ALA Scientific: Improbable past, bright future

ALA President Alan Kriegstein and Veep Andrew Pomerantz.

By GREGORY ZELLER //

Farmingdale’s ALA Scientific Instruments was launched by two men who had what might be diplomatically described as ideological differences.

Founders Jonathan Adams and Jurgen List both passed away in the late 1990s. But Adams, a Holocaust survivor, and List, a former Nazi foot-soldier, overcame insuperable odds to form a decades-long partnership – and a friendship that’s actually influenced the course of modern neuroscience.

The company’s roots were planted around 1960 in Great Neck, where Auschwitz survivor Adams launched Medical Systems Corp., one of America’s first scientific-instruments firms and an early favorite of the up-and-coming Society for Neuroscience.

Focused mostly on distributing other manufacturers’ instrumentation, Adams also dabbled in more advanced electronics – he sold EKGs for a time – and importing, particularly next-level devices from Germany and Japan. He was one of the first U.S. distributors to offer a pulse oximeter, a then-groundbreaking device that could measure a patient’s oxygen saturation through his finger.

“Adams was quite innovative himself,” noted current ALA President Alan Kriegstein.

The entrepreneur took on business and engineering partners and grew Medical Systems Corp. steadily through the early 1980s, until a fire destroyed its Great Neck facility.

Kriegstein’s father, a longtime friend of Adams, offered space in a building in Greenvale, and Medical Systems Corp. moved on, but without its founder: Adams decided to retire from his startup and focus on rebuilding his Great Neck property.

Several years later he met List, a German businessman and president of two private companies, List Medical and List Electronic. The former soldier didn’t hide his military past, according to Kriegstein, but sensing opportunities both financially and scientifically lucrative, he and Adams gave peace a chance.

“Eventually, they got along great,” Kriegstein said. “Two old men who’d seen probably more of the world than they cared to. I don’t know if Jon was ever ready to forgive 100 percent, but in the end, they both pretty much hated the Nazis.”

Their circa-1986 startup, Adams and List Associates of Great Neck, focused primarily on importing and marketing List Medical and List Electronic products in the United States. It was a rich and basically untapped market. Germany remains “the seat of electrophysiological engineering” to this day, according to Kriegstein, and Adams and List were way out in front developing channels to bring German goods to U.S. markets.

Kriegstein joined the venture in the summer of 1988. He’d earned a biology degree from Schenectady’s Union College and was a year along the PhD track at the University at Albany’s School of Health. But he was “a little bored with graduate school” – and a lot excited by his summer job with Adams and List Associates.

The next-level science “jazzed” him, Kriegstein said, enough to resign from the health curriculum and stay on as the company’s general manager.

“This was a great way to get into business without starting from scratch,” he said. “I had to give up the PhD, but I was learning this business from the ground up.”

In 1991, Adams and List Associates outgrew its Great Neck home and relocated to a larger manufacturing and office facility in Westbury, where the focus turned to what would become one of the company’s cornerstone products: patch pipettes, the tiny glass probes that are used to record electrical activity in neurons at the cellular level.

In conjunction with researchers at Rush Medical College in Chicago, the company also developed an instrument called a microforge, which is used to code and polish the pipettes.

By the mid-1990s, both Adams and List were retired from the company. Kriegstein, now president, and Andrew Pomerantz, a former Medical Systems Corp. exec who’d become Adams and List Associates vice president in 1990, determined to grow the company through development of its own product lines.

Innovative drug-application devices and liquid-bath temperature modifiers soon followed. By 1995, when Kriegstein and Pomerantz took full control, the company – renamed ALA Scientific Instruments – was in full production mode.

In 2009, with a suite of homegrown and third-party products ranging from new patch pipette advances to table-sized electronic-signal amplifiers, the 10-person company relocated again, to its current 10,000-square-foot home in Farmingdale.

Now employing 16 full-time engineers, salespeople and support staffers, it’s still cranking out its own innovations. Kriegstein is especially proud of a line of tiny biosensors, just five microns wide, used to study neural synapses.

ALA Scientific Instruments also continues to expand its international import portfolio, and now represents several global manufacturers of sophisticated instruments used in electrophysiology and biophysics studies.

It’s a good niche to stretch your legs: Neuroscience is expected to be a $30.8 billion market by 2020, according to San Francisco-based Grand View Research. Companies like ALA Scientific Instruments can’t offer every neurological researcher access to every tool, but they can provide vital puzzle pieces that keep the great machine spinning.

“We want to see neuroscientists supplied with the complete suite of instrumentation,” Kriegstein said. “We distribute a lot of the things that make other devices work in concert with each other.

“It’s our business to know what all these products are and how they work together, so we can be the experts who advise the neurosurgeon.”