Issue Date: July 28, 2008
Asymchem Pervades China
Few chemistry services companies that operate facilities in China find the need to use a map to explain where their facilities are. But it's hard to get an idea of what Asymchem is all about without looking at a map of China. The company's R&D and production facilities are spread throughout the vast country.
Although its headquarters are in North Carolina, Asymchem maintains its research and manufacturing facilities in northeast, east, and southwest China. According to the company's founder and chief executive officer, Hao Hong, spreading out is the best way to take advantage of the many benefits of operating in China.
In Fuxin to the northeast, where Asymchem makes intermediates and other bulk chemicals, the company is taking advantage of low electricity rates and access to raw materials at good prices. It now employs about 600 people there, many of whom were hired from a local chemical producer that went bankrupt.
Farther northeast, the company is building a plant in Dunhua that will source raw materials from a major manufacturer of bulk chemicals, nearby Jilin Petrochemical. About 1,000 miles south, near Shanghai, Asymchem's Hangzhou office serves mostly as a base for purchasing fine chemicals from the many producers located in the area. In the southwest city of Chengdu, where costs are low and chemists numerous, Asymchem is hoping to set up another R&D and production base.
A two-hour drive from Beijing, where Asymchem maintains a business office, is the city of Tianjin, Asymchem's China hub. The company employs 450 people in its labs there and 150 in production and administration. Tianjin gave Asymchem the red-carpet treatment, Hong says. "We're viewed as high-tech, so we get almost-free land and utilities at preferential rates." Spread over two sites in Tianjin, the company operates labs for process development and analytical research, kilo labs, and a pilot plant built to comply with the Food & Drug Administration's current Good Manufacturing Practices standards.
Asymchem conducts process and analytical R&D at the newer of its Tianjin sites. Located in the Tianjin Economic Development Area, the site includes ample empty land that is being readied for the construction of additional facilities such as a formulation unit.
A visit to the newly built process development and analytical labs reveals equipment such as an X-ray diffractometer, several nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, and a room fitted with instrumentation such as calorimeters for conducting process safety experiments. Jack Chen, Asymchem's senior director of chemical development, says it's important to determine whether a new process poses unexpected safety hazards before it's scaled up.
The labs and nearby multipurpose plant, where operators produce batches of active pharmaceuticals ingredients that will be used in human trials, appear to be run according to strict management standards. There isn't an employee in sight who is not wearing safety glasses while handling chemicals.
Hong says he won't take cost-cutting steps if they compromise the quality of his products, the safety of his employees, or the environmental footprint of his facilities. "We're an American company that offers U.S. standards of safety and quality while at the same time taking advantage of whatever China can provide that is lower cost."
Although Asymchem covers a lot territory, it generally operates in areas where Hong has lived. He grew up in the northeast province of Jilin and, as a young man, was sent to work for five years as a lumberjack in the forests near Dunhua during the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976. "The work was extremely dangerous," Hong recalls. After leaving the forest, he moved to Sichuan, where he completed his undergraduate studies in Chengdu. He eventually moved to the U.S., where he was initially an academic. He worked as a postdoc at the University of Georgia and was a research assistant at North Carolina State University.
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