In 1981, Nik Binder turned his proclivity for tinkering with the University of Saskatoon’s mass spectrometers into a business dedicated to servicing these scientific instruments for users across Canada and beyond. In the early 1990s, Nik moved the operation to Calgary and added Peter Stow, who worked for a similar company in the UK, to the team in 1994 to help him build the company in Alberta. And build it they did. Isomass Scientific Inc. grew into an internationally respected company with an expanded product line of instruments for sale and service along with the parts and consumables required for these instruments from internationally renown companies such as Elemental Microanalysis and Adaptas.
Isomass Scientific became exclusive distributors for a range of magnetic sector mass spectrometers along with elemental analyzers and lasers from Thermo Fisher Scientific and Teledyne Scientific and Imaging, bringing their high-quality technology to customers.
“We are proud to be distributors for some pretty big companies and have exclusivity in Canada for the products of theirs that we sell,” says Peter Stow, President of Isomass Scientific. “It’s a matter of knowing your market and being a big fish in that market so that people come to you as the preferred supplier.”
And Isomass is the preferred supplier for university science departments, government laboratories and private laboratories across Canada and around the world. For 40 years, Isomass has outfitted laboratories with quality equipment in four product categories: isotopic analysis, elemental and trace analysis, laboratory and ancillaries, and fragmentation. While it is in a niche market predominantly featuring mass spectrometers, Isomass has expanded its offerings to provide broader service to clients.
“We’ve taken on a couple of other product lines from different manufacturers that complement the main products we sell,” says Peter. “They don’t have a lot to do with mass spectrometry but I see these machines in almost every geology department I go into across Canada.”
For example, Isomass offers grinding equipment that produces geological thin sections measuring 25 microns, allowing geologists to identify the crystals in rock. The company is also promoting the possibilities of SELFRAG (selective fragmentation) equipment that uses up to 200,000 volts to liberate minerals for analysis, fragment materials for processing and disaggregate products for recycling, all in mere seconds. Isomass conducted a trial that found this technology could separate the oil from the sand in the tar sands, an application that has potential if a user is interested in exploring the technology to scale it up.
“Most scientific instruments are a tool that you use, and it’s not the tool itself that is interesting, it’s the application of it,” he says.
Over the years, Isomass has gotten to know its market well and is invested in clients’ success. The team doesn’t just deliver an instrument and walk away. Instead, the firm incorporates a strong support component into the business, offering maintenance and service on instruments as well as lifetime phone and email support for customers. Peter acknowledges that many of Isomass’s clients are university departments or government laboratories using grant money to build or expand their labs, and there isn’t often much left over for support contracts. Isomass’s philosophy is that each sale is an investment, and supporting customers throughout the lifetime of the instruments for free via phone and email will encourage them to return to Isomass for future orders.
“When students move on to start their own labs or move into the industry, if they have been supported, who are they more likely to lean on down the road?” Peter says. “We’ve very much taken the long-term view.”
That long-term view has paid off. Most major universities in Canada, and many minor ones, have labs populated by Isomass instruments. In Alberta alone, the University of Calgary has eight Isomass instruments in its labs and the University of Alberta boasts 10. For some clients, new equipment isn’t in the budget, so Isomass is happy to take back equipment at the end of its life and repurpose it. If it’s in good condition, technicians refurbish it for resale and if it’s not feasible to refurbish, Isomass strips it for hard-to-find parts for client repairs.
“A used instrument gets one of our products in their lab, and they get accustomed to it and the software that’s provided with it. Often that will lead them to come to us when they do have the funds for a new or additional instrument,” says Dave Ashwell, Operations Manager for Isomass Scientific.
In the same vein, the markets are small, with at most 3,000 laboratories using these expensive instruments worldwide. Not only do many scientists know each other but they often collaborate on projects. Word travels quickly and recommendations carry weight; Isomass’s reputation for quality products, support and service attracts scientists to the company if they are in the market for instruments or consumables.
Isomass works hard to ensure clients are successful with their instruments. It has a robust operator training program for new and preowned instruments that attracts users from all over the world. In fact, it is such a good program that its manufacturing partner Thermo sells its clients the Isomass training courses, and two of Isomass’s engineers have presented courses at the factory to the manufacturer’s own engineers.
“This shows our standing with our supply partners and the power of our reputation,” says Peter.
That reputation is also one of great service that keeps clients’ laboratories running. Isomass carries a significant inventory to ensure that service technicians will have what they need when they need it. With a large customer base in Eastern Canada, Alberta’s earlier time zone allows them to receive a late request from Ontario or Quebec and still have time to overnight ship parts to the lab saving clients downtime and extra labour costs for service calls.
Isomass Scientific has worked with many customers for their entire lab careers, staying connected and engaged with the community through industry workshops as well as ongoing support. After 40 years in business, Isomass has turned suppliers into partners, customers into friends and staff into family. Whether it’s a local laboratory or one as far away as Serbia or Argentina, Isomass Scientific provides the instruments and support they need to succeed.