Anthony Serianni was a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University when he and his adviser, Robert Barker, started Omicron Biochemicals in 1982, the same year Serianni joined the chemistry and biochemistry faculty at the University of Notre Dame.
"We had developed some new chemistry that made the synthesis of certain kinds of sugar molecules easier to do," says Serianni, the president and CEO. "At that time, I had intentions of pursuing an academic career. I had already applied to Notre Dame.
"We are a carbohydrate lab, a sugar lab," adds Serianni, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "There's an explosion in the interest in carbohydrates in biology, not just for dietary reasons."
Sugar molecules coat many cells in the human body and interact with other material such as bacteria, viruses and proteins, potentially offering targets for fighting disease, he explains.
"There are lots of molecules that attach themselves to the cell because of the sugars," he says. "Those interactions elicit a whole host of biological responses. Some people believe cancer can be treated by pharmacological intervention on saccharide."
Omicron is not a research laboratory, but synthesizes material used in other laboratories.
"We provide the tools, that is, the molecules, that are needed for studies of that type," Serianni says. "When we build these molecules in that lab, we label them. The nuclei of the atoms that compose these molecules are tinkered with slightly," a process called isotopic labeling. "That type of labeling is really valuable."
In some cases, quantities ordered have increased dramatically since the beginning. "Years ago, a large-scale synthesis of these products might have been 1 to 5 grams," he says, adding that some orders are for thousands of grams. "On the other hand, many of these products are custom-made. They're difficult syntheses. Having a gram or two of material, you're doing pretty well. It varies by the product.
"The need for these kinds of molecules is pretty broad. Lots of different kinds of laboratories doing chemical and biological research might need them."
The firm serves researchers around the world in government, academic, pharmaceutical and other laboratories. In the United States, increasing interest in the potential of carbohydrate research, known as glycobiology, is leading to more National Institutes of Health grants in the field, which could boost demand from Omicron's customers.
"Carbohydrates as a research field is receiving a lot of attention from the federal government," Serianni says. "We'd like to think there will be considerable new funds available."
Omicron, first incorporated in New York, was incorporated in Indiana in 1986. The laboratory was on the Notre Dame campus from 1982 to 1984, when it moved to Ironwood Drive.
The company settled in a specially designed building on Hill Street in 2006. It has increased its focus on sustainable energy this year, installing a 19-panel, 4.5-kilowatt solar array on the roof in January.