Virginia is for pharma lovers

June 3, 2024
Richmond has rebounded from its tobacco breakup and is courting a serious relationship with advanced manufacturing technology

First debuted in 1969, the now-iconic marketing slogan was purposeful in its ambiguity. “Virginia is for lovers” invites people to personalize the tagline with whatever they love about the state — be it the rich history, beautiful beaches or breathtaking mountains.

But far before it was for lovers, Virginia, specifically the capital city of Richmond, was for tobacco. From the inception of Virginia as a colony, tobacco was essential to the area’s economy. Philip Morris began making cigarettes in Richmond in 1929, opening a 1.6-million-square-foot manufacturing center in 1973 that soon was churning out half the cigarettes sold in the U.S. Heading into the 1990s, Philip Morris was the area’s largest private employer, providing jobs for more than 10,000 workers.

But as the number of smokers declined, and the tobacco industry squared off against stricter regulations and large class action lawsuits, many of Virginia’s tobacco farms began to disappear. Philip Morris began laying off workers. Richmond’s Model Tobacco factory, a prominent six-story art deco building, sat dormant for decades after closing its doors in the mid-80s. Tobacco Row, once a vibrant collection of tobacco warehouses and cigarette factories along Richmond’s James River, was converted into trendy loft apartments and retail spaces.

Faced with a fizzling tobacco business, Richmond was a city in need of a new identity — and it has found one in the pharma space. Today, the Richmond-Petersburg region, through its collaborative ecosystem and focus on advanced technology, is rebuilding itself as a global hub for pharma manufacturing.

Finding the spark

The rapid chain of events that sparked the Richmond-Petersburg pharma manufacturing cluster was fueled by a focused mission — improving access to quality medicines.

It started with a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded project at Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) College of Engineering, focused on using advanced technologies to develop a more cost-effective way to manufacture the HIV/AIDS therapy, nevirapine. In 2017, additional funding from the Gates Foundation allowed for the university to officially establish the Medicines for All Institute (M4ALL) and apply its optimized active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) development platform to a broader array of lifesaving vaccines and treatments.

At the helm of M4ALL was pharma industry veteran and VCU professor, Frank Gupton. In 2019, Gupton teamed up with long-time friend and pharma entrepreneur Eric Edwards, to apply continuous processes and flow chemistry to the development and manufacturing of critical drugs in shortage, with a focus on pediatric medicines. In early 2020, they officially launched Phlow, a public benefit corporation based in the Virginia Bio+Tech Park in downtown Richmond.

Then, the pandemic hit and Gupton and Edwards quickly realized that many of the drugs that would be needed to treat COVID were also on the drug shortage list, which lead them to respond to a request for proposals issued by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

In May 2020, Phlow was awarded a $354 million contract from BARDA to procure medication for the Strategic National Stockpile as well as build domestic infrastructure for advanced manufacturing of essential medicines, including drugs for pandemic response. Executing the contract involved Phlow — which at the time did not have a manufacturing facility — collaborating with strategic partners M4ALL, Ampac Fine Chemicals (now SK pharmteco) and Civica Rx.

From there, the partners began investing in advanced manufacturing infrastructure in nearby Petersburg and the area’s pharma ecosystem began to flourish. Ampac, a leading manufacturer of essential medicine key starting materials (KSMs) and APIs, spent $25 million to expand its existing facility. Right next door, Phlow built a 19,200-square-foot kilo-scale facility capable of manufacturing KSMs, intermediates and APIs, as well as a (soon-to-be-operational) 18,000-square-foot facility for production on a metric-ton scale. Phlow and U.S. Pharmacopeia also built adjoining lab space in the Bio+Tech Park to facilitate the development of guidelines, best practices and resources to assist in the adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies.

Down the street, Utah-based nonprofit generic drug company, Civica, invested $140 million to build a 140,000-square-foot highly automated sterile injectables facility. Now operational, the facility has three different filling lines — one each for vials, syringes and insulin pen cartridges.

Collectively, the companies offer an end-to-end process for domestic drug manufacturing and serve as a foundation for the region’s rapidly growing pharma manufacturing cluster.

Making it official with advanced tech

Amid this collaboration, Frank Gupton had recognized the powerful role that flow chemistry and continuous processing could play in the future of drug production. In 2020, he and Edwards assembled pharma-minded stakeholders in the Richmond-Petersburg region — among them, M4ALL, Phlow, Ampac and Civica — and made their relationship official, forming the Alliance for Building Better Medicine.

The group, convened by Richmond-based innovation ecosystem development organization Activation Capital, has since amassed over $53 million in federal funding through the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) Build Back Better Regional Challenge. The funding has gone towards the scaling of the region’s advanced pharma manufacturing (APM) cluster, with an end goal of expanding the domestic supply chain for essential medicines and critical APIs.

The alliance’s efforts have been paying off, too — last fall, the Biden-Harris administration designated the Richmond-Petersburg region as an ‘APM Technology and Innovation Hub,’ setting the coalition up to apply for additional funding through the EDA.

Spreading the love

The region’s advanced technology successes have not been confined solely to pharma manufacturers. Virginia-grown equipment innovator, Grenova, has developed solutions that enable labs to wash contaminated plastic consumables, such as pipette tips and microwell plates, so that they can be safely reused. The company’s fully automated pipette tip washer, known as the TipNovus, enables labs to wash and reuse pipette tips an average of 10-25 times.

