TOLLAND — In an unassuming, sheet-metal-clad building on Route 195, Nerac Inc. seems an unlikely spot for analysts to be conducting scientific and engineering research for Coca Cola, Starbucks and Harley-Davidson.
Inside, though, Nerac has a Silicon Valley feel. There's a tricked-out gym, etched glass walls and towering bike racks for employees who ride to work. Owner and President Kevin Bouley, who has three bikes in his office, calls his employees "Neracians."
A visitor might find employees here at 4 a.m. because they're advising clients in Europe, or on a Sunday because it's already Monday in Australia, Bouley said during a tour Tuesday.
Nerac, which started in 1966 as a collaboration between the University of Connecticut and NASA known as New England Research Application Center, now has 100 employees, including about 25 Tolland, after sharp cutbacks in this recession.
The firm separated from UConn in 1985 and from NASA in 1991 but remains a model for the technology and academic partnerships that Connecticut officials say are needed to capitalize on research done in the state.
Though he declined to provide financial specifics, Bouley said it's a multimillion-dollar business with thousands of clients worldwide who turn to Nerac's food scientists, aerospace and materials engineers, attorneys and business analysts for research and advice in bringing innovative products to the marketplace.
"We have really, really smart folks here who make discovery possible," said Bouley, 51, a longtime Nerac employee who bought the company from founder Daniel Wilde in 1999. He owns 50 percent, and employees own the other half.
Nerac is strongest in the fields of pharmacology, medical devices, food science, materials science and energy, he said. Much of its work for a client list that includes GE, Caterpillar, Coke, Pepsi, Starbucks and Harley-Davidson remains proprietary, he said.
"You can't succeed in this business if you can't keep secrets," Bouley said.
Sometimes Nerac analysts throughout North America don't even know the details of the projects they take on. Analyst Mike Plante was asked to study the composition of ink on some old Middle Eastern documents. Plante found that the ink was consistent with pomegranate ink used 1,700 years ago.
Only later did Nerac and Plante learn that he had helped authenticate the Gospel of Judas for National Geographic.
When clients come to Nerac for help, the firm assembles a team of staff experts to evaluate patent and intellectual property issues and brainstorm on products to market and their value in the marketplace, Bouley said.
That cross-disciplinary approach, he said, can result in novel ideas.
For example, when a company building a concept car came to Nerac for advice, Bouley included food scientist Shahana Jahangir on the team of researchers.
When she heard that the target audience for the car would be twentysomethings, Jahangir researched childhood obesity and advised the client on how large the seats needed to be. If young men can't fit in the seats, the car won't sell, Bouley said.
Nerac doubled from 100 to 200 employees between 2000 and 2005 but has been badly hit by the success of Google and the current recession, Bouley said.
While the recent layoffs have been painful, Bouley said it gives him a chance to transform Nerac from its research focus to a business advisory firm. He said he believes the company has hit bottom and is rebounding.
Just as Nerac spun off from UConn, Bouley dreams of turning Route 195 in Tolland into a technology corridor filled with businesses spun off from UConn research.
He provides seed money and support to start-up businesses at "Incubator Alley" at Nerac. One 2008 start-up has failed, but five are doing fine, Bouley said.
Chris Fuselier is CEO of one of them. Fuselier was impressed with Nerac's ideas when the firm advised him late in his 40-year tenure at General Electric. He has based his new company, Progeos, a municipal software firm, at Nerac because he likes its high-energy environment.
"No day is boring, and there is always someone here who can whack me on the side of the head with a new idea," he said. "That's the power that resides here."