CMC Icos Sees Expanding Markets for Biotech Drugs With New Factory

10/14/08Follow @xconomy

CMC Icos Biologics made news a couple weeks ago when it said it plans to expand its biotech drug factory in Bothell, and double its workforce there to about 250 employees in three to four years. The big question in my mind was why, so I tracked down CMC Icos president Gustavo Mahler to ask.

There are plenty of factors at work. CMC, a Danish company, bought the facility from Eli Lilly in December last year. It inherited a facility set up to make biotech drugs for early-stage clinical trials for other companies under contract, as well as 127 employees.

Since then, CMC has retained about 100 of those people, and hired another 35 to keep the plant humming along, Mahler says. It has upgraded the factory to meet FDA specifications for commercial manufacturing, known as Good Manufacturing Practices, or GMP. That’s important, because as CMC moves to quintuple its capacity, it will be able to continually serve its customers from the early days of clinical trials all the way through to larger-scale commercial quantities, Mahler says. He wouldn’t say which of his customers’ products are driving the demand for more capacity, because names are kept confidential, but he said CMC currently has seven customers. Because of the complexity of making their products, which are brewed in vats of living cells, biotech companies would rather not look for another manufacturer when the time comes to make big batches, Mahler says.

“Switching from one contract manufacturer to another is pretty painful,” Mahler says.

The other trend CMC sees on the horizon is the FDA clearing a path for companies to make “biosimilars” or generic-like copies of branded biotech drugs like Amgen’s Epogen for anemia. If that happens in another year or two, it could put pressure on the worldwide capacity for biotech drug manufacturing, meaning that CMC Icos would have a pretty valuable property, Mahler says.

The jobs themselves are a bit unusual for biotech, where people tend to have loads of education and very specialized skills in fields like biochemistry or bioinformatics. Some of the people will need bachelor’s degrees, while others can have high school educations, Mahler says. The work will require technicians who monitor things like the acidity of the broth the drugs are made in, and the concentration of oxygen inside those bioreactors. Others will manage equipment and keep it clean, he says.

Many of the people with more highly technical backgrounds have been retained, which is a big reason why CMC chose to expand in Bothell as opposed to anywhere else, Mahler says. Of the eight-person senior management team, six of them are holdovers from Icos. “They are great, high-caliber people. They are experts in their area, and they work well together,” he says.

Mahler added that people there are pleased that the new owner has a future expansion plan. I believe that is 100 percent true, given how so many Icos workers were angry and heartbroken when Lilly took over, grabbed the impotence drug Cialis, and eliminated about 365 local jobs in early 2007.

It sure sounds like CMC and Mahler have a lot going for them, except for one biggie that could derail things—the financial crisis. CMC Icos hasn’t yet settled on a construction start date, because it is seeking financing for the expansion, and keeping a close eye on how the turmoil might affect its customers, and their ability to scale up production, Mahler says. This is one ripple effect in the local economy we’ll be sure to keep an eye on.

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