Man in the news

A BIOTECH FIRM GROWS UP

November 09, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

In nine years, Ralph O. Williams has taken his company from the basement of his house to a plush Rockville office tower, from making money "on the backs of poor people" to a business dedicated to "improving the health of the nation."

And he says R.O.W. Sciences Inc. is ready to take the next step -- to become a medium-sized biotechnology company.

In a field crowded with Ph.D.s and white men, the distinguished chief executive and chairman stands out as one of the few blacks to head a biotechnology company. Last month, he was one of two CEOs nationwide whom the Small Business Administration honored as minority small business persons of the year.

Mr. Williams' success has been based, in part, on his ability to mine the resources of the federal government; today, about 90 percent of his business is based on contracts with the National Institutes of Health and other large federal research agencies.

Over the past four or five years, he has received 50 or 60 federal contracts worth $50 million, said Loretta M. Taylor, of the Small Business Administration. "He's grown very fast," she said. In fact, R.O.W. no longer qualifies as a small business under many of the agency's programs.

Mr. Williams is now trying to wean the company away from federal research money, although he says such funding has been a boost for the business. An unusual blend of disciplines, R.O.W. includes laboratory services for the National Institutes of Health; clinical research support for small medical centers that want to test new drugs but lack the expertise; and information systems -- selling computers and software to the health industry.

R.O.W. also teaches teachers in smoking-cessation classes or drug counseling and is beginning to analyze the quality of health programs for the federal government.

Mr. Williams' career in science began as a cardiopulmonary technician at Georgetown University. In 1976, he became chief of planning at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

He once began taking courses toward a doctorate but gave it up shortly after his son was born. That son, Michael, is now a fourth-year medical student at the University of Virginia. His 19-year-old daughter, Pamela, is a prelaw student at the same university.

After three years at NIH, he went on to manage a consultingfirm in Washington, until he decided in 1983 to start his company, to offer scientific and medical analysis in support of environmental litigation.

He and his wife, Marion Williams, began working in their basement. (Mrs. Williams still works for him.)

"Neither of us knew how to type or use a computer," said Mr. Williams, a tall 54-year-old who speaks with barely a trace of accent from his boyhood in Grenada. But they learned. By 1985, Mr. Williams, who has bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from Howard University, had moved to a small office across the street from a McDonald's and was doing fairly well.

But he also was having second thoughts about the business. First, he said, the attorneys he worked for wouldn't sign long-term contracts,so the work was unpredictable. In addition, he was feeling guilty because the clients who could afford him were usually those with deep pockets, such as the large petrochemical plants out to prove that an exposure to a chemical had not injured employees.

"As a little person, I had problems with that," he said. The better the job he did, the more likely that the little guys would lose. "I wanted to found a company to improve the health status of people in the United States.

So he changed directions, 180 degrees. Under the Small Business Administration's 8(a) program, R.O.W. was allowed to compete for federal contracts in a sheltered market of minority-owned small businesses that had been selected by SBA.

Under the SBA program, the company began to flourish, and last June, Black Enterprise ranked R.O.W. among the 100 large black-owned businesses in the country.

With 375 employees and an estimated $30 million in annual revenues this year, the company is 95 percent owned by Mr. Williams. But he is setting up an Employee Stock Ownership Plan that will allow employees to gain up to 10 percent of the company and someday more.

Although he does not believe in setting quotas for hiring minorities and women in his company, about 35 percent of his employees are minorities and 64 percent are women. "I don't have any obligation that is different than any other owner," he said. "We look for people who subscribe to our vision. I don't hire people because of race and gender."

He does tell his managers to "open the doors a little wider for the disadvantaged and minorities, but once they are in, the rest is up to them."

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