Dr Peter FitzGerald was 32 years old when he started Randox, working from a small laboratory at a chicken house in Crumlin – specifically, on the Randox Road.
It was officially established in 1982, and almost 40 years later is one of fastest growing and most forward thinking healthcare companies in the world.
And its founder has no intention of bowing out of that world stage any time soon.
“Have I any plans for retiring? No. Do you think I should? ” he says with a soft laugh as we chat in one of the boardrooms in the newest area of the Antrim-based facility.
Quietly spoken, polite, and welcoming, he is utterly patient when, despite, I imagine, having been asked to do the very same, many times, by other journalists long before me, I ask him to recount those formative days of his company.
“Well, I was born in Belfast, and my parents came to live in Crumlin as my father’s family were from round that area. We had a smallholding on the Randox road.
“I went to prep school at Wallace High School (in Lisburn) and then to Wallace, and I was always very interested in science and medical research.
“I got into Strathclyde University to study Biochemistry and did four years there; then I went to London, to the National Institute for Medical Research, where I did my PhD, which I really enjoyed.
“I wanted to come back to Northern Ireland; I wanted to start a business in science, and felt it would be a good way to create jobs. “
The young Peter undertook a Research Fellowship at Queen’s University, Belfast, and set up his labs in the chicken houses. He spent his free time expanding his knowledge in the whole field of diagnostics.
He explains: “There was definitely a market here, but it was dominated by German and American companies.
“We built the lab, and I got second-hand equipment that universities etc were throwing out.
“I worked out how to make my own materials; I had to work hard, studying at QUB during the day, then spending my evenings and weekends developing products.
“Then finally it got to the stage where I had to take the plunge, and I left the Research Fellowship and formed the company.
“That was in April 1982, and I worked for a year or two on my own. Then two colleagues from Queen’s joined me.
“We launched the first products, which were diagnostic tests, and I went around the hospitals in Ireland and the UK selling them.
“They weren’t novel products; they were products that other people had, but we had to make them at a competitive price and also give a better service, so I was competing against German and American companies.
“We just gradually built up the business; it took three months to get the first sales, so that was a tricky time, and any profits we made we just put back into the company to try and develop more.
“The banks were very good, and lent us cash, even though we had no real assets, so we sort of just crawled up the ladder, and this was during the time of the Troubles as well.”
The fledgling company began to expand physically too, and bigger premises were needed. “We needed more room, so we bought a small farm at Lough Neagh, which is now our headquarters, and we converted an apple farm.
“We increased our exports as I traveled around the world to different countries, building up distributors. A few more colleagues – who are still with me today – joined me, and by 1989/90, we were starting to accumulate some cash, but this wasn’t our raison d’etre; we needed more R&D, and so we looked at how we could improve that.
“We developed a Biochip, which allowed us to carry out many different tests on one microchip.”
Dr FitzGerald radiates sheer enthusiasm and passion when speaking about how his mission – and that of his whole team – is to continue to develop testing in the field of healthcare, to help the medical profession diagnose more illnesses and diseases and viruses earlier and more accurately, and ultimately, save more lives. “What we all get really excited about is trying to create the tests that make a difference,” he says. “People need to know what’s going on in the body. This is an area where there could be great expansion.
“Even with existing tests, not enough of them are done.
“The body is very complex, and the whole scientific interrelationship needs to be looked at more closely.
“So many conditions can be identified earlier if tests are done. Our Biochip enables more tests to be done at the same time, so it really is a very exciting time, and we feel that it is the most important thing in the world.
“So many diseases are under diagnosed or misdiagnosed. It’s not the clinicians’ fault; they don’t have enough time, they don’t have enough information and quite often they have to manage the patient as well.
“They need more help and that is what we are trying to give them.
“There are still a lot of people dying of things they shouldn’t be dying off.
“Some of these may be from conditions that are very easy to diagnose, but the testing may be regarded as a cost rather than a benefit, so we have to find ways of getting more tests out there in an economical way.”
Joint efforts of a first class team of staff are a clear source of pride
It was something that I picked up on during my first meeting with Dr Peter FitzGerald, and it comes to the fore once again on my second.
He might be the man who founded this company, but as far as he is concerned, it’s the joint efforts of the team who work there that keep the wheels in motion.
I remark that he seems to think very highly of his staff, and he nods in agreement.
“We are delighted with our staff,” he says, his quiet tones taking on an audible touch of pride.
“We have very good people, and that has been really exciting.”
As we reflect on the year that Randox has experienced thus far, Dr FitzGerald says the part they have played has largely been a reactionary one.
“We never foresaw Covid; there was no masterplan.
“We just responded, and we had the core technologies to do so, and the Covid tests for the different strains.” Going forward, he says that now, the challenge is to “make sure the whole company is organized and geared towards offering the best service that we can” on a daily basis.
“It’s very exciting in many ways,” he continues. “It accelerates learning, and everyone in the company has pulled together very well. People who weren’t involved in certain projects are now, so it has been in many ways quite uplifting. “
I ask him if he is on site every day himself, already knowing the answer. He replies that he is, but he doesn’t always frequent the labs.
“I’m very involved with R&D (research and development) but not the actual experimentation.”
He says that all the science he has learned over the years has stayed with him in the sense that “the principles are the same – it may have moved on, but the controlling variables remain.”
I ask him what he enjoys about science, and he replies quite simply: “I love learning all the secrets of the human body, and about how you really can make a difference.
“Knowledge accumulation is very important, but you have to be able to get it out there to people.
“That’s really critical.”
Pandemic opens eyes to the importance of testing
Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it a wealth of unprecedented issues and challenges, Dr FitzGerald believes there is one positive to have come from it.
“It has accelerated people’s understanding of the importance of testing, and that in turn will accelerate knowledge and see improvement of health.”
And certainly, he is harboring strong and equally positive hopes for the future of Randox.
“We would like to get a lot more products out, and give better offerings to our clients.
“We have a few ideas which we want to roll out, as well as extending what we have done here into other parts of the world as well.”