David Owen

Is Toggenburg's loss set to be Erith’s gain?

It certainly appears so at the moment, getting on for a month after it emerged that Switzerland's Berlinger plans to withdraw from the doping control business.

"We are inundated with anti-doping orders," Ian Denny Anderson, founder and co-owner of the Versapak Group tells me when I phone him just before Easter.

"We are getting lots of very significant inquiries."

Versapak Doping Control, based in the Thames-side town of Erith in Kent, on the eastern fringes of London, has traditionally been Toggenburg-based Berlinger's main competitor in this rather odd, yet critical, field.

Founded in 1973, just before the Three-Day Week, which made life difficult for UK manufacturers in the winter months by limiting commercial consumption of electricity, the group began by making "Versapak" security envelopes for the financial services industry.

Diversification into doping control began in 1987, when Versapak was asked to devise a product capable of storing and transporting anti-doping samples collected at the inaugural Rugby World Cup, which was co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia.

As Anderson tells me, this was the first time the group had been called upon to rise to the challenge of transporting something in liquid form.

As anti-doping concerns exploded in the wake of the Ben Johnson scandal in 1988, the company set up a discrete doping control unit in 1991.

By the mid-1990s, Anderson says, Versapak had a dominant share of the market, albeit a market considerably smaller than today's.

It catered for both the Lillehammer Winter Games in 1994 and Atlanta 1996.

By the end of the decade, however, while the shadow cast by doping grew ever darker, leading eventually to establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the company had lost its pre-eminent position.

 Ian Denny Anderson is the founder and co-owner of Versapak ©Versapak
Ian Denny Anderson is the founder and co-owner of Versapak ©Versapak

Anderson tells me about an employee who moved from Versapak to Berlinger, but he also acknowledges: "We probably inadvertently dropped the ball and left an opening for Berlinger, who did a good job.

"We were perhaps concentrating on the core business."

Even today, anti-doping is a comparatively small part of the group's overall activities; Anderson says the niche market accounts for around £200,000 ($280,000/€230,000) a year of Versapak's overall turnover, which he expects this year to exceed £5 million ($7 million/€5.7 million).

Clearly though the sensational developments of the past two years or so, now culminating with the surprise withdrawal of the market leader, are set to shake things up a bit in a sector that, however esoteric, is key to efforts to ensure the integrity of modern, high-stakes sport.

What Berlinger has so far said publicly is that it will cease production of its doping control kits "in the medium term" while continuing to supply present customers for "a transitional period".

As the Swiss company sees it, "increasingly institutionalised forms of doping malpractice have steadily raised and changed the demands on these anti-doping kits over the years".

According to Andrea Berlinger, chairwoman, these developments, besides being damaging to sport, "have become increasingly incompatible with our corporate values and core competencies".

Like Versapak, Berlinger has another string to its bow - in its case, temperature control devices and systems.

It will be a while before we know how the pieces of the market will fall back into place once Berlinger departs fully.

WADA said on March 16, prior to its Symposium in Lausanne the following week, that it had had a meeting with Versapak and "preliminary discussions" with three other organisations - two European, one in the United States - "at various stages of development of new sample collection equipment".

While events may move quickly, and one imagines that sports leaders, and perhaps athletes, will be keener in future to ensure a diversity of supplies, the British company appears well-placed at present to take advantage of the new circumstances.

By what it acknowledges is "sheer chance", Versapak has a new urine transport kit poised to come onto the market.

It presented a prototype of the new kit to WADA at last month's meeting. 

Anderson describes the feedback the company received as "very constructive and helpful".

As he explains, the concept behind the Versapak kit is different from Berlinger's, since, rather than being a security product, it is, as the jargon goes "tamper-evident".

The single-use kit for A and B urine samples consists of two lidded canisters in injection-moulded plastic which each house a glass specimen jar.

According to the company, each canister features "tamper-evident latches" which will break if attempts are made to access the sample.

Berlinger are withdrawing from the sample bottles process ©Getty Images
Berlinger are withdrawing from the sample bottles process ©Getty Images

"Once the canister has been broken it cannot be re-closed, nor the latches repaired, without evidence of interference," it says.

The new Versapak canisters include what Anderson describes to me as a "DNA" that will enable laboratories to verify that the container is genuine and not a copy.

"When the product leaves an event, the doping control officer has to ensure it is closed properly and put in the box the right way up," he explains.

"When it arrives at the lab, they will inspect it and, if happy that it is intact, will put it into an opener.

"Then they press a button.

"That sends out an infrared beam which picks up the DNA of the plastic."

He cautions that while the kits, priced at £19.95 ($28/€22) for small orders, come with strict user instructions, Versapak obviously has no control over what happens to them once they are delivered.

The new kits are moulded and assembled in the UK.

Such is the volume of orders coming in that Anderson admits one challenge at the moment is getting labels as quickly as the company wants.

He was not expecting to take much of a break over the four-day holiday weekend.