When FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies confirmed it was working alongside Novavax earlier this year to manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine candidate, it sent headline writers into a frenzy, lit up social media and even prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to visit the region. With the international pharmaceutical contract development and manufacturing firm primed to deliver more than 60 million doses of inoculation from its Billingham laboratories, Steven Hugill speaks to Paul Found, the business’ UK chief operating officer, and Michael Lyons, its global chief financial officer, to find out more
Diane Youdale is well versed in the defence of honour.
For years, as the character Jet on ITV Saturday evening show Gladiators, she turned hitting contestants with pugil sticks and foam pads into an art form, using her physical prowess to protect her athletic reputation and that of her comrades.
More recently, she was adding her support to a campaign aimed at saving Redcar’s blast furnace – a totem of Teesside’s iron and steelmaking heritage – from demolition.
So when her hometown of Billingham – and with it the company helping to develop another COVID-19 vaccine – was mistaken for Newcastle during Channel Four show The Last Leg, it was perhaps inevitable she would step in, with pugil stick in hand, to provide host Adam Hills with a friendly geographical reminder.
It may all have been in the name of fun, but there was a serious – and life-changing – side to the shenanigans.
Comedian Hills’ faux pas came as he celebrated the news that FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies is making a crucial component in Novavax’s coronavirus vaccine candidate.
From its base in Billingham, the firm could help deliver more than 60 million doses.
Putting television presenter map-reading skills aside, the work represents a significant coup for the skill and innovation of North East industry and marks a noteworthy new chapter too for FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies.
The global pharmaceutical contract development and manufacturing firm may already work with partners to deliver the treatments of tomorrow, but its COVID-19 contract adds an altogether landmark focus to operations.
Said to provide nearly 90 per cent efficacy against COVID-19 in trials conducted by American biotechnology company Novavax, around a quarter of FUJIFILM’s 800-strong Billingham team is now undertaking laboratory work to produce initial batches of the vaccine to meet industry approval ahead of an official rollout.
That such work is being delivered from the company’s flagship Teesside base is, says Paul Found, FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies’ UK chief operating officer, an “extra special” privilege.
He says: “We work with many customers every year and in some ways, Novavax is very typical of our relationships in that they identify a product and prove its effectiveness and then ask us to help with its manufacture.
“But, of course, it is very atypical too, given its link to COVID-19.
“The medicines we make are life-changing and life-improving for patients, but they do tend to affect thousands or tens of thousands of people.
“The situation with Novavax is completely different in that it can potentially change millions of lives.
“It is a very emotive contract for us because we all know people who have been affected by coronavirus.”
As well as the emotional element, Paul says the work has added a fresh dimension to FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies’ accustomed developmental processes, which were laid out to Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a whistle- stop tour of the firm’s Billingham base in February.
He says: “COVID-19 has presented a whole list of challenges to us, Novavax, industry regulators and the Government – the virus has a visibility way beyond normality and a manufacturing timeframe that is so different too.
“Typically, we start working on a medicine and it might be supplied to patients a decade later.
“However, it was only a year ago the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in the UK and here we are manufacturing a medicine in 2021.”
If its coronavirus contract has provided FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies – a descendent of former Teesside chemical operator ICI – with a dramatically altered working landscape, so too, says Michael Lyons, the company’s global chief financial officer, has it afforded the business much greater spotlight. Revealing it has received praise from across the business community, he says: “Everyone I speak to wants to talk about FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies and Teesside because what we are doing is so beneficial to society.
“When you get people like North East England Chamber of Commerce chief executive James Ramsbotham singling the company out for praise and national TV highlighting our work too, it just shows the impact of what we are doing.”
Paul continues: “We’ve had letters from councils and industry leaders, and a member of the public from Manchester even dropped us a line too.
“It is all helping put this region – and specifically Teesside – on the map, which is fabulous.
“We have a big grey box of a building that most people will drive past and, for most of the time, have no idea what the 800 people inside are doing.
“That is because, by our nature, we don’t sell our products, so customers going to the chemist don’t receive a box that says FUJIFILM on it, even if we made the medicine inside.
