March 8, 2021
The industrial landscape of Billingham’s past was once defined by three letters: ICI.
An abbreviation of Imperial Chemical Industries, ICI was also local shorthand for pioneering manufacturing and lifetime employment.
Today, however, the environment is somewhat different.
Gone has the behemothic firm, so too the brutalist Billingham House that served as its agricultural division’s headquarters.
Equally departed is Billingham Synthonia Football Club – named after ICI’s synthetic ammonia fertiliser – which now plies its trade in nearby Norton.
Some links, though, still remain.
Based in the very same Belasis Avenue postcode where Billingham House once loomed large – and expanding operations on land where the totemic concrete structure stood – FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies is building a new legacy.
A descendent of the old chemical sector leviathan – it had been part of ICI from the mid-1970s before being acquired by FUJIFILM in 2011 – the global pharmaceutical contract development and manufacturing firm stands at the vanguard of medical advancements, working with partners to deliver the life- changing treatments of tomorrow.
And those therapies now include a landmark focus.
FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies’ Billingham base – alongside two sister US sites – is making a crucial component in Novavax’s coronavirus vaccine candidate, with officials saying over 60 million doses could be manufactured on Teesside.
Said to provide nearly 90 per cent efficacy against COVID-19 in trials conducted by the American biotechnology company, 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.
He continues: “It is also a very emotive contract for us; we all know people who have been affected by coronavirus, which makes it that bit more tangible.
“We work on a lot of other medicines, which we theoretically know have massive positive impacts on people, but we won’t tend to know them.
“With the COVID-19 vaccine, however, we do all know someone that has been affected by the virus, so the magnitude of the challenge is ramped up and there is
a very significant personal connection to what we are doing.”
As well as the emotional element of the work, Paul says the contract 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 last month.
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 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.
Championed on Channel Four show The Last Leg – which initially told viewers the vaccine was to be made in Newcastle before hastily correcting its mistake – Michael says the firm has also received praise from across the business community, including local leaders and the North East England Chamber of Commerce.
“The one thing that has hit home to me is the pride in Teesside,” 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 Chamber chief executive James Ramsbotham singling the company out as something the whole region should be immensely proud of, 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.
“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 that 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 returned its strongest-ever operating profit in its latest financial results to March 31, 2020 – 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.
“If you go back 20 years ago and further, small molecule manufacturers were big business; they still exist, but the market has changed.
“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.
“It is about fundamentally changing lives.
“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 – 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 Redcar steel plant into Teesworks, which will be a hub for offshore energy and carbon capture and storage work – and could become a freeport too.
“They will all help keep Teesside and the North East on the map – and we will continue investing in our people, plant and technologies here at FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies to ensure we play our part in such an exciting future.”
FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies