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The Boston Globe

Business

Innovation Economy

Thermo Fisher thinks smaller

Midway through my recent visit to the Tewksbury office of Thermo Fisher Scientific, my hosts broke the bad news: We don’t have any drugs. Evidently, this was a bring-your-own kind of meeting and no one had told me.

I was at Thermo, to be honest, because it is incredibly hard to understand what this enormous Massachusetts company does. Thermo has 39,000 employees, roughly $13 billion in annual revenues, and a stock you definitely should have bought five or 10 years ago. Yet, unless you wear a white lab coat at work, chances are you don’t run into Thermo’s products — like its $500,000 Q Exactive Hybrid Quadrupole-Orbitrap Mass Spectrometer — very often.

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The product I went to Thermo to see last month, the TruNarc hand-held narcotics analyzer, provides a good way to grasp an important new strategy for the company: getting sophisticated instruments out of the labs and into all sorts of different environments, from pawn shops to police cruisers.

If you have been around Massachusetts long enough, you probably remember the company called Thermo Electron, founded in 1956 by brothers George and John Hatsopoulos. That maker of lab equipment and related products merged with an even older business, Fisher Scientific, in 2006. And the Waltham company is still growing: Last spring, it announced a $13.6 billion acquisition of Life Technologies, a San Diego company with 10,000 employees that makes a range of equipment for sequencing DNA and ensuring food safety, among other things.

But all those billions can make your eyes glaze over. One interesting aspect of Thermo chief executive Marc Casper’s strategy is “to take much of their technology and extend it beyond its traditional use in the lab,” says Ross Muken, an analyst who follows the company for ISI Group, a New York brokerage. “One of his big projects has been the push into hand-held instruments — instruments for the everyman.”

Thermo, Muken adds, is “by far the leader in the field.”

Several of the products that are part of this new push came to Thermo via acquisitions of other Massachusetts companies: Niton in 2005 and Ahura Scientific in 2010. And while the components inside these hand-held devices come from all over the world, they’re assembled in Massachusetts.

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In a conference room at Thermo’s Tewksbury facility, marketing director Maura Fitzpatrick asks me to surrender my wedding band — which I’ve always assumed was solid gold. It goes onto a tray inside a Niton DXL machine sitting on a table. The machine is a bit smaller than a coffee maker, with a clear window that lets me keep an eye on the ring. After being zapped by X-rays, the Niton delivers its verdict: “Gold Plate Not Detected,” and the ring is 14.1 karat gold. I stop holding my breath.

American Jewelry and Loan, the Detroit pawn shop featured on the cable TV reality show “Hardcore Pawn,” used Thermo’s Niton products before signing an endorsement deal with Thermo last November. The shop uses both the desktop Niton machine and also a hand-held version, Fitzpatrick says.

The alternative option is doing an acid test to verify the composition of jewelry, which typically takes place in a back room and involves scratching or filing the surface of the item. Thermo’s Niton analyzers are also used to identify metals at recycling operations, or test imported toys for lead content.

One of the company’s newest hand-held products, introduced in 2012, is the TruNarc analyzer, which looks like an overgrown GPS device crossed with a tablet computer. It uses a laser to identify pills, powders, and other suspicious substances.

To calibrate and test its TruNarc devices, Thermo keeps some drug samples in a vault under extremely high security. Sadly, no one was authorized to bring out a dime bag for my demo, so I couldn’t pretend to be Sonny Crockett from “Miami Vice.” But I did get to see TruNarc identify counterfeit Viagra pills, purchased from an online pharmacy and potentially dangerous to consume.

Joe Smith, director of product management, said there are hundreds of TruNarc devices being used in 17 countries, by police, customs, and border patrol officers. The price tag is just shy of $20,000.

One of the early adopters was the Quincy Police Department. Chief Paul Keenan says his force has three TruNarcs. One was used last summer to identify a substance being sold at a Quincy nightclub as MDMA, a psychostimulant also known as “ecstasy” or “Molly.”

“We could immediately identify the substance and properly charge the people,” Keenan says. “If we had to send it out for analysis, it can take up to six months.”

Thermo is still working hard to persuade police departments and district attorneys offices on the merits of using TruNarc in drug arrests, Smith says. But the sale is likely getting easier, as new synthetic drugs appear on the streets and traditional “wet chemistry” tests for identifying them are slow to keep up.

Jeffrey Elliott, a senior research analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. who follows the company, said a key way Thermo keeps its focus on innovation is its “product vitality index,” which tracks the new products the company brings to market. About 15 percent of Thermo’s products were introduced in the past two years, Elliott said, the result of both acquisitions and the nearly $400 million spent each a year on research and development.

It’s turning out to be a great investment for Thermo, which now makes the equipment that pharmaceutical companies use to develop life-saving drugs — and the equipment cops use to get illegal drugs off the street.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

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