The Bell Hotel, an old redbrick building at the heart of Sandwich, a medieval village in southern England, became quieter in 2011. Business fell away after Pfizer, the area’s biggest employer, decided to close its R&D complex and eliminate the jobs of 2,000 employees and at least that many contractors.
Most of the former Pfizer staffers made a mass exodus from the Sandwich area in 2011 and 2012 and took up new jobs in pharmaceutical science around the world. But a core of fewer than 100 chose to stay and set up their own chemistry and biotech ventures. Although not all of the start-ups have survived, most are financially viable and some are potentially lucrative.
Meanwhile, Pfizer’s Sandwich site, renamed Discovery Park, was purchased by a real estate firm and converted into a science and business hub. Several of the dozen or so start-ups launched by ex-Pfizer staffers are housed in Discovery Park, but it’s an isolated site and questions persist about whether it can attract enough biotech business to create a thriving science community.
The Sandwich site’s success is no longer an issue for ex-Pfizer employee Andrew Mansfield. After losing his job in 2011, he set up Flow Chemistry Solutions, a one-man firm in the Sandwich area advising on continuous processes. Mansfield secured contracts almost immediately, but after about two years in business, he traded his dream of running his own shop for the financial security of a position as a chemist for Vapourtec, an equipment manufacturer based about a four-hour drive north of Sandwich and close to the biotech hub in Cambridge.
Vapourtec was one of the firms for which Flow Chemistry Solutions had provided consulting services soon after Pfizer let Mansfield go. A job with another big company is not what Mansfield set out to do, but he is happy with how things turned out. He is now enthusiastically promoting a novel photochemical reactor developed by Vapourtec.
In contrast to Flow Chemistry Solutions, IntensiChem, a flow chemistry service provider targeting manufacturing, at first struggled to secure major contracts. But the firm’s two founding partners, ex-Pfizer employees Mark Bratt and Oliver Tames, persevered and are now on a trajectory that they think will bring them major success.
Their change of tack began earlier this year when they raised funds from a group of private investors to commercialize their ozonolysis flow technology. The partners have since developed a novel apparatus that they say works at laboratory scale and are now working on the pilot-scale process. A patent for the technology is pending.
With new equipment, “we could shrink down the size of the ozone generator and the reactor needed,” Bratt says. “This gives the process a big cost advantage over established ozonolysis technologies, which at scale can be prohibitively expensive.”
Assuming everything goes ahead as planned, “we will be looking at hiring 11-plus people in the next three to four years,” says Bratt, who claims that flavors and fragrances makers are already queuing up to use his firm’s technology. Other applications include syntheses of fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals. “The numbers are a bit scary. Sales could be in the millions” of dollars, he says.
Bratt laughs when asked to compare life at a start-up with working at Pfizer. “In IntensiChem, you are master of your own destiny. It’s great in comparison,” he says.
Torren Peakman, a nuclear magnetic resonance specialist working for his one-man company, NMR Peak, has had a steady post-Pfizer experience interpreting NMR data for a small but loyal customer base. Initially Peakman thought he would try working on his own just until the end of 2012. Almost three years on, Peakman is optimistic that his business is sustainable over the long term.
“I’m as busy as I’ve ever been,” says Peakman, whose clients are from Europe and beyond. NMR Peak continues to provide Peakman—who is based in a home office in Canterbury, a few miles down the road from Sandwich—with a comfortable income. Although Peakman misses the camaraderie of an office and the pension benefits of working for Pfizer, he doesn’t miss corporate chores such as online ethics training. Now in his early 50s, Peakman hopes to keep his business going until he retires.
Also based in Canterbury, on the campus of the University of Kent, is a team of four former Pfizer staffers providing structure-based drug discovery services. Set up under the name Cangenix, the start-up secured contracts soon after it launched. In early 2013, it was acquired by Galapagos, a Belgian pharmaceutical services and drug discovery firm, for $1.6 million in cash and a further $700,000 in potential milestone payments.
Earlier this year Galapagos sold its pharmaceutical services business, including Cangenix, to Charles River Laboratories for $175 million, returning the start-up team to a major U.S. multinational. “We’re still on board, and we still enjoy what we are doing,” says David G. Brown, one of the four founders of Cangenix. Brown and his colleagues continue to be based in the same lab at the university.
“On reflection, we are all glad we did what we did,” says Brown, who divides his time between Charles River and his role as a professor of structural biology. “We see a few familiar approaches to corporate etiquette and life that we’ve seen before. So we are all going into this with our eyes open,” he says. The benefits of working for Charles River include less financial risk and the flow of a broad array of projects.
