A little respect

MPLN celebrates 20 years with a goal of hometown recognition

Some companies earn a good reputation locally and then go global.

Molecular Pathology Laboratory Network did just the opposite.

Known around the world for its groundbreaking medical testing, MPLN is often misunderstood in its own hometown.

MPLN founder Dr. Roger Hubbard said he wants the Blount and Knox county communities to know MPLN isn’t working on anything that is dangerous or controversial.

“We are not doing stem cell research, cloning sheep or people or anything like that,” he said. “We are a very, very high tech, clean industry, and we’re doing a tremendous service to the medical community. We still have physicians in the area who don’t know about us and are sending specimens to California when we have a full range of services here.

“I’d like put up an enormous neon sign and billboard that says, ‘Use your homegrown lab.’ We have technology you won’t find in most states. You could go to the Mayo Clinic or M.D. Anderson, or you can find it right here in Maryville. I’d like people to know, especially the medical community, we have a very sophisticated comprehensive service in our areas of expertise here.”

Molecular Pathology Laboratory Network celebrated their 20th anniversary this month. The growth the company has seen in that 20 years has been a quantum leap from where they started.

That leap happened approximately 10 years ago when they began innovative new testing for the Human Papilloma Virus.

Founded in 1989 by Hubbard, a Blount County native, MPLN has steadily expanded its selection of molecular testing and cytogenetic services for oncology, medical genetics, women’s health and infectious disease.

“During the course of offering some of this very specialized testing, we’ve had opportunity to come up with a series of firsts. We were one of the first labs to do testing for Human Papilloma Virus. We were the first lab in the U.S. to do that sort of testing on Pap smear specimens,” he said. “If I could point to any one thing that really catapulted us to higher level, it would be that.”

Hubbard said anytime something new comes into medical laboratories, especially when it’s done by one laboratory, it generates a lot of “buzz” and that’s not always positive. “Some labs said you can’t do that, so there is initial resistance, acceptance and then an embrace of technology. That is exactly what happened in our case,” he said.

More than anything, the testing for Human Papilloma Virus using Pap smear specimens took MPLN to a higher level. As a result, manufacturers’ sales reps for the equipment they used promoted the company all over the country. “There were 50 sales reps out there talking about a laboratory in Maryville that was taking specimens and doing all these genetic tests in addition to Pap smears. Suddenly we had an infusion of business. We had 10 or 12 people working, and we started getting bucketfuls and van-fulls of these specimens,” he said.

The growth led to the lab becoming more automated and streamlined. More people were added as more revenue was generated. “We had tremendous revenue growth that helped us get into this building,” he said. “We were leasing a 3,000 square feet space. With the amount of revenue we began receiving, we needed to move into a 27,000 square foot building and pay for it.”

Now MPLN is a network of five laboratories in Tennessee and Virginia with more than 130 employees.

“My mission has always been to make a difference in patient care by delivering the best technologies and services in laboratory medicine,” Hubbard said. “I’ve been able to accomplish this goal with a tremendous amount of support from my family, staff and peers over the past two decades.”

Hubbard said he had no idea when he started the company in a lab at Blount Memorial Hospital that MPLN would grow as much as it has. “I had no idea we would make it for 20 years. My hope when I started the company was I would get one employee to help me within five years. I worked for two years before I was able to hire an employee,” he said.

In 10 years, there were 10 to 12 employees and the company moved to a 3,000 square foot medical park office. They stayed there two years before moving into their 27,000 square foot facility between East Broadway Avenue and Church Avenue in downtown Maryville with 17 people.

“What I wanted to do was use my background and experience in molecular biology and take it out of a research lab setting and put it in a medical lab setting. I wanted to do it in East Tennessee,” he said. “This is my home. I felt I was providing something of value for the health care community in East Tennessee, and it enabled me to come back home.”

Hubbard said his primary goal was to facilitate a transfer of technology from the research lab setting to the medical lab setting, directly impact patient care and people’s lives.

Hubbard said his company’s focus has really not changed in 20 years. Although there are more now 200 to 300 labs that do similar testing, MPLN is still implementing testing that really hasn’t gotten into many medical laboratories. “We’re still at the leading edge of technology. From that perspective, our business hasn’t changed. We still have the same focus and still bring technology to clinical laboratory settings that wouldn’t otherwise be there,” he said.

Hubbard graduated from Alcoa High School in 1970. He praised the resources for businesses such as his in East Tennessee. “The University of Tennessee is a fantastic resource. Oak Ridge lab is a great resource, and we’ve recruited from both of those institutions. Typically, we recruit nationally,” he said.

Hubbard said what needs to be done in order to provide talent, knowledge-based skills to populate labs and industries like MPLN is students must become acquainted early on with technology-based education. “That is a huge challenge with our education system,” he said.

Hubbard said the education system needs to make major changes to get students interested and involved in technology and subjects such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Being acquainted with such subjects is important for individuals to be recruited by companies such as MPLN, he said.

“I think we’re making progress from an educational perspective locally, but we still have a lot of work to do to bring people up through the education system to prepare them to come into companies like this,” he said. “We’re like rocket scientists in the biological world, and in order to really get people inspired to do this type of work, they need early exposure to technology. That is not happening as fast as it should. As a result, we have to recruit nationally for people who have those talents, and we have foreign countries who are really ahead of us. To recruit locally, we need to grow our own and that entails getting started very early in the education process so every child can be exposed to this type of technology.”

Hubbard said the Pellissippi Place technology park being built on the Jackson Farm property off East Broadway Avenue near Pellissippi Parkway is extremely important for his company and the community on many levels.

“First, it’s a knowledge-based business. From the economic development perspective, it’s very, very important to have a diverse mix of businesses in a given area,” he said.

“The technology park really contributes to business and economic diversity here. It’s a type of business that is radically different from industrial or manufacturing businesses because it is knowledge-based businesses that aren’t easily exported to India and China,” he said. “It diversifies and solidifies our long term position in East Tennessee in terms of knowledge-based businesses.”

Hubbard said having the technology park here also gives local residents hope for better jobs and should inspire parents to ensure their children get a good education. “If there is a technology park here, people know they have potential jobs in this technology park and I think that’s going to inspire schools to develop programs that will gear people and kids toward careers in technology,” he said. “It’s going to really assist in the educational development of kids here.”

Hubbard said the tough economic climate is affecting everybody. “We’re not excluded by any means. The economic challenges we’re seeing in every industry have been slow to come to health care but they are coming to healthcare,” he said. “It’s not as bad as it could be. As you have more and more people become unemployed, they don’t have health insurance.”

For a look at the MLPN timeline, go to www.mplnet.com/timeline/index.htm.

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