A FAMILY-owned laboratory business is to expand its workforce by 20 per cent to meet growing demand for its environmental testing kits.

On Wednesday Bicester’s mayor Daniel Sames officially opened a new ‘clean room’ at Cherwell Laboratories, which makes products for microbiology labs worldwide.

Founded in a greenhouse by 75-year-old Lawrence Whittard in 1971, it is one of Bicester’s oldest manufacturing companies, with 56 employees.

Mr Whittard, a former vet, started by analysing animal feed, then made diagnostic materials.

The company, now run by his son Andy, concentrates on test plates which are pre-filled with a seaweed extract called agar to grow microbes.

The sterile products go to hospital labs and pharmaceutical companies worldwide, where they are used to check for contamination.

The company moved to Launton Business Centre in 2004, with the new premises next door to its existing building.

The products are made in an air-tight room with filters to exclude impurities, and staff wear special gowns, gloves and hats.

Karen Munson, of Cherwell Laboratories, said demand for the environmental kits was rising. “The expansion of our clean room facility is to meet this growing demand and also allow further improvements in quality and automation of processes.”

The completed clean room will eventually double the existing space from 440 sq m. Phase one, which has just been completed, includes a new inspection, packing and support rooms, including new flow-wrap machines to automate part of the packing process.

Ms Munson said: “In Phase two, we are planning to increase our production volumes from 5.3 million to more than 6.5 million agar plates per year.”

Demand from customers – hospital labs, pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies – has also prompted Cherwell to distribute air-sampling systems, which test for dust and other contamination.

With a current turnover of more than £2m, the company plans to double its turnover to £5m during the next five to 10 years. Exports increased 20 per cent last year.