One of the biggest motivators for Patricia Larrabee was advice from one of her most respected mentors: "If you’re standing still, you’re losing ground."
No one could accuse Larrabee of standing still.
She co-founded Rochester Clinical Research Inc. in 1994 to recruit volunteers from Rochester and the surrounding five-county area to participate in clinical trials. Since then her staff has grown from three to 23, and her work space has expanded from 1,000 square feet to 10,000.
Some of the products RCR has helped bring to market include Nicorette gum, the Ortho Evra birth control patch and OraQuick, an in-home HIV test.
Larrabee also has invested in a software company that has revolutionized the way she conducts her business and improves the way she recruits volunteers.
The best part of her job, she says, is that she still enjoys the work as much as when she began.
"Research is fun! It’s always new," she says. "It’s always cutting-edge."
Larrabee, 60, is quite the trailblazer. Recently she completed her term as the first female non-physician president of the Alliance for Multi-Specialty Research LLC, a national network of independent research sites, like RCR, that formed in 1994 to share best practices and leads on new research opportunities. RCR joined as a partner in 1998.
Joining the alliance led to growth for RCR, from the level of 30 studies per year to nearly 50. The number of studies can vary, as can the size of each study; it may have five subjects or 400 subjects enrolled. A major part of the business at RCR is drug and device development research.
RCR had 30 percent revenue growth in 2009, in part because of concern about an H1N1 influenza pandemic. Revenue dipped in 2011 and 2012 because the failure of several products in development led to contract cancellations and industrywide belt-tightening. Growth in 2013 is expected to be 10 percent.
Path into research
Larrabee was offered her first opportunity to work in research when she was a nurse practitioner in primary care at the Wilson Health Center. She met Joseph Izzo M.D. at a conference, and he offered her a position in research and consultation on hypertension at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
"For eight years we did hemodynamic profiling of all the major antihypertensive medications with ancillary studies," she says.
When Izzo relocated to Buffalo, Larrabee had a new trial about to start, so she approached the Rochester Medical Group and talked with Mervyn Weerasinghe M.D. about starting a research division there.
"I thought perhaps some of the challenges of working in a very large system like a medical center might be easier in a smaller, independent setting," Larrabee says.
In 1989, Larrabee and Weerasinghe started a research division and began conducting trials at the Marion B. Folsom Center. The division grew over the next five years and the medical group merged with another group, but the division was not part of the merger. Weerasinghe retired from the firm in 2010.
"So I said to Dr. Weerasinghe, ‘Let’s do this on our own.’ We had 10 contracts at the time. He said, "OK, but I will work with you part time. You run it," Larrabee explains.
Weerasinghe says Larrabee had what it takes to get such a major undertaking off the ground. He is the mentor who motivated her with the words about never standing still.
"Pat is full of energy and very optimistic," Weerasinghe says. "That helps a lot when you start something."
He describes her as a quick learner who has always been willing to do whatever it takes to get a job done. In clinical research, patient safety is a top priority, Weerasinghe says. Larrabee is always committed to that.
"Whenever we started any study, we took it from beginning to end. That’s what you do with data when it goes to the FDA. It has to be 100 percent accurate," Weerasinghe says. "We always planned for the future together. It was fun."
Making the work fun is a priority for Larrabee, even with serious matters, such as updating employees on the status of the business. There is a "State of the Union" every year to update everyone on what the mission and the vision is, Larrabee says.
"We try to make it interactive," she explains. "We do plays so people can see their role. Statements can be portrayed through songs and skits, … role-playing by employees. We make it a celebration."
In addition to a review of performance metrics, there is also an awards presentation. The President’s Award goes to the person who most exemplifies the mission and vision, the People’s Choice Award recipient is selected by the staff, and the Dave Award is given in honor of Larrabee’s late husband, to an employee who works quietly behind the scenes and does whatever needs to be done.
David Larrabee worked part time for RCR for five years after retiring from his 30-year career with the city of Rochester in researching government contracts. The Larrabees had recently bought a new home in Penfield after raising their three children in the city. They had been married for 35 years when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2010.
"Life throws curves at you that you don’t expect," Larrabee says.
Her husband’s death came as a complete shock. He was 60, fit and active.
Creating the Dave Award in his honor helped the staff deal with his loss, Larrabee says.
"I didn’t realize that while I was in pain, everybody else in the office was grieving for him, too," she says.
It took quite some time for Larrabee to come to grips with the loss of her husband and co-worker. It was a comment from her future son-in-law that made her realize it was time to face her new future.
"He said, ‘You have a choice in how you live the rest of your life. You can choose to keep looking back and want what you don’t have anymore, or you can choose to move forward," Larrabee says.
That was a turning point for her.
