Laboratory News speaks to Jim Moretta, site leader at the soon-to-close Sanofi plant in Dagenham about plans for the future of the site.
For more than 76 years, life-saving medicines have been researched, developed and manufactured on the Sanofi site in Dagenham, east London, and exported around the globe.
For nearly 30 years the location has been a world-wide distributor of oncology medicines but now, as a result of patents expiring leading to a reduction in demand for these drugs, Sanofi will be closing its manufacturing plant in 2013.
However instead of simply walking away from Dagenham, Sanofi has pledged to leave behind a positive legacy by embarking on a unique regeneration programme aimed at attracting new businesses and new jobs to the site, while safeguarding the highly specialised science and manufacturing facilities that have played such an important part in the plant’s success for decades.
It is an ambitious scheme that was the brainchild of the site’s executive team led by site-leader Jim Moretta and his deputy Mark Bass, a scientist who has undertaken the role of co-ordinating the regeneration programme after being appointed Land Development & Partnership Leader.
The story of expiring patents leading to site closures or downsizing has been a recurring theme over recent years throughout the pharmaceutical industry. Generally sites have simply been shut with land sold off for residential or warehousing, often leading to state-of-the-art science facilities being demolished and skilled scientists and technicians made redundant.
It’s a familiar pattern that Moretta and his team did not want to see at Dagenham. In its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s the site was the second biggest employer in the town after the giant Ford Motor Company and employed in excess of 4,500 people – massively contributing to the local economy.
Moretta was inspired by a regeneration project undertaken in the North-West of England by SOG Ltd, a company which took charge of the former ICI chemicals headquarters in Runcorn, Cheshire, in 2000 and transformed it from a single-occupancy site into a multi-occupancy science and technical park.
Today, The Heath Business and Technical Park is home to over 150 separate businesses employing in excess of 1,700 people. Core science facilities and skilled technicians, who once worked for ICI, are now employed by SOG and offering support services to all the resident firms now located on the site.
Moretta said: “SOG was certainly an inspirational regeneration story and we have appointed them to advise and lead our regeneration programme at Dagenham as they have a proven record in transforming an industrial site and safeguarding and utilising science facilities.
“This site, originally owned by May & Baker and now under Sanofi ownership, has been making fantastic medical products for some 76 years. We have excellent state-of-the-art technology facilities run by very skilled people. We didn’t want to see these facilities demolished and wanted to try and provide alternative skilled employment for our staff and other people in the wider community.
“We have a history of providing a lot of employment for scientists in the south east region, a lot of people have built their careers here – some of them are second and third generation of families who have worked here. We want that proud heritage to carry on. We think this site has got a lot to offer and it is just a question of finding the right sort of businesses to come in and take on our science facilities.”
Sanofi is marketing the sale of the site under the new brand of businesseast and has secured planning permission to transform it with a mixed use of science, business, manufacturing, retail and leisure.
Historically, the site has been the scene of many extraordinary scientific breakthroughs and is credited with saving the life of Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill thanks to pioneering work developing substances known as sulphonamides in the 1930s. One of the compounds, M&B 693, received world-wide acclaim as a ‘wonder drug’ proving to be an effective cure against the killer disease bacterial pneumonia.
The drug was successfully administered to Churchill on two occasions during World War Two after he was struck down by bouts of the disease. The same drug was also a successful treatment for gangrene and saved the lives of tens of thousands of service personnel during the war.
More recently the site has been the location for Sanofi’s oncology franchise – developing and manufacturing a succession of drugs for the treatment of a variety of cancers, including breast, lung, colon and prostrate.
The site has been the scene of many extraordinary scientific breakthroughs and is credited with saving the life of Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill thanks to pioneering work developing substances known as sulphonamides
“Our oncology centre which was built in the 1980s has been a massive success with huge sales of our drugs right around the world. Even though the closure of this site was announced in November 2009, we continue to work flat out to meet current demand and will do so until we close in the summer of 2013 and our work is transferred to other Sanofi locations in Italy and Germany.
“Even in the run-up to closure we have continued to work on cutting-edge breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer. A year and a half ago we developed and launched a new Jevtana drug as a last-in-line treatment of prostate cancer. That was the fastest-ever product to be approved by the FDA. Even in the closure years we have got a fantastic history not just in terms of the science we apply but also the products that we make and the patients that we have served.
