Silicon Valley Exporter Brings Diagnostic Healthcare Technology to World Consumers
LumiQuick Diagnostics Inc. is a minority-owned business located in Silicon Valley, California. It develops, manufactures, and markets high-quality point-of-care testing and other immunoassay kits for the worldwide In vitro diagnostic market. The line of products detects infectious diseases, illicit substance abuse and other human or animal disease markers. With help from the State of California and the U.S. Commercial Service, and participation in trade shows, LumiQuick has exported to several countries. In the below Q&A, the firm’s president, Charles Yu, discusses his business and exporting journey.
Q: Could you give some background on your company?
LumiQuick was founded in 2006 and is the second company I’ve started. Our mission is to provide high-quality products at affordable costs to help people around the world to fight diseases and improve health. Among these are cardiac markers, cancer markers, drugs of abuse, fertility hormones and other disease markers. Our products are intended for laboratory use and are mostly sold in bulk quantities through local distributors. Some distributors also sell our products online such as point-of-home care tests for Covid-19.
Q: How did you first get interested in biochemistry?
I was the lucky generation when we were in high school, as China ended its cultural revolution and restored college entrance admission. A famous slogan at the time was that the next century is the century of life science. It prompted me to apply for a biochemistry major at Xiamen University. After receiving my master’s degree, I worked in a cancer research center. There, I became familiar with imported test kits from U.S. companies that were convenient to use, and which piqued my interest, though my first goal was pursuing a higher degree of education abroad, especially in the United States.
I came to the U.S. in 1989 as a visiting scholar on a human papillomavirus diagnosis project and was introduced to a new test design called lateral flow immunochromatography assay (a low-cost, simple-to-use, rapid test for analytical detections). Shortly thereafter, I developed a similar technology for some companies before starting my first business in 1998.
Q: What trends are you seeing that impact your product development?
Having been in the vitro diagnostics (IVD) industry for years, I’ve observed that many tropical diseases that used to be local and seasonal have become prevalent in many countries due to global warming and increased people traveling. When we started LumiQuick, in addition to the existing products I had previously developed, we developed two new products, Dengue Antibody Test and H. Pylori Antigen Test. Dengue virus has become prevalent in many Asian and South American countries. Tiger mosquitoes that carry the dengue virus have traveled to many countries through people or commercial good transportation. Even in the U.S., tiger mosquitoes have been found in imported goods. H. pylori has infected many people worldwide causing gastrointestinal diseases. Our simple stool-based test can help a quick diagnosis of the infection allowing it to be treated in time.
Q: Did you have any initial reservations about exporting - if so, what were they and how did you overcome them?
We already had some experience selling our products internationally through my first company, Rapid Diagnostics Inc., founded in 1998. However, at the time most of the sales were through U.S. or Canada-based exporters with only a handful of distributors based overseas. It was very helpful for us to start an international business. Selling through these exporters, we were not overwhelmed by the vari-ous requirements of importation and local registration and gradually built-up experience through these transactions.
Q: What was your pivotal moment to say ‘yes” to exporting? Please describe your steps in getting started.
As a self-funded small business, we couldn’t wait for the long and expensive registration process in the U.S. to sell the products. We needed to generate income to sustain the business. Therefore, exporting became a must-do for us. Along with selling to distributors, we started developing direct customer relationships with laboratories, including those in clinics, hospitals, and other medical facilities by attending international trade shows, such as MEDICA, Medlab and FIME. Our sales team went to Germany, Dubai, Singapore, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Russia, and other places. Gradually we developed direct customer relationships and identified the target markets where we can generate business. Many of the products have been CE-marked for sale in the European Union and registered for use in different countries.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced in the global marketplace, and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge is the market competition and the unstable political & economic situation which can cause unpredictable business slowdown or loss. International businesses are driven by price, and manufacturers from China and India have offered very aggressive prices to compete in the market. In be able to compete in these and other markets, we have been taking these approaches:
- Promoting our products as U.S.-made or distributed products that emphasize quality and help distributors differentiate themselves from other brands in the market.
