Flaming leading scientific innovation at Sutter Instruments

Imagine measuring the electrical capacity of a single cell. This was the challenge facing Dale Flaming (g’62) in his research at the University of California-San Francisco.

He was studying how rods and cones in the eyes of turtles and frogs detect color. In a classic example of “necessity is the mother of invention,” Flaming set out to build a glass filament pipette puller that could manufacture a pipette measured in microns and even nanometers, small enough to measure or manipulate a single cell. It wasn’t long and his colleagues noticed.

Could he make a pipette puller for them and their research? Like any great startup, he found a couple of partners and started innovating and manufacturing in a garage. They founded Sutter Instruments in 1974 and incorporated the business in 1977 after creating the pipette puller.

Flaming said it was at one point an eight-garage operation, spending nights and weekends making different parts. The first full-time employee of Sutter was hired in 1982. Flaming left the university in 1986, jumping in full-time with the business.

“There was a calling in starting this company,” Flaming said. “The company is a very academic institution as it stands right now. We had an instrument that was going to be very useful, and we had ideas for more. We wanted to see if we could make it all work.”

Dale Flaming sailing
Sailing off the coast of California is one of Flaming’s favorite hobbies.

Fast forward to today, and you will find Sutter Instrument equipment in most physiology or neuroscience research labs around the world. Although pipette pullers are still a mainstay of their product line, Flaming and his staff at Sutter have developed a wide range of related instruments and products, from micromanipulation (tools to maneuver a tiny pipette to a cell) to microscopes, microinjection (used in IVF) and amplifiers (for detecting the slightest electrical currents). 

More than 50 years after graduating from Tabor, Flaming is still innovating today. He actively collaborates with his research and development staff on new products, and he is often the sole assembly language programmer. 

“As the company has grown, we now have a line of microscopes and a very successful line of light sources for microscopes,” Flaming said. “We just introduced a microscope illuminator that allows us to change wavelengths in four-millionths of a second.”

Choosing Tabor College made perfect sense for Flaming as he started his career. His parents, Arthur and Linda (Claassen), both attended and his great-uncle, P.C. Hiebert, is one of the founders of the college. His father was a Mennonite Brethren pastor and grew up in Buhler, while his mother was born in Hillsboro.

He was a chemistry and mathematics major and said his scientific and analytical foundation was fine-tuned while attending Tabor.

“Dr. William Johnson was a big part of helping me craft my interest in science,” Flaming said. “I give him a lot of credit for his encouragement and pushing me in my career.”

Larry Warkentin (g’62) was his roommate at Tabor, and the two remained close up until Warkentin died in April 2021. Flaming also remains close with Ron Wiebe (g’61), who resides in San Jose, Calif. They also sail together in the summer.

While his path in entrepreneurship did not start immediately after college, Flaming encourages students to follow their passions.

“Follow what you’re interested in and see what opportunities come up through the years,” he said. “Stay the course.”