In Conversation: Thomas Blake and Alison Demarest of Meridian BioGroup
This year, Meridian BioGroup of Frederick, Maryland is celebrating its 15th year in business. The compliance, validation, and regulatory services provider has grown substantially in that time, and continues to put in the work to expand and improve. Co-founders Thomas Blake and Alison Demarest take pride in the work of their employees, Meridian’s work culture, and the expertise of the company in the biotech and pharmaceutical fields.
Blake and Demarest managed the Frederick office of Phoenix Imperative for seven years before that company was sold in 2004. With the wealth of experience gained in that role, they set out to launch something new in Meridian.
“It was just a natural fit for us to start a company and provide the same types of services. And we felt confident that Maryland biotech would continue to grow, which it has, obviously, and has become a major biotech hub,” Blake said. “Maryland was a pretty significant player even back then, but much more so now.”
The company launched in January of 2007, at the Frederick Innovative Technology Center (FITCI) as the first tenant of the Metropolitan Court location. Blake and Demarest already had connections in Maryland—they were both born and raised in the state and had spent their entire professional careers in Maryland. The timing of the new FITCI building therefore seemed serendipitous.
“It was only a matter of a few years before we changed from ‘incubator’ status to being a commercial tenant at FITCI. We elected to stay and they were happy to have us,” Blake said. “We’ve actually collaborated with some of the other FITCI tenants and also with firms that have graduated, some of whom have become clients of ours.”
Meridian has worked with clients both big and small in the biotech, pharmaceutical, biosimilar, combination product, cell therapy, and cannabis testing fields. Meridian has completed more than 700 projects for more than 100 clients since its founding. Throughout the years, Demarest and Blake said they’ve earned a stellar local reputation, which they credit to their employees.
“Alison and I started the company, and we’ll take credit for that much. But beyond that it’s our employees doing a great job, standing out on client sites,” Blake said. “I can’t tell you how often we’ve been complimented on the professionalism of our staff and the common sense solutions they provide.”
The co-founders credit the company’s low turnover to their culture. They treat their employees as equals, whether they are part-time, fulltime, or contractors. They aim not to act as an agency that simply doles out work, but as a company full of genuine relationships.
Currently, Meridian’s biggest challenge is meeting the increased demand for their services from their existing and new clients. While they currently have 30 employees, they are always looking for the appropriate talent to staff available project opportunities while maintaining a high standard of quality and customer service, which is most important to them. Blake mentioned, however, that they are selective in their hiring and prefer the right personality to ‘fit Meridian’s culture.’
“We have a back-log of work because our staff is fully utilized. I think it’s like this for every company across Maryland—dealing with the difficulty of finding talented professionals,” Demarest said. “And that has been our biggest challenge recently; we have more work than we can do and we feel an obligation to meet the needs of our long-term clients.”
Meridian is looking for validation, compliance, and quality assurance specialists. Part of the challenge, Demarest explained, is that many undergraduate science programs have not yet begun offering training in biotechnology-related work outside of the laboratory. It’s rare that an applicant is well-trained in compliance and validation without having already worked in the industry or taken coursework beyond a BS degree.
“Post-graduate courses, such as those offered by UMBC, JHU and Hood College, are great sources of training for scientists in the areas we need,” Demarest said. “In my part of the business, compliance and quality, I look for people with anywhere from two to 30+ years of experience.
Meridian has been well prepared for remote work for a while, considering a number of its employees do not work on client sites. Many larger companies simply do not have the extra space for a contractor, so Meridian employees have often worked from the Metropolitan Court office over the years. Because of this, there was an easy transition to the work-from-home model during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Blake and Demarest still go into the office, as do some of their employees, but the company has always offered flexibility.
“One of our employees is relocating to Florida and will still work for us, and we have an employee who moved to Indiana a few years ago without missing a beat,” Demarest said. “Some of that is a reflection of the current acceptability of remote work in nearly every industry. The fact is, however, that our staff members are quite skilled and our clients don’t want to lose a valuable resource if creative arrangements can be made to keep knowledgeable folks on a project.”
While a few of Meridian’s employees have left Maryland, the company’s focus has always been local. There are several Maryland clients with out-of-state or foreign headquarters, but Meridian’s principle goal is to support Maryland companies. “Our focus has always been to serve clients in Maryland,” Blake said. “We remain big fans of Maryland biotech.”