- Taking advantage of technology and information in the U.S., especially in Silicon Valley, to develop new products that are unique or less competitive.
- Diversifying the target market to avoid relying on one particular market or region.
Q: What federal or state export promotion services have been particularly valuable in your global sales success?
LumiQuick has been an active participant in the programs and services of the federal Department of Commerce’s U.S. Commercial Service through its office in San Jose. With this support, we’ve had the opportunity to gain insight into the latest export controls and make connections with potential international customers. As an exhibitor at the AACC Annual Scientific Meeting and Clinical Lab Expo, we were recruited into the U.S. Commercial Service business matchmaking and business-to-government marketing counseling programs. As a direct result, we developed several leads that led to the signing of a Brazilian partner and new sales to that country; Brazil has since become a major perspective market for us. We also participated in virtual healthcare missions which gave us insight on Saudi Arabia, India and Southeast Asian markets. These connections saved our firm valuable time and resources compared to if we had tried to go it alone, and we look forward to participating in future trade events.
Through the U.S. Commercial Service, we also received guidance on leveraging California’s STEP grant program. STEP provides financial support for businesses to participate in international trade shows, such as our participation in MEDICA. Since the expense of international trade shows has increased significantly in recent years, we hope more businesses can take advantage of available financial aid through STEP grants to encourage greater participation in these conferences.
Q: What percent of overall sales do exports account for, and do you see this percentage growth in the future?
About two-thirds of our business sales are from exports, but at the same time, we are also seeking to grow the domestic business as well. We do think that the current export/domestic sales ratio is a good balance and expect growth in both areas.
Q: Describe some lessons learned that impacted your business operations and resulted in increased international sales - and has this made your firm more competitive overall?
Building up a strong relationship with the local partners is very important. Whenever possible, we work with one or a few very selected distributors or directly with customers such as laboratories in each country. Trust and loyalty are key. It may slow down the success at the beginning of the business but pays off in long-time business and growth.
Q: What are some of your sales channels, eCommerce, web, etc?
LumiQuick’s products are intended for professional laboratory use and are primarily supplied in large quantities. Distributors and direct customers find our company and product information through conventional exhibitions, websites or other social media platforms. However, the actual sales are realized through negotiation, product evaluation and registration process. For international sales, popular retail channels such as eCommerce are not common tools for our products, although some of our distributors and direct customers may offer our product online in their own countries.
Q: How many employees, and are some jobs supported by export sales?
We have about 30 employees. I would say that everyone’s job is supported by export sales because the revenue from export sales is pivotal to sustaining and growing the business.
Q: What’s your advice to those businesses that might be sitting on the “export fence?”
Exporting can help a company to expand and diversify its revenue streams and to provide potential growth opportunities. Along with the benefits comes the challenge of finding overseas customers and the initial cost of marketing activities, such as international trade shows, product registration, etc. Before entering the international market, a company should carefully study the target market.
Taking our diagnostic medical device as an example, the demands for products vary from region to region. In Africa, most demands are infectious diseases such as malaria, HIV and syphilis. In South America and Southeast Asia, tropical diseases such as dengue and Salmonella are prevalent. While in Europe, illicit drug usage is a big problem. The marketing effort in each region should focus on the local demand.
Q: Anything to add on different cultural business practices working with overseas customers?
When working overseas with our distributors and directly with customers, it is important to be open-minded, flexible and willing to learn about and adapt to their practices. It is also very helpful to communicate in their languages. Our team can speak Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese.
Q: What has exporting meant to you on a personal level?
Doing international business allows me to contact people from different parts of the world. Through in-person meetings and teleconferences, it helps me not only expand my view of different cultures, lives and business practices but also develop personal relationships with people from different backgrounds – and I’m always interested in learning more. I am humbled to see that there are so many healthcare needs in developing countries, and proud that we can provide the products they need most to fight diseases and save lives.