Many of today’s most successful companies were created by groups of friends: Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started HP in a garage in Palo Alto; Microsoft was cofounded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, childhood friends from Lakewood, Washington; and Google established by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, part of the same Ph.D. cohort at Stanford.
The University of Utah has its own version of this story: BioFire Diagnostics began with a group of college classmates who came together on the U campus to collaborate and build a transformative company.
The precursor to BioFire Diagnostics, Idaho Technology, Inc., was founded in 1991 by three U alumni: Carl Wittwer (Residency `88, Pathology), Kirk Ririe (B.S. `05, Chemistry), and Randy Rasmussen (Ph.D. `98, Biology). Their unique backgrounds and experience perfectly complemented one another: Kirk was a chemist and engineer, Randy had a molecular and cellular biology background, and Carl brought expertise in medicine.
BioFire started small, with the trio working on prototypes which included hair dryers taped to fluorescent tubes. But the trio set their sights higher to lead the Molecular Diagnostic industry, and BioFire’s product development has evolved to include sophisticated diagnostic tools including FilmArray®, a proprietary molecular diagnostics system that uses PCR and melt-curve analysis and simultaneously tests for multiple infectious agents in a single panel in the short time of about an hour.
From its humble beginnings in the corner of Kirk Ririe’s parents’ business, to their current location in the University of Utah Research Park, BioFire has always had a simple, yet tremendously impactful, mission: “To help make the world a healthier place.”
Due to its tremendous success, BioFire was purchased by BioMeriéux in 2013. Under the leadership of Dr. Randy Rasmussen, who currently serves as CEO, the company has grown from 250 employees, in 2012, to over 1,400 employees in 2017. Their new, built to spec, 30,000 sq ft building in Research Park, “allows visitors to see the research, development and manufacturing underway while simultaneously integrating the beauty of the foothills. It’s stunning”, said Denise Dearing, Chair of the Biology Department while on a recent tour of the building. Later this year, BioFire will have sold its 10,000th instrument—an astounding figure when considering there are only 6,000 hospitals in the United States.
Born in Lansing, Michigan as the son of a Horticulture Professor at Michigan State University, Dr. Rasmussen has always had a passion for science. With family ties in Utah, Randy began his education in Biology at Utah State University and later spent time working for the U Medical Heart Transplant team. From there, Randy’s passion for science ultimately led him to pursue a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Utah. At the U, Randy worked in Dr. Sandy Parkinson’s lab which transformed him during his first year of core classes. Randy relates how in one year he went from, “Knowing nothing to knowing a lot.” It was a dramatic life transformation, which exposed him to many new areas in Biology.
At BioFire, going from scientist to CEO was a unique transition. Dr. Rasmussen expressed, “It was initially difficult to start off from a focus of research & development, to being primarily focused the day-to-day of building a business. The other unique transition was, “Giving up control over the small, but important, details that I oversaw, to fully trusting those you work with to get the job done.” Randy shared that most of the leadership team has been with BioFire for over 15 years. This longevity shows the tremendous trust and loyalty of the BioFire team.
Randy is tremendously appreciative of his time at the University of Utah, where he met not only his future business partners, but also his wife Heather Ross (BS `88, Communication). Kirk Ririe introduced Randy to Heather–now married, they reside near the U and have a son, Aidan who currently studies Economics at Wesleyan University.
Today, Randy has a passion for Utah and the mountains where he enjoys skiing, biking and hiking. Continuing his connection to the U, Randy notes that many of BioFire’s talented employees are University of Utah graduates.
Reflecting on his life and career, Randy has some advice for current students at the U. He urges students to explore their passions, and that a degree in the STEM field will open doors to many opportunities. Randy believes that students should take classes in business to complement their technical background and should participate in internships to gain additional experience and perspective.
Photo caption: Randy Rasmussen and Denise Dearing in the FilmArray® assembly area of the new BioFire building in Research Park.