“In our heyday over 4,500 were employed at this site. It was very much a hive of activity. Coming on the site at that time you would have seen huge chemical buildings, busy operations 24/7, a big distribution centre, a research and development area with over 350 people working at the back of the site, a tablet and capsule operation and an ampoule manufacturing centre. There would have been lots of buildings, lots and lots of people working around the clock – a very, very busy environment.
“We have always used the very latest technology and although operations have been vastly scaled back over the past 10 to 15 years, we still utilise some of the research buildings for lab space. Our manufacturing building is totally state-of-the-art with high-powered clean air technology.
“We’ve got extensive well maintained H-vac systems. We have sterile clean-room technology, we’ve got isolator lines. We make injectable drugs so it has got to be the highest of the high in terms of hygiene standards. The way we maintain the equipment and the facilities has got to be absolutely spot on.
“Yes, we are closing as a site. That’s due to a reduced requirement, post-patent, for the products we make. There simply isn’t the replacement volume using our technology. We still make some of the top products within Sanofi – a top five pharmaceutical company worldwide. They are some of the highest value products that we make and we are very, very busy right up to closure as we get to the early part of 2013.
“This plant and equipment is kept at an incredibly high standard and I feel that other science and technology companies can benefit from having access to these marvellous facilities. It would cost tens of millions of pounds to recreate the facilities we have here. Anyone wanting to access our technology would find very well maintained, state-of-the-art facilities that can be adapted for use in a vast range of technology areas.
“I think this is a real opportunity for start-up or expanding scientific businesses to access high-quality facilities with the chance to take on some of the very best skilled workers at the same time. I would be delighted to see companies come in now and put what we have made to good use and take it forward.”
Moretta says timing is critical: “It needs to happen quickly. Sanofi announced the planned site closure in November 2009. Essentially we will cease production activity at the end of April next year, packaging by end of June and our final shipments will go out in August 2013. The clock is ticking. The site management team here is totally committed. We are all in the situation where we are going to lose our jobs, which is naturally very disappointing but what we are also focused on is to try and bring employment back to this site to replace those jobs, and more, with mixed use facilities.
“But in particular what is in our hearts and what we are incredibly passionate about is to get good science jobs back at this site. We want people to see these facilities, the skilled work force we have and the opportunities they represent and to make full use of them. From our point of view we want to make as much progress as we can by the end of this year. We have set ourselves a target to get as many potential deals as we can by the end of 2012 so we can complete in legal and transaction terms by middle of 2013.
“Our 450 staff is made up of people with degrees and higher education qualifications. We have a very big micro-biological lab. It’s not just about micro-biological testing of raw materials and products, we have to micro-biologically test the buildings – so it’s a huge burden for the micro team. We have huge expertise here in terms of aseptic filling knowledge, clean-room technology, process engineering and qualified analysts as well as the whole structure you would expect around an organisation like ours.
“Our big ambition is to encourage new businesses to come in here and take on as many of our highly-skilled personnel as possible. If we can get people to the site, if they look at our facilities and meet our people, they find out what we have done and what we are doing on a day-to-day basis, they will not fail to be attracted by the proposition that it offers.
“I think our people sell themselves but we need to get companies in here to meet them. It is very impressive. We have had a number of enquiries to date from bio-tech companies, research organisations, spinoffs from universities to universities looking for additional lab space and pharma and non-pharma related science operations. These facilities can be adapted to a multitude of uses for sole occupancy or multi-occupancy.
“I see a business park with some diversity in terms of industries and businesses, it would have some retail, some light industry, some heavy industry, sports facilities that can used by the community, and I see it almost like an ecosystem where all those things come together and people can make full use of the services which sit side-by-side with them.
“Trying to bring 2,500 new jobs in is our goal. That would be a fantastic story. We have a long-standing history as an excellent employer and have made a huge contribution to the local economy and we want to see this continue when we leave.
“Do I think we can bring 2,500 jobs to this site? Absolutely I do! I think our location with our facilities plus our mixed-use vision offers so much to so many. I think once they start to come forward it will have a snowball effect. Once one company takes up this opportunity I believe others are bound to follow.”
In the meantime it is business as usual for Sanofi at Dagenham. Production still continues at such a pace that, despite working under a closure notice, the plant is currently achieving record levels of productivity and has won awards for its performance.
Moretta added: “I think it is a terrific testament to the character of the staff here about how they have responded to the closure decision. They have kept their chins raised. They are very conscious of the importance of what we do which is continuity of product to the patients, so I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
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