaugural global conference program. Sponsored with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the event will bring together world leaders in this novel technology and provide an opportunity to enhance the university’s engineering and technology expertise and reputation.”

COOCC director Michael Fiddy calls it “a summer camp for geeks.” Robert Boyd, acknowledged as a worldwide leader in slow light research, gives the keynote address.

Light — which travels at the highest speed possible, 186,000 miles a second in a vacuum — can make it to the moon and back while you’re reading this sentence. Researchers have slowed light to bicycle speeds of 35 miles an hour in the laboratory. This is important to the future of light used in communications, computers, and other applications.

CEM Corp.: www.cem.com

UNCC: www.uncc.edu