At Discovery Park, A4P Consulting, which provides contract research management as well as biotech distribution services, has followed a more conventional path in its first few years. Although business hasn’t boomed, the firm is “still existing,” says Richard Hucker, one of five ex-Pfizer staffers running the company.
It’s been “quite hard” to attract pharmaceutical companies to take up labs at the Sandwich site, “but there is a lot of opportunity here,” Hucker says. “There’s definitely a mood of optimism. For micro companies such as ourselves, you have got to find your right niche.”
The firm is gaining some business from clients in the park as well as from further afield, but not necessarily in the way it expected. “You’ve got to be adaptable in your approach,” says Hucker, who says the firm’s distribution service has evolved to include a wider range of activities.
Business is also going well for Sandexis, according to Karl Gibson, one of a core team of three former Pfizer chemists who are enjoying a steady stream of work from medicinal chemistry design and associated consulting activities. Some contracts last 18 months or even two years, and the fledgling company has contracts in the pipeline, Gibson adds.
Although the partners are enthusiastic about their science, “we are still learning about the sales aspects of it all. And we are still getting to grips with the idea of marketing. The bulk of our work is from recommendations and people who know us,” Gibson acknowledges.
For those ex-Pfizer employees who started up drug development firms, staying in business typically means raising money from venture capital and private equity firms. Ixchelsis, which is developing a therapy for premature ejaculation, was highly successful in that phase, raising $14 million from TVM Life Science Ventures to fund its research.
Ixchelsis was formed after successfully negotiating a deal with Pfizer for an investigational compound, IX-01, with potential to treat that male problem. The firm is headed by Gary Muirhead, who led clinical pharmacology activities for the Pfizer erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, and features three other ex-Pfizer staffers as directors. To date, the firm has completed a Phase I safety study among male volunteers.
Ixchelsis is located in Discovery Park, as are Tetrad, a contract research firm developing biomarkers for biotech firms, and the drug discovery firms Levicept and Inhibitaxin. All three firms were started by former Pfizer staffer Simon Westbrook. Levicept is developing a therapy for chronic pain, and Inhibitaxin is developing a fibrosis treatment. It took about 18 months of “hard work and knocking on doors to get people interested in what I am doing,” says Westbrook in a video produced by the local government, which provided some start-up funds for the businesses. But Westbrook succeeded in securing venture capital for the firms and now hopes to grow them so they have between five and 10 people each.
Salvensis, another drug development firm started in Discovery Park by ex-Pfizer staffers, is a not-for-profit pursuing treatments for diseases of the developing world. Among its activities, the company is collaborating with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine on a $2.5 million project funded by the U.K.’s Medical Research Council to develop drugs for treating schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease affecting more than 200 million people, mainly in poor countries.
Anna Stone, leasing manager for Discovery Park, is convinced that the Sandwich site can meet the needs of these start-ups as well as larger biotech firms she hopes will move in. Today, more than 1,600 people work for 97 companies in the park, including 650 staffers Pfizer eventually decided to retain to work in a pilot plant and in other support services for clinical trials. The number of workers on-site is set to top 3,000 within two years, Stone says.
Ex-Pfizer staffers running start-ups at Discovery Park say it is a good place to be located. “It’s a business park, not really a specialized science park, but it has a good number of science tenants, so there are benefits to being colocated,” Sandexis’s Gibson says.
Fewer than 25 of the firms are biotechs, however, and after more than two years, many of the former Pfizer labs remain vacant, raising questions about the long-term suitability of the location for biotech and pharma companies.
Some have already written it off. “Sadly, Sandwich in the U.K. cannot be salvaged. It’s too pastoral,” says Bernard Munos, founder of the Innothink Center for Research in Biomedical Innovation and a former R&D adviser to Eli Lilly & Co. “You can invest and try to build it back up; it’s not going to bring it into the mainstream of where innovation is taking place right now. The locus of innovation has moved from those big, integrated labs to innovation networks that are created around universities, medical institutions, and companies that happen to be in their midst.”
Stone, though, is convinced that pharma-related companies are still keen to move into the facilities in Sandwich. She points to a Norwegian drug firm she won’t name that is in talks to establish a manufacturing facility in Discovery Park after determining that it has better infrastructure than the British biotech hubs of Oxford and Cambridge.
At the Bell Hotel, at least, business has rebounded. “We’re very, very busy. We’re up to our eyeballs in it,” says a staffer who declined to give her name. With the influx of new companies at Discovery Park, “Pfizer’s withdrawal hasn’t affected us at all,” she adds. It seems clear that the Sandwich region has weathered the company’s exit, but the outlook is still cloudy for the science community that once thrived there.