In 2021, Grenova invested $10.6 million to relocate its operations a few miles north of its original location to a larger facility in Richmond. The company worked with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) to choose the location, which made it eligible to receive grants from the state.

VEDP also provided assistance to support Grenova’s recruitment and training through its Virginia Jobs Investment Program. The discretionary program provides funding to companies creating new jobs or retraining workers due to a technology change. In addition to direct funding, VEDP also offers free human resource consultations to qualified companies.

Startups are not being left out of the action in the Richmond-Petersburg region either. Richmond’s VA Bio+Tech Park, opened in 1995, is now a thriving 34-acre life sciences and emerging technologies community that has been instrumental in launching entrepreneurs and helping existing companies flourish. The park, which sits adjacent to the VCU medical campus, is home to nearly 70 companies, research institutes and state/federal labs.

Last year, Activation Capital announced plans to develop a new Innovation Center within the Bio+Tech Park that they are hoping will become a world class hub for startups, entrepreneurs and scientific breakthroughs. The center is currently searching for its lead tenant to occupy the location’s premier lab and office spaces. The remainder of the center will be dedicated to an incubator and will include much-needed labs and private offices. The first floor will offer community training and gathering spaces as well as a street level café.

People: The heart of the cluster

Cultivating a pharma ecosystem, especially one built around advanced technology, requires a steady stream of skilled workers.

Virginia’s education system — ranked number one in the nation by CNBC — places a strong emphasis on manufacturing technology-related skills. Development of the talent pipeline starts as early as middle school, with Virginia’s ‘Go Tec’ initiatives. These hands-on programs enable students to learn to use actual equipment applicable to various fields, such as precision machining, robotics, automation or mechatronics (electronics plus mechanical engineering). Richmond-Petersburg high schools continue the technology instruction, offering mechatronics training inside their career and technical education center.

At the college level, VCU’s School of Engineering is home to the first Ph.D. pharma engineering program in the nation. The two community colleges that serve the region, Brightpoint and Reynolds, offer a pharmaceutical manufacturing technician certificate. The program teaches students appropriate gowning procedures, manufacturing procedures and documentation requirements, working directly with local pharma companies. For those interested in equipment operation, Brightpoint offers an associate degree and certificate programs in mechatronics.

Virginia’s 27 military bases offer a second source of skilled talent. The Richmond-Petersburg area has the most concentrated population of military service people, with roughly 10,000 exiting the military each year and seeking employment. Because the military’s focus on discipline and SOPs translates well to the regulated pharma industry, the transition has proven to be a natural fit.

As an incentive for job creation, Virginia offers assistance to companies who are either new to the state or undergoing significant expansion. VEDP’s Virginia Talent Accelerator Program, which works in partnership with a network of community colleges, offers no-cost job-specific training and recruitment services customized to a company’s unique operations, equipment and culture.

The talent accelerator program has a proven track record of success and has contributed to the R&D renaissance in the region. When GSK and Pfizer merged their consumer health care businesses, forming Haleon, company leadership began an evaluation of R&D facilities across both businesses, ultimately earmarking Pfizer’s global R&D headquarters in Richmond for expansion. In 2019, Haleon announced plans to invest $16.7 million to expand the R&D center, adding 150 new jobs. Haleon worked with the talent accelerator program on a successful recruitment campaign, with an emphasis on enticing scientists from other Haleon locations to relocate to Richmond.

Thermo Fisher also utilized the program in 2022, in conjunction with a $97 million expansion of clinical research operations that added 500 new jobs in the Richmond area.

Building a lasting relationship

While the sweet smell of tobacco no longer lingers in the Richmond air, motorists traveling down I-95 from downtown can still see the monument-sized cigarette looming tall in front of the Philip Morris manufacturing site. In a way, it stands as a reminder of a city that flourished around manufacturing, with workers utilizing some of the most advanced production methods and processing equipment in the industry.

Today’s Richmond-Petersburg region has been completely reimagined, offering a mix of modern happenings and rich cultural history. Centuries-old cobblestone streets lead to host of award-winning restaurants and breweries. The region boasts a reliable public transportation system and an abundance of green space, all against the backdrop of the scenic James River.

Through close collaboration of the region’s pharma ecosystem and a business-friendly environment backed by federal and state investments, Richmond-Petersburg is rising from the ashes of its tobacco past — this time in a quest to use advanced technologies to improve access to essential medicines.

About the Author

Karen P. Langhauser | Chief Content Director, Pharma Manufacturing

Karen currently serves as Pharma Manufacturing's chief content director.

Now having dedicated her entire career to b2b journalism, Karen got her start writing for Food Manufacturing magazine. She made the decision to trade food for drugs in 2013, when she joined Putman Media as the digital content manager for Pharma Manufacturing, later taking the helm on the brand in 2016.

As an award-winning journalist with 20+ years experience writing in the manufacturing space, Karen passionately believes that b2b content does not have to suck. As the content director, her ongoing mission has been to keep Pharma Manufacturing's editorial look, tone and content fresh and accessible.

Karen graduated with honors from Bucknell University, where she majored in English and played Division 1 softball for the Bison. Happily living in NJ's famed Asbury Park, Karen is a retired Garden State Rollergirl, known to the roller derby community as the 'Predator-in-Chief.'