Jim Plutchak remembers making his way up a flight of stairs. He recalls asking for a few coins for the vending machine. The year, he guesses, was 1978. It was his first trip to his father’s laboratory, which, eventually, came into view as a door opened from the hallway. “I just remember thinking, ‘Whoa!’” Plutchak reflects. “It was weird. There were instruments all around. Science stuff.” Even as he tells the story today, Plutchak’s face is awash with wonder. “I have no idea why my mom brought my brother and I over there, but I remember going in and saying, ‘Hey, where’s dad?’” he says. “And then there he was. He had his white coat on. He looked like what the stereotypical lab person would look like. Glasses. Gloves.” The present-day version of the company his father, Larry, breathed to life in the early 1970s continues to be worthy of awe. One of nearly three dozen entrants in a growing cluster of bioscience and medical device companies in the Santa Clarita Valley, UTAK spikes blank human samples of blood, serum, urine or other bodily fluids to produce personalized quality controls for use in clinical and forensic toxicology. A recognized name around the globe, UTAK has built relationships with distributors in 29 countries – from Australia to Canada, Norway to Thailand – and the company’s vision for a sustainable future is built around deepening those partnerships through increased individualized consideration. It’s how UTAK has built its reputation that’s the story. From a uniquely audacious website (www.utak.com) that proudly trumpets the company’s ‘control freak’ mantra to its custom T-shirt designs that have developed a cult-like following at the annual Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SOFT) trade show, UTAK has successfully leveraged the quality of its work and the culture of its U.S. headquarters in Valencia into a marketing and branding masterpiece. “We have a belief, we like to call it the ‘Control Freak Belief,’ which is: ‘There are no shortcuts to achievement and if we’re not having fun, then we’re doing something wrong.’ I shorten that to, ‘No shortcuts. Have fun,’” says Jim Plutchak, who, since assuming UTAK’s top leadership position in 2002, has quintupled the company’s business to about $5 million annually. “That speaks to the work everybody does here. It doesn’t have to be drudgery coming into work. We’re here eight hours a day – sometimes longer – for five days a week and you want to like the people you’re around and you want to like what you’re doing.” He pauses for emphasis and repeats: “No shortcuts. Have fun.” — With ‘control freak’ stickers slapped on refrigerators and freezers, framed T-shirts from years past displayed on office walls and bright splashes of colors, UTAK’s 11,000-square-foot facility on Avenue Tibbitts is anything but dull – a stark contrast to the often-tedious work that happens here on a daily basis. There isn’t much glamourous about the production of QC materials, either. The five-step process that UTAK explains on its vibrant website as “The Craft of Control” requires lab technicians to lace the chosen matrix with a specified recipe of drugs, vitamins or other analytes provided by the client:
Collect, test and prep the matrix.
Weigh and measure the drugs to create the spiking solution.
Add the spiking solution to the matrix.
Pump control into product vials.
Lyophilize or freeze, and package control.
The matrix could be blood or serum, the amber-colored plasma in the blood, or another bodily discharge such as saliva or sweat. The necessary matrix – at least judging from the sheer volume of supply inside the walk-in fridges – often comes from gallon-sized plastic containers filled with yellowish fluid. “Here’s our jugs of pee!” Matt Kopp, the company’s chief marketing officer, says with a wave of his right arm. The containers marked as “Normal Human Urine” represent more than an amusing conversation starter. Urinalysis is one of the most common methods of clinical diagnosis for a variety of disorders – including kidney disease, diabetes and urinary tract infections, according to the Mayo Clinic – and urine tests are widely used to detect drugs, legal or otherwise, in a person’s system. A quality control sample, for use as a baseline, is necessary before any such tests can be done with accuracy and legitimacy. “You would never run patient specimens without quality control materials,” says Plutchak. — In a cluster of bioscience and medical device companies that includes heavyweights such as Boston Scientific, Quest Diagnostics, Advanced Bionics and Pharmavite – the four largest entrants who combine to employ about 2,500 people, according to the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corporation (SCVEDC) – UTAK is one of the SCV’s smaller companies, counting 20 employees. But, UTAK’s impact, through its careful crafting of a line of products vitally necessary to the success of science, medicine and welfare, is remarkable. “The Santa Clarita Valley is home to a growing number of biotech companies, including some of the most innovative developers of implantable bio-electric medical devices,” SCVEDC President and CEO Holly Schroeder says. “As all of L.A. County seeks to grow the biotech cluster, we believe the Santa Clarita Valley is well positioned to attract new companies because of its state-of-the-art facilities and business parks, talented workforce and attractive quality of life.” Beyond the SCV, UTAK stands out with its bold approach to marketing and branding, with the company’s presence at the annual SOFT trade show among the most notable examples. Since 2007, UTAK has conceptualized a T-shirt design that incorporates the professional organization’s logo of a skull with elements of the show’s location and of the trade. UTAK doesn’t ignore the after-hours aspect of each year’s