Belltown's deep biotech pool pulls in relocating company
As of two weeks ago, Belltown has 100 more daytime residents. One is Randy Bancino, the president of the nutritional-products company Univera...
Seattle Times business reporter
As of two weeks ago, Belltown has 100 more daytime residents.
One is Randy Bancino, the president of the nutritional-products company Univera. He moved his company's headquarters — along with its partner firm, Unigen — 60 miles up Interstate 5 to that cosmopolitan Seattle neighborhood from Lacey, near Olympia.
The newly renovated 70,000-square-foot space has an abundance of natural light and views of Elliott Bay for employees. The new digs not only give Unigen's laboratories proximity to the rich biotech talent pool emanating from local companies and the University of Washington, but also provide Univera a more visible and prestigious home base to meet and work with its network of direct sellers.
"This is a much better showplace for us of who we are and what we're about," said Bancino, who has been with Univera since last year.
The two companies, owned by South Korea-based Econet Holdings, work together to produce and sell mostly plant-derived nutritional products. These include caplets filled with botanical formulas, aloe-based drinks for digestion and a weight-loss program complete with chocolate cake.
"Unigen develops compounds and Univera brings those to market," Bancino said. He did not disclose revenues but said the company is profitable.
You won't find Univera products on local pharmacy shelves. It relies almost entirely on a network of independent marketers.
Following a business model made famous by cosmetic companies like Avon and Mary Kay, Univera's direct sellers purchase products and find their own customers, often starting with their circle of friends.
Nancy Jamison, a Bay Area resident, sold Univera products from 2006 until 2009. She's an adamant proponent of these plant-based drinks, pills and powders.
"I think they're fabulous," said Jamison, who credited one of the drinks with ending her migraines.
Jameson visited Lacey once during her time as a Univera seller but says an office in Seattle would have been more convenient.
Not all of Univera's distributors are as happy as Jamison with their Univera experience, however. In 2009, for example, three of its former marketers sued the company, according to Reuters, claiming it intimidated them when they attempted to take their network of customers to a competing firm.
Bancino says the investment that went into renovating this building, which Econet purchased in 2012 for almost $12 million, will demonstrate the company's commitment to the independent contractors who sell its products.
When visiting the headquarters of Univera and Unigen, sellers can gain more in-depth knowledge about the products beyond what is easily attainable on the Internet.
"One of the things the people do is tour the labs," Bancino said.
Bancino resists the stereotype of herbal remedies possessing unclear benefits.
"These are not the 'Hey take this, it does something,' " he said. "That's why we have 50-plus scientists."
Econet's sibling companies are the latest life-science operations to settle north of downtown. In a statement, Econet CEO Bill Lee said the cluster of biotech talent was one reason for the move and would provide "the opportunity to attract and interact with research and development talent that is second to none in the world."
The building on First Avenue, a block south of Denny Way, was previously occupied by the biotech company Dendreon.
The move has at least one downside. A few workers chose to part ways with the company. "Any time you move a business, even though it's a fairly close move, it's a little bit of a challenge," Bancino said.
Univera still has a distribution center at its old facility in Lacey, but there is a void left in the economy of the town. Mayor Virgil Clarkson said the Econet-owned companies were good neighbors during their eight years in the South Puget Sound area.
"They have been a tremendous partner here," he said.
Bancino says growth prospects for Univera are strong as people of all ages become more health conscious. As a result, Univera plans to expand to more countries around the world — and will coordinate that out of its new home in Seattle.
Karl Baker: 206-464-2046 or email@example.com