Sharples makes waves in microbiology at COPAN

Aug. 1, 2011
“Creating an exciting and challenging work environment is the key to keeping great people.”

Norman Sharples

Executive Vice President

COPAN Diagnostics,

Murrieta, CA

Co-founded COPAN Diagnostics in 1995; more than 20 years of clinical microbiologylaboratory experience, including clinical laboratory management, technical support, R&D, and teaching microbiology; serves on the advisory board of the CLSI M40-A Standard Quality Control of Microbiology Transport System; active member of the American Society for Microbiology.


Liverpool John Moores University, England;
Biomedical scientist, Microbiology.


Fantastic opportunity: Came to the United States
in the 1990s to start a business.
Belief: Whatever you choose to do in life,
do it to the best of your ability.
Interests: A “foodie,” music, travel,
and water sports.

A detective at work.
I have always been interested in science, and my brother preceded me in a career in hematology, which exposed me to the world of clinical laboratory science. Microbiology was more appealing to me because you need to act like a detective to discover what is making a patient sick. Microbes are continually changing, so it is always exciting with a potential for new challenges and surprises.

Inventing solutions.
Chemistry and hematology have the advantage of being standardized on liquid samples (e.g., blood, serum, plasma, or urine) and utilizing standardized specimen tubes. The microbiology lab, on the other hand, has to manage a buffet of different of samples that vary in viscosity (e.g., liquid, semi-solid, and solid) and a wide variety of container types. Inventions from COPAN (COllection and Preservation for ANalysis), such as ESwab, UriSwab, FecalSwab, have moved microbiology samples into a liquid phase with standardized specimen containers. This allows microbiology, for the first time, to contemplate total automation.

Automating microbiology.
Microbiologists are looking for universal and multipurpose transport systems to use across platforms to expand testing capabilities, improve efficiency, and reduce costs. Our company has evolved as technology and the needs of microbiology have changed; however, increasing workloads and an impending retirement boom is having the greatest impact on microbiology today. As an industry, we are training 5,000 fewer technologists each year than the profession needs, so laboratories are facing a serious shortfall of qualified personnel. Microbiology is a discipline that is still predominantly manual and must automate in order to continue to operate into the future. This is driving the trend toward automation that, ultimately, will result in an improvement in quality, efficiency, and throughput. Pulling together our collective expertise in microbiology, automation, information technology, robotics, and image analysis has allowed COPAN to offer a fully automatic microbiology lab solution — much like chemistry and hematology.

Innovation in pre-analytics.
Ordinarily, innovation happens in the analytical phase, like the breakthroughs in molecular diagnostics to improve and amplify target analytes in samples. Until recently, clinicians and microbiologists have relied on “Q-Tip”-style swabs for collecting samples. We affectionately call these swabs mattress swabs, as the fiber winding forms a mattress or pillow that absorbs sample, but then it becomes extremely difficult to elute the entrapped sample. One of the most important breakthroughs in microbiology in recent history has been the invention of our company's flocked swabs, which provide an alternative to the discomfort and inconvenience of nasopharyngeal aspirates, while eliminating QNS [quantity not sufficient] and providing a clean, mucous-free sample. This simple invention has had a dramatic improvement on diagnostics, particularly in traditional assays like rapid antigen testing and direct immunofluorescence that cannot rely upon any amplification of sample and are totally reliant on the quantity and quality of the sample.

A winning team.
Creating an exciting and challenging work environment is the key to keeping great people. We give our managers the freedom to be creative and entrepreneurial, the chance to experiment and even make mistakes, and the opportunity to take some risks. Investing in innovation and new technology encourages staff to be empowered, have a vested interest, and get behind the company. Everybody likes to work for a winning team; giving your staff excellent products, along with the freedom to shine and show their abilities, encourages their loyalty and tenure.