Lake Clear biotech has new president

Dr. Jill Mariano (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

LAKE CLEAR — Dr. Jill Mariano has taken the helm of the local biotechnology business started by her father 26 years ago.

Mariano is the new president of Bionique Testing Laboratories, located in the town of Harrietstown’s Airport Business Park. She succeeds her father, Dan Lundin, who recently retired but will still stay on as a consultant.

“I am honored to take on this leadership role and look forward to collaborating on the shared goals devised by our incredible team as we work together to expand and strengthen our position as a global leader in this highly specialized field,” Mariano said in a press release.

Bionique tests for mycoplasma, a highly adaptable bacteria that’s resistant to many types of antibiotics. Its clients include all the major U.S. pharmaceutical companies and research labs, along with similar clients in other parts of the world.

In a recent interview, Mariano acknowledged that what the company and its 21 full-time employees do out in the woods in Lake Clear is a bit of a mystery to many people.

“It really isn’t familiar to the community,” she said. “Beyond that, even within the industry itself there sometimes isn’t an understanding of mycoplasma. It’s a microorganism, the smallest self-replicating organism. Mycoplasma is everywhere. Humans are colonized with it. It’s in the environment. Animals are colonized with it, and even develop infections from it.”

Over 200 species of mycoplasma have been identified. The most commonly known is the one that causes walking pneumonia, a respiratory infection that has milder symptoms than typical pneumonia.

Bionique’s employees test cell cultures used to create disease-fighting therapeutics — tablets, pills, infusions — for potential contamination by mycoplasma.

“Anything manufactured from a cell line has to be tested at various stages because of the opportunity for contamination,” Mariano said. “For most of us, the contamination that we feel is a threat is from viruses and bacteria, but the other category is mycoplasma. It’s the one that’s probably the least know well known, but it is certainly a potential threat, even with the greatest safeguards in place.”

Bionique is one of only three labs in the world that are exclusively dedicated to mycoplasma testing. The other two are in the United Kingdom and Vienna.

In recent years, Mariano said Bionique has made a significant shift to a new business line, testing cell therapies for mycoplasma. Cell therapies are a growing field where human or animal cells are used to replace or repair damaged tissue, such as a bone marrow transplant.

“In the last two years, (cell therapies) have entered into the clinical trial pipeline and have shown tremendous potential,” Mariano said. “Over the last three to five years we’ve had to make a very significant investment because they’re very different from the biopharmaceuticals. They require a different type of testing, molecular diagnostics, so we had to invest in new technology. We had to expand our product and service line. Today we find ourselves very well-positioned.”

As is the case with any family business, Mariano has been associated with Bionique since it was founded, when she worked there as a technician. Even after she moved away to go to medical school and become a pediatrician in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Mariano said she never really left the company.

“The last four years of my clinical practice, I was actually working in the evenings, supporting my father because of the passion and potential that the business had,” she said. “Then one morning I woke up and I had to make rounds at 5 a.m. at the hospital, then work in the evening supporting the business. I said to my husband that I had to make a decision. It was clear that I needed to be here.”

That was in 2008, when Mariano returned to Bionique to handle marketing and business development. She was later promoted to vice president before taking over as president last month. She said she still is a permanent resident of Virginia Beach but is in Lake Clear on a regular basis.

Bionique is one of just two tenants in the town’s business park. The other is the Adirondack Arc.

Over the years, Mariano said her company has been approached with opportunities to relocate elsewhere, but she said the location is ideal for Bionique and its employees.

“This business park has served us very well and has not posed a constraint,” she said. “We have no interest in leaving this region. This community and this region is part of our core values. That’s how it all began, with Daniel’s passion for the Adirondack Park and seeing the area grow. With the nature of our business, there’s still room for other like businesses to originate or move here and prosper.”

That’s what many local leaders hoped would happen several years ago. In 2011, the village of Saranac Lake lured a pair of Lake Placid biotechnology companies to Main Street: Myriad RBM and Active Motif. Coupled with the presence of Bionique and the nonprofit Trudeau Institute, village leaders billed Saranac Lake as a growing biotech hub in the region.

But that momentum stalled. Three years ago, Myriad RBM ended its local operations, laying off 20 people, although several started a small biotech company in its place. Trudeau Institute has also been rebuilding after years of staffing cuts and slashed budgets.

No other new biotech entities have opened up in the area, but Mariano said she’s still optimistic about the future of this industry here.

“I think there’s absolute potential to expand and develop a greater presence of biotech or similar life-science industries,” she said. “There’s so much experience and expertise here that can be leveraged to make that happen.”

Mariano said she’s excited to officially take the helm at Bionique, although she said the succession plan has been in the works for several years. She said her goals are to foster a positive work environment for her employees while growing the company’s business lines.