Having grown up in Buffalo with seven brothers and sisters, Larrabee knows the value of strong family ties. Her son, Adam, 29, joined RCR in 2008 as director of business development. He is a graduate of SUNY College at Fredonia.
"My mother inspires me in so many ways," he says. "Her integrity, her gener-osity, her passion for her work-she in-spires me to want to do a good job for her."
As the boss’ son, Adam Larrabee says, he assumes that people expect more from him and he strives to excel.
"We have butted heads throughout our lives. We’re both strong-minded, but we’re close enough to get past that. I understand her; I can read her very well," he says. "It’s funny. I always liked making Mom happy. But now, if I successfully negotiate a contract or boost sales, that’s a different kind of happy."
There are differences between the two Larrabees that help create a good balance for the business, Adam believes.
"That would be our risk acceptance. She is more risk-averse than I am," he says, laughing. "She understands with business comes risk, calculated risk. It’s where we balance each other. She tells me to slow down, consider the options."
Taking calculated risks seems to be no problem for Larrabee’s daughter Caitlin, 32. She was married last month in New York City. She and her husband have an unusual hobby, and it led to a creative proposal.
"They were engaged on a flying trapeze! Henry was acting as the catcher, and he proposed by saying, ‘I’ve caught you, and I won’t ever let you go!" Larrabee recounts.
Friends of the couple who also are aerialists performed at the wedding. The newlyweds live in Queens.
Larrabee’s third child, Brendan, 24, is a graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology. He works as an industrial engineer at Optimax Systems Inc. in Wayne County.
The field of research has changed a lot since RCR was founded, Larrabee says.
"There are greater regulations, greater complexity of protocols. It’s rare to find easy studies. Newer drugs are part of the reason," she says. "The biologic drugs, for example, are often given by injection and require monitoring to a greater extent.
"As the population has aged, we see more trials that follow what is happening in the disease world-lots of diabetes research. Studies can be as long as eight years or as short as one day."
One area of growth has been bioterrorism work with the government to prepare for possible attacks using anthrax, smallpox and the plague.
To respond to changing needs, RCR has expanded its office four times since it opened in 1994. Larrabee became a landlord with other investors in 2003 by buying the building at 500 Laurelton Road and renting some 50,000 square feet to other medical tenants.
She also renovated her own lab and upgraded equipment to meet the needs of more complex studies. RCR now has two minus-70-degree freezers.
Another major investment came in 2006 when RCR turned to a local software company, Bio-Optronics Inc., to develop software for clinical trials management. RCR served as a beta site for the development of Clinical Conductor. The product became successful and is sold to more than 1,600 research sites worldwide, Larrabee says.
"It changed our practices in several ways and created efficiencies as well as better financial tracking that definitely contributed to our success," she says. "Having real-time data affects how you make decisions and is so critical to making the right ones. We thought we knew where our volunteers were coming from but when we tracked it accurately, we learned we needed to focus our efforts differently."
RCR is proud to celebrate many successes, including being named four times to the Rochester Top 100 list of fastest-growing privately held businesses.
"Being awarded a challenging trial is always a success, particularly when you are one of a very small number of sites," Larrabee says. "We have been recognized as a ‘gold’ site for high-quality data and nimble performance on rapid turnaround times-able to move forward with contract and budgets in 48 hours."
Among the challenges Larrabee faces as the head of RCR, her biggest concern is being responsible for the livelihood of her staff.
"Will we have enough projects for 23 workers? You never know what the work will be. A good percentage of phase I studies don’t progress to phase II," Larrabee explains. "You don’t know until the data comes through, and you have to adjust accordingly. It’s hard to predict from year to year. But we have been doing it for 18 years."
Larrabee finds a good stress reliever in her hobby of quilting. She belongs to a local club called Pieces of Work. Her quilts bring comfort to volunteers who visit the office, since they adorn the walls in the reception area.
It would not fit to call it a waiting room since it is a goal to ensure that volunteers do not have to wait when they arrive to participate in a study.
"The Rochester community is tremendously supportive, and keeping our volunteers coming back is our No. 1 priority," Larrabee says. "We wouldn’t be here without them.
"I’ve been saying I’m going to retire in five years for the last 10 years," Larrabee laughs. "But I really do love what I do."
Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
Position: CEO, Rochester Clinical Research Inc.
Family: daughter Caitlin, 32; sons Adam, 29, and Brendan, 24
Education: B.S., nursing, SUNY College at Brockport, 1974; M.S., nursing, the University of Rochester School of Nursing, 1977
Community service: Serves on the board of the Mary Cariola Children’s Center; volunteers with Mercy Outreach Center and St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center
Quote: “Research is fun. It’s always new. It’s always cutting-edge.”
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