Monday, June 25, 2007

Burgeoning Biotech

Burgeoning Biotech
Novartis Takes Notice Of Local Facility Under New Leader
By Shelly Meron/Business Writer

Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, Inc. Site Head Robert Carter hopes to attract young, bright employees to join the growing company. (Rick Roach/The Reporter)

Since taking the helm at Novartis' Vacaville facility almost a year ago, Rob Carter has been working hard to expand the company's manufacturing facility, and prove to higher-ups that the Vacaville site is worth their attention.

"I think they recognized potential but needed to verify that we could expand, and how we would do it," said Carter, the local biotech facility's site head.

So far, he's been successful.

It wasn't long after joining the company that Carter's site was selected by Novartis to work on four new pharmaceutical products - two that deal with hospital infections, one to treat multiple sclerosis, and another to treat pneumonia. The company is also planning to hire about 50 additional employees for the site, and plans to invest about $70 million in manufacturing equipment and facilities.

"I think he's convinced Novartis that Vacaville is a good place to do manufacturing for Novartis," said Mike Ammann, president of the Solano Economic Development Corporation.

The site used to house the biotech company Chiron, which Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, Inc. bought in the spring of 2006, and no one was quite sure what the new owners had in mind for the facility.

"When they purchased Chiron, we were worried they would sell off all the assets and only do manufacturing in Emeryville," Ammann said.

Carter, who was hired by Novartis a few months after the sale, felt it was important to expand on - not slow down - what Chiron had done at the Vacaville site.

"The products introduced here (under Chiron) never really took off," he explained. "The facility was underutilized."

To get the site recognized, Carter kicked production into high gear. He talked about Novartis' decision last winter to produce hospital infection products at the Vacaville facility, and how his crew was able to crank out the first test run of the product within 90 days.

"We showed Novartis we are ready and able," he said. "We're getting taken very seriously by the Swiss," referring to the Switzerland-based Novartis.

He gives plenty of credit to officials from the city of Vacaville, who he said have been helpful partners in keeping the facility moving forward.

City officials, who are hoping to grow the biotech industry in Vacaville, are eager to keep Novartis in town. Mike Palombo, economic development manager for the city, said he and his colleagues were working with Carter to "help them remain competitive, not just within the industry as a whole but within the company itself," where different facilities compete to make products.

Carter's enthusiasm about what may be in store for the Vacaville site is evident.

"Here's a site that's been bought by a big company with a rich pipeline, who is going to invest in that pipeline," he said, referring to the company's production. "If you combine four or five products here, it will be a serious site in the next few years. We're bringing a new lease on life to this site."

He is also excited about working for Novartis, and is quick to list off the company's humanitarian efforts in fighting malaria, and its commitment to the local community.

"Novartis is a really great company," he said. "It produces products that help people all over the world. If we can make a product that makes hospital infections go away - that's fun to be part of."

The growth of the Vacaville site has been conducted within sight of Novartis' two biotech neighbors - Alza Corp. and Genentech, which Carter described as "the big player in town."

Carter - who spent 20 years with Baxter Healthcare - is careful when talking about these companies, calling them "fabulous neighbors." When asked if he feels Novartis is overshadowed by the giant next door, Carter said he'd rather spend his time thinking about what his company is doing.

"The best thing we can do is focus on our own work," he said.

All that work in the coming years will likely be watched and admired by the Swiss from afar.

"They absolutely want this site to be successful," Carter said.

Shelly Meron can be reached at

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