Sanofi-aventis raises a glass - The Explorer: Business

Sanofi-aventis raises a glass

Firm dedicates its OV research center

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Posted: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 8:19 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Flutes of champagne were lifted skyward last Wednesday morning in Oro Valley, where Sanofi-aventis associates from across the nation and beyond celebrated the opening of the company's 110,350-square-foot Tucson Research Center.

Beyond the Innovation Park Drive building, "what is great is the spirit of this thing," said Marc Cluzel, the Paris-based Sanofi-aventis executive vice president for research and development who addressed a dedication ceremony audience of several hundred people.

"It's the people and projects, it's not the building and technology," agreed Daniel Schirlin, the former Tucson site director who is now Sanofi-aventis vice president for global discovery. "If you have the right people and the right project, you will be successful."

Schirlin admitted to some surprise that Tucson's "biotech spirit" remains intact through several changes in ownership over nearly 20 years. The company's nearly 70 associates in Tucson have "that little light of biotech spirit in their soul, in their daily life." The associates, who've weathered skepticism, doubt and near invisibility, "don't give up. They're not afraid of going to places where nobody has been before. They have courage, solidarity and a shared vision."

The pressure remains, Schirlin said, to deliver more candidate compounds to the pipeline of potential pharmaceuticals.

Site research director Ken Wertman offered two explanations of what happens at the Tucson Research Center, one for the many "scientific cognoscenti" in the room, the other for "regular people," those "in their right minds."

The work is "combinatorial chemistry," in this application "a seamless combination" of chemistry, biology, informatics and analytics that creates compound "leads" for further investigation as pharmaceutical products.

For the layman, "we are prospectors or land speculators," creating new compounds with the hope they will be useful as drugs, Wertman said. The mission: "to explore the unexplored areas of chemical space."

In man's history, 25 million drug-like compounds have been made and investigated. The number of unexplored compounds would total millions more, according to Wertman.

"We're lucky to have work that is challenging, we're fortunate it is intellectually stimulating," Wertman said. "Most importantly, we're lucky our work is socially important. That drives the passion of our people. There is a real need for what we do here in Tucson."

"To have such opportunity is a gift, but it's also a responsibility," Wertman said. It requires hard work, good science and "indeed some good luck.

"Peer pressure and competition among the staff are strong," Wertman said. People are expected to carry their weight, and then some. More than 95 percent of what gets done in Tucson "will never have an impact on any patients." It's that less than 5 percent that keeps people going.

"Drug discovery is not rocket science," Wertman said. "It's much more difficult."

The Tucson Research Center was founded in 1990 by four University of Arizona professors as a start-up biotechnology company, exploring the emerging field of combinatorial chemistry. Wertman recalled the changes in ownership during the 10 years before acquisition of the Tucson Research Center by a Sanofi-aventis legacy company in 1995. "In Tucson, for us, there has never been a status quo," he said. "We are very seasoned cheese chasers."

Cluzel offered specific thanks to Jack Dean, the now-retired president of Sanofi-Aventis' research and development and a longtime Tucson Research Center advocate who continues to consult with the company.

Sanofi-aventis is the largest pharmaceutical company in Europe, and in emerging markets. Yet the world's fourth-largest pharmaceutical company, with more than 100,000 employees in 100 countries, is moving from "a drug and vaccine company to a health care company," Cluzel said, with expanding focus on the emerging field of personalized medicine. Such focus requires partnerships. For Sanofi-aventis to provide "much more integrated service for the patient, we cannot do it by ourselves." That's why the company works with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the University of Arizona, the University of Chicago, and soon CalTech, "sharing the thinking, sharing the strategy."

Site director Beth Koch thanked many people, among them John Cocco, the Pennsylvania resident and Sanofi-aventis employee who spent much of the last two years in Oro Valley, supervising construction of the facility; architect KlingStubbins; contractor DPR Construction; and public artists Rebecca Thompson and Joe Tyler.

"I'm still a little overwhelmed this is ours," Koch said. "Yes, it's a beautiful building, but it's very well-designed."

Koch said Sanofi-aventis continues to pursue gold-level certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design from the U.S. Green Building Council. The laboratory facility consumes 21.5 percent less energy than a conventional lab building, savings sufficient to heat and cool 75 homes for a year.

The Oro Valley site is the first built by Sanofi-aventis in the U.S. "from the ground up," Koch said.

Wednesday's dedication event concluded with an afternoon scientific symposium, "Regenerative and Translational Medicine in the Southwest," with speakers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Tucson's Critical Path Institute, the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and the University of Arizona.

a start-up biotechnology company, exploring the emerging field of combinatorial chemistry. Wertman recalled the changes in ownership during the 10 years before acquisition of the Tucson Research Center by a Sanofi-aventis legacy company in 1995. "In Tucson, for us, there has never been a status quo," he said. "We are very seasoned cheese chasers."

Cluzel offered specific thanks to Jack Dean, the now-retired president of Sanofi-Aventis' research and development and a longtime Tucson Research Center advocate who continues to consult with the company.

Sanofi-aventis is the largest pharmaceutical company in Europe, and in emerging markets. Yet the world's fourth-largest pharmaceutical company, with more than 100,000 employees in 100 countries, is moving from "a drug and vaccine company to a health care company," Cluzel said, with expanding focus on the emerging field of personalized medicine. Such focus requires partnerships. For Sanofi-aventis to provide "much more integrated service for the patient, we cannot do it by ourselves." That's why the company works with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the University of Arizona, the University of Chicago, and soon CalTech, "sharing the thinking, sharing the strategy."

Site director Beth Koch thanked many people, among them John Cocco, the Pennsylvania resident and Sanofi-aventis employee who spent much of the last two years in Oro Valley, supervising construction of the facility; architect KlingStubbins; contractor DPR Construction; and public artists Rebecca Thompson and Joe Tyler.

"I'm still a little overwhelmed this is ours," Koch said. "Yes, it's a beautiful building, but it's very well-designed."

Koch said Sanofi-aventis continues to pursue gold-level certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design from the U.S. Green Building Council. The laboratory facility consumes 21.5 percent less energy than a conventional lab building, savings sufficient to heat and cool 75 homes for a year.

The Oro Valley site is the first built by Sanofi-aventis in the U.S. "from the ground up," