BoroPharm seeks to expand at U-M North Campus Research Complex

3/23/11

When Pfizer closed its Ann Arbor, MI-based research facility in 2008, taking over 2,000 jobs with it, the community mourned the loss of such a prestigious, high tech employer. BoroPharm, however, saw an opportunity.

“When they left…companies like ours were able to find people and offer them positions,” BoroPharm CEO Todd Zahn says. “In typical times, a company like ours is not able to offer competitive salaries with large pharma because large pharma is known to pay their people really well.”

Originally a spinoff from Michigan State University, BoroPharm was the first company to move into the former Pfizer facility, which the University of Michigan eventually purchased and converted into its North Campus Research Complex.

The startup has since made the most of its new home, a “one of a kind” facility, Zahn says. The building features a high pressure lab that will allow BoroPharm to scale up its synthetic chemical technology to more clients, including drug, agriculture, and fine chemical companies, he says.

BoroPharm has developed an efficient, more environmentally friendly way of making boranic acid, a key building block in organic chemistry.

Such boron-based substances power chemical reactions that produce new chemicals with useful properties found in pharmaceuticals and industrial products like fiberglass, semiconductors, and bleaches. The technology can help create high strength, light weight materials that resist thermal shock. Boron carbide, for example, is often used in tank armor and bullet proof vests.

“It’s being used across the board as a useful mechanism to design and develop new products,” Zahn says.

In 2008, BoroPharm won the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The potential for wide application of the company’s technology excites Zahn. BoroPharm doesn’t release sales figures, but Zahn says the company has been profitable since it started, allowing it to operate without venture capital. (The company, though, has received $250,000 from Capital Community Angels and financial support from the Michigan 21st Century Jobs Fund.)

“Thus far we’ve been able to grow organically,” Zahn says.

BoroPharm is planning to expand its presence at the U-M complex. The company currently employs 25 people and plans to hire three to five more workers by the end of the year.

The U-M is “sitting on a lot of square footage and our expansion needs will require additional space,” Zahn says. “It’s a very good resource for us to be able to expand without having to build.”

BoroPharm, though, hasn’t broken ties with MSU, where two chemistry professors initially developed the technology in 2000. BoroPharm still leases space from the university in East Lansing.

“We’re probably one of the only companies that has very close relationships with two Big Ten universities that are in the same state,” Zahn says.

BoroPharm’s close relationships with both universities has given it access to talented students and rich research resources, Zahn says. But ultimately, he owes the company’s success to just plain good luck.

“It’s been really kind of an opportunistic growth approach,” Zahn says. “A similar story that you might see from other companies that are in the right place at the time.”

Jillian Berman is an intern for Xconomy Detroit. Follow @

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  • JWilly48519

    Typo correction: boron carbide, not carbine.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/tlee/ Thomas Lee

    Thanks for the catch JWilly. I fixed it.