The man behind Reditus Labs wants to become a destination employer for a lot more than COVID testing
Coronavirus testing has made Reditus Laboratories one of the fastest-growing employers in central Illinois, and the man behind the company's success says it's about more than good timing.
In the first of a two-part series on Reditus’ sudden rise, CEO Aaron Rossi has a unique blend of business interests that goes beyond the biomedical lab. There's orthotics, there's branding, and soon there may even be cannabis growing in his future.
In 2018, Aaron Rossi bought a bankrupt orthotics company called PAL Health Technologies in Pekin. A year later, he started a company called Reditus Laboratories inside the same building along the Illinois River in a business park on the city's southern edge.
Rossi, 39, explained he wanted to build Reditus into a leader in health care technology, starting with the study of body organs and tissues and molecular testing for cancer treatments.
In what turned out to be a fateful decision, Reditus then moved on to study infectious diseases.
Seated in his corner office and wearing his signature blue plaid sports jacket, Rossi recounted the early days at Reditus when COVID changed everything. He knew there would be huge demand for COVID testing. He said he and Reditus' partner, Thermo Fisher Scientific, worked out a plan to fill that need.
“I knew that no one locally had the ability to do that. Both of the big hospital systems in town, I did talk to both of them. Both of them said they’d be very, very appreciative if we were able to figure something out,” Rossi said. “The rest is history.”
Reditus started at one location, running 500 tests a day. That number quickly climbed into the thousands. Reditus expanded and eventually moved into a new building next door. It's expanded several times in the last two years to accommodate the demand for PCR nasal swab testing.
“We started scaling from there as we were able to perform and execute,” Rossi explained.
The state of Illinois hired Reditus to conduct much of its COVID testing at public sites throughout central Illinois. Since then, Reditus has become the state's leader in coronavirus testing.
Rossi admitted the timing worked well for his upstart company, but he said you can't achieve success on luck alone. “Right place, right time, I guess you could say that, but it wasn’t luck, I don’t think. We have the ability to execute. It’s not as simple as getting a test, throwing it into a machine and hitting the start button,” he said.
The City of Pekin helped Reditus ramp up testing in the early stages with a $100,000 loan.
Pekin Mayor Mark Luft said he marvels at how quickly Reditus has grown. The company has more than 300 employees. Luft predicts Reditus will become the largest corporate headquarters in Pekin within the next five to 10 years.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime vision. The timing couldn’t have been better for this,” Luft said. “(COVID was an) unfortunate situation, but the timing could not have been better for that vision to come to the surface.”
Aaron Rossi envisions the time is right to jump into another business venture. He recently launched AJR Brands. It makes signs, apparel, business cards and other marketing supplies for companies. Rossi said he sees a huge need for brand identity.
“In the United States, businesses are about branding and everybody likes to see logos on what they are doing,” Rossi said. “That’s the whole trajectory that I had in mind.”
A branding company is quite different from his first two businesses in health care, but Rossi said he's always had a passion for branding.
In speaking with Rossi, one can get a feel for his flare for branding. During a tour of his coronavirus testing lab, he tosses out splashy-sounding titles for his staff seemingly on the fly.
"My wife asks me all the time what are my goals for the next five years? I say ‘survive tomorrow.'"
Whenever Rossi has a vision, Jason Sullivan's job is to help make it reality. Sullivan is chief business officer for all of Rossi's companies. Sullivan admits it's sometimes hard keeping up.
“Dr. Rossi is a very special breed. He runs at a very high pace,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he left the technology industry after nearly 20 years to work for Rossi. Most recently, he was an executive with Konica Minolta. Sullivan said he's heard from dozens of staff members who say they first met Rossi on the factory floor, sometimes in the middle of the overnight shift and had no idea he was the CEO.
Sullivan said he has the phrase "destination employer" on his office wall to remind him of Rossi's goal.
“I have yet to meet a person who has spent any time with Dr. Rossi that doesn’t want to come join us,” Sullivan said. “He is literally driving business to the Pekin-Peoria area just because of his personality."
Rossi's businesses have close to 400 workers in central Illinois. Sullivan said filling all of those jobs was a challenge in this hiring climate. He said Reditus has had to increase pay to attract more workers. He wouldn't go into specifics because he said pay varies based on the job, experience and location. But for example, Sullivan said someone who processes COIVD tests earns between $18 and $25 per hour.
Rossi said his new branding company will help PAL Health Technologies market its orthotics direct to consumers. Rossi said he didn't have experience in a pathology lab or orthotics when he started. Rossi said he considers himself an entrepreneur first and one who empowers his employees to find their passion.
“I’m not a smart guy, I just work hard. I tell everybody I’m just a Midwest farm kid from central Illinois. It’s worked well for me, I think,” Rossi said.
Rossi grew up in the Morton and Peoria area. He earned his medical degree at a university in the Caribbean (University of Sint Eustatius School of Medicine) in 2012. Before that, he got his undergraduate degree from Elmhurst College (now Elmhurst University) in the Chicago suburbs. Last summer, Rossi gave $300,000 to Elmhurst for a new video scoreboard. Rossi played soccer there.
Rossi, who lives outside Bloomington with his wife and four daughters, said he also wants to do more in health care and can help turn the Peoria area into a biomedical hub.
“Trying to sell Peoria or the area to bring more businesses here which is not always easy,” Rossi said. “It’s hard theoretically to recruit to here, but there certainly is some movement. The more the merrier.”
The biggest movement so far is the Peoria Bio-Made initiative. Rossi said he talks frequently with a fellow Gen-Xer who is looking to expand the Peoria-area's footprint in biomedical technology.
Jake Becraft is a Metamora High School graduate and co-founder of the Massachusetts biomanufacturing start-up, Strand Therapeutics.
Peoria Bio-Made hired its first executive director last fall with designs on attracting bio-tech companies to the area. Rossi said that work also will require attracting more young people into biotechnology.
Rossi said he's working with Bradley and Illinois State universities, and he's encouraged by ISU President Terri Goss Kinzy's experience in biomedical research. “The president of Illinois State who had a PhD and is a lab guru, per se, and was very prominent in fungus research,” Rossi said. “We are trying to align more and more with the universities to also help bring more opportunity to the area.”
In a statement, ISU indicated Kinzy recently toured the Reditus facility and discussed how the university and lab could help each other.
“I’m not a smart guy, I just work hard. I tell everybody I’m just a Midwest farm kid from central Illinois. It’s worked well for me I think."
“Reditus has hired a number of ISU graduates in the past and continues to be interested in what our graduates can bring to the workplace. While there are no formal partnerships with Reditus at this time, ISU is always open to exploring potential projects or partnerships with local businesses as needs and capabilities align,” said spokesperson Eric Jome.
Rossi has donated $75,000 to Bradley for its Turner Center for Entrepreneurship to help students learn to take technology and turn it into a business.
He also may someday get into the marijuana business. The state awarded him a license for craft cannabis production, but the licenses are tied up in court.
All of Rossi's efforts to grow his business and the regional economy may take years to pan out. Rossi said while those efforts take vision, he doesn't want to look too far ahead.
“Five years down the road I just hope to continue doing what I’m doing now. I usually go a day at a time. My wife asks me all the time what are my goals for the next five years? I say, ‘Survive tomorrow.'"
It looks like Rossi is doing more than just surviving.
On Thursday, in part 2 of WGLT's series on Reditus Labs, we examine just how lucrative COVID testing has been for testing companies.