trade show, either, often including some form of alcohol in its design. The 2012 design, for SOFT’s convention in Boston, for example, showed a skeleton dressed as a Minuteman, holding a scientific beaker filled with a red liquid in his left hand and a bottle of rum in his right hand. A year earlier, with San Francisco as the backdrop, UTAK created a T-shirt that featured beer-chugging skeletons riding one of the city’s famed trolleys. “If you were to go to one of these trade shows, which happen every year, you would understand the ‘fun’ part. It’s a fun group of people. They do their work. They attend their meetings. They attend their seminars. And they learn. But when the seminar or the trade show is over, they like to enjoy themselves,” Plutchak says. “And, I mean, can you blame them? They’re forensic toxicologists. A lot of them work in corners. A lot of them work in crime labs. Labs in police departments. “They see a lot of things that aren’t so fun, from drunk driving to maybe drug addicts to maybe people killing other people. If you work in a morgue, obviously, you’re working with death on a daily basis,” he continues. “It is quite understandable when it’s time to let some steam off, they’d want to have some fun.” The T-shirts have not only become a collectible – “We’ll send out emails ahead of the show and somebody will always say, ‘Hey, can’t wait to see the shirt,’” Plutchak says with a smile – but a strong piece of UTAK’s branding among the estimated 1,200 attendees who come together each year for SOFT’s marquee event. “We like the shirt, of course, but we like our customers or potential customers to be walking billboards, too,” says Plutchak, who, along with his wife, Christina, envisioned the T-shirt design until 2015; Kopp has since taken over as the company’s primary design genius. He adds, “It can’t just be your product and the quality of your product. You have to differentiate yourself with your message.” As he admires the T-shirts of years gone by, Kopp says, “There’s not a lot of companies that use their brand to their advantage. … It’s like Jim always says, ‘If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing something right.’” — It’s unlikely Larry Plutchak envisioned snazzy T-shirts in UTAK’s future when he and his wife, Judy, established the company in 1973. It was, at the time, the first to use 100 percent real human matrices in its production of quality control materials. From simple beginnings in a smallish office space in the San Fernando Valley, where Jim first ambled up those stairs, UTAK moved in 1979 to a larger space in Santa Clarita and, in 1994, settled into its current facility in the Valencia Industrial Center. Here, UTAK grew first into a million-dollar company and later into a renowned worldwide leader in its field. The future looks brilliant, too, with the founder’s son planning to build upon the company’s authentic approach to business. In addition to continuing to supply quality control materials, Plutchak is guiding UTAK’s evolution to “a personalized third-party QC department for our customers.” “That’s really the future for us,” he says. “You can’t just supply a product or a service anymore. It’s not happening. Companies, the consumer, the customer, whoever it is, they need personalized attention. They need personalized care. They need personalized products.” Might that future also include Plutchak’s own children, ages 8, 6 and 3? “They love coming in and bothering people, that’s for sure,” he jokes. After pondering the question for another moment, Plutchak adds, “If they all wanted to come in and do it, great. Great! Please grow up quick so I can retire.”
GOOD WORK, UTAK
A sampling of UTAK customer testimonials: DEBRA SWIGARTQuest Diagnostics “Our laboratory was running an ‘in-house developed’ fractionated 25-OH Vitamin D test on our LC/MSMS system. We were making our own standards and it was very labor intensive. We needed a precise but economical solution. UTAK was able to manufacture a custom set of six controls that had been validated by a third party which we could use for calibrators. They even were able to package them in vials that we supplied to use on our pipetting station so there was no need to transfer them for use by the staff.” SUZANNE FISCHERCovance Central Laboratory “We requested that UTAK prepare the majority of controls that we are using in our toxicology department for drug confirmation testing. They’ve has been extremely helpful in that regard. We currently have a special Tricyclic Antidepressant control containing Amitriptyline, Nortriptyline, Imipramine, Desipramine, Doxepin, and Nordoxepin. We also have two special opiate controls – one containing Morphine, Codeine, 6-MAM and Hydromorphone and the other containing Dihydrocodeine, Hydrocodone, and Oxycodone. Additionally, we have a special THC Glucuronide control at 11 ng/mL. Every time we have requested a special control, UTAK has been great to work with — developing it and verifying it and delivering it within a reasonable timeframe.” BETH SERSENMedtronic “I needed a Norepinephrine free urine control to extract calibration standards and QC samples from for a bioanalytical assay I was developing using ion-exchange SPE and HPLC-ECD detection. Norepinephrine is an endogenous compound and the techniques I used to degrade native Norepinephrine in porcine urine were not working to my satisfaction. Thankfully, SMx urine met my needs. By employing SMx urine, I was able to establish a 1 ng/mL lower limit of quantitation.”
A journalist of 25 years, Steve Kiggins is editor of the Santa Clarita Valley Business Journal. Prior to joining The Signal in December 2017, Kiggins was based in Utah as an executive editor in the USA TODAY Network and worked more than a decade in media and education in Wyoming. Follow him on Twitter, @scoopskiggy.