When Barry Wise founded Eigenvector Research Inc. he had a simple philosophy:
“Life is too short,” he said, “to do boring work, drink bad beer or live in a crappy place.”
And with that, Eigenvector entered the world 20 years ago in 1994. And while it’s origin might be simple to explain, what exactly the company does is not.
“The way I explain it to people is that we’re a bunch of chemists and chemical engineers turned statisticians,” Wise said. “What we do is we develop models that turn chemical data into information, and we write software for doing that that other people use, and we teach classes to teach people how to analyze their own data.”
The science is called chemometrics. Simply put, the Wenatchee company offers the resources and skills to pick apart the chemical makeup of just about anything you can think of. Their work is largely consulting and software development but they also train others how to do chemometrics.
In the past 20 years the company has worked on everything from medical devices to food and beverage analysis to remote threat detection. One example, said Wise, is their work with a company in Israel to type urinary tract infections.
“It turns out that you want to know what sort of bug it is. If you don’t know, then they have to culture it and it takes about three days, but if you can develop a rapid test for that and get it diagnosed in an hour instead of three days, you can get someone started on their treatment sooner.”
The company has also worked with pharmaceutical companies to ensure the consistency and safety of their products.
“We help them put together online systems to measure the amount of active ingredients in tablets of various types,” he said. “They’re doing more kinds of what they call ‘real-time release,’ which means that you’ve done enough analytical work on your product as it’s being made that as soon as you’re done in the manufacturing process it goes directly to the customer.”
Wise said that chemometrics can be applied to agriculture to help farmers know which parts of their crops aren’t getting enough fertilizer or water, based on aerial data. It can also help them measure the quality of their crops.
“We started Eigenvector largely to keep ourselves in interesting work and its been tremendously successful on that account,” he said. “There’s always something new and interesting going on that we get approached to help with.”
Even their name, “Eigenvector,” alludes to the ever-shifting, ever-growing nature of their work.
“It’s a mathematical term. It’s a solution to a problem for which the question is the answer. A lot of the chemical problems we deal with are eigenvector problems” he said.
The word also means “a proper direction.”
“We like to think that we’re moving our consulting clients in the proper direction.”
For Wise, the “proper direction” of his life cropped up around 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 1, 1985 on the University of Washington campus.
“My life divides very neatly in between everything that happened before that and everything that happened after that. On Oct. 1, 1985 I met Neal Gallagher, who’s our vice president, and I also met a professor that founded chemometrics,” he said. “This is why Oct. 1 is so pivotal, because it completely changed my career and I met the people who would introduce me to my wife.”
Neal Gallagher ended up becoming co-founder of the business and the two still work together. Gallagher said what makes this job difficult is also what makes it rewarding.
“It’s really quite exciting because we get to do new physics and new chemistry almost all the time,” he said. “So we’re always learning something new and that makes it a challenge but also pretty exciting. It’s a lot of fun to do this.”
Wise went on to graduate from the University of Washington four times, receiving two Bachelors degrees in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, a Master’s and a PhD.
While in school at UW, Wise began work on what would become a hugely influential program in the field of chemometrics: PLS_Toolbox.
“I started writing that and started giving copies of it away in about 1989,” he said. “I got a lot of notoriety for that because the field was really young then … people were really interested and they wanted a piece of software that they could try these things out with.”
Today the program is used in academics and industrial fields, with over 2,000 users in more than 50 countries.
Apart from selling the tools to do chemometrics, the company also teaches prospective students in Seattle and Denmark. Their biggest event is called Eigenvector University, and it’s been going on for 10 years in Seattle.
“We offer all these classes and how to apply all these different methods and we teach how to use our software also, but we’re really focused on teaching the methods,” he said. “We usually get 45 to 50 students… and then the entire Eigenvector staff is there.”
However, despite the multiple hats of teacher and consultant, Eigenvector Research Inc. is still just that: a research institution.
“I spend a lot of time on the conference circuit,” he said. “It’s important for us to go to these science conferences and show up and give talks. We still do research and develop new methods and new software for implement the methods.”
And according to Gallagher, the driving force behind the institute is the eight employees who make it tick.
“You’ve got a lot of self-motivated individuals who are intelligent, creative and loaded with energy,” Gallagher said. “Everybody has got all kinds of skills and different perspectives and it’s just fantastic to have it. It’s the people that really make it go.”