“What our work with Novavax has done – and is continuing to do – though, is bring a visibility that had probably been missing, and at the same time an awareness around the importance of UK manufacturing.”
The latter point, says Paul, presents the North East with a real opportunity to further strengthen its biopharmaceutical and biotechnological status nationally.
For a number of years, the much-fabled Golden Triangle, which links companies and research institutes across London, Oxford and Cambridge, has been celebrated as the poster region for cutting-edge UK life science work.
However, Paul says FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies’ coronavirus contract represents a catalytical opportunity to showcase the North East as an internationally-enviable manufacturing hub that can palpably deliver the Golden Triangle’s revolutionary breakthroughs.
“There is definitely a need to rebalance between the Golden Triangle and the North,” he says.
“The Golden Triangle’s strength is still arguably on the science side – and that is not to underplay it’s work because it is incredibly important to discover the medicines in the first place – but the actual manufacturing capacity in the UK for these things is relatively limited.
“The North East, however, is one of the shining examples for manufacturing.
“We have huge capability here at FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies with our highly-skilled teams and world-class facilities, and GlaxoSmithKline, based not too far away in Barnard Castle, has great secondary capability too.
“We need to onshore more manufacturing in this country – having such capability is very important to the UK’s future.”
And Paul’s point is far from an idle observation.
As a business, FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies – which is now expanding on land where ICI’s former Billingham House agricultural division headquarters once stood – is embarking on next generation projects to stay at the forefront of fresh manufacturing developments.
He says: “The Novavax vaccine grabs a lot of attention but the whole of the pharmaceutical industry continues to evolve.
“We are at the cutting-edge of biopharmaceutical manufacturing because of investments we’ve made over the last 20 years, both in the science and the manufacturing technology that goes with it.
“But the next generation is going to be about gene therapies and transforming from the position where we are giving people medicine to make them feel better, to curing people of a disease.
“The market is growing incredibly rapidly, and we need to ensure we are always a leader in the North East.”
To confirm its place, FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies – which complements its Billingham site with recently renovated laboratories and office space on the Wilton complex, near Redcar – is working with Teesside University’s Darlington-based National Horizons Centre and CPI to establish capability across its North East bases.
“We are going through processes now and it will all link into the great science going on down in Oxford and Cambridge,” says Paul.
“We want to make sure we not only have the capabilities for biologics today but the advanced therapies of tomorrow.
“To develop the capabilities to work on medicines now that will come to market in five to ten years’ time, it requires us to have world-class process development laboratory space and small-scale manufacturing capacity.
“There are a lot of companies around the world working on this and we’re making sure we’re right in the race.”
Another key facet in staying competitive is the company’s ongoing multi-million-pound development of its Billingham site into a sprawling biocampus, which, while not only providing much-needed operational space, is creating highly-skilled jobs.
Improvements include the expansion of its mammalian cell culture facility – which is home to the company’s COVID-19 manufacturing work – and a greater gene therapy offering, which Paul says are perfectly positioning the business to meet future market demands.
He says: “It is a multi-phase programme; we have a nine-acre site and own another eight acres on the other side of the road (where ICI’s Billingham House once stood).
“The first phase is about getting an office building up to free up space on our existing site and transforming the front of house to emphasise our position as a high-tech biosciences firm, rather than a 1970s ICI building.
“That is a really important flip in the mindset for customers and staff.
“The building is being fitted out and we hope to move in during early summer.
“As part of the wider development of the campus, we envisage putting two further buildings on the site and hope, in the future, to add more laboratory and manufacturing capacity for other therapies too.”
And such a blueprint for growth, says Michael, places FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies right at the heart of efforts to engender a fresh industrial revolution across Teesside.
He says: “As Brits, and especially as people from the North East, we don’t shout from the rooftops about what we’re doing, we just get on with it.
“That played to our strengths in the past, when our region was a world-
leader in steel and chemicals, and it is doing so again.
“We’re quietly starting a revolution on Teesside with our IT and service industries, and with the redevelopment of the former SSI UK steel plant into Teesworks.
“They will all help keep Teesside and the North East on the map – and we will continue investing in our people, plant and technologies to ensure we play our part in such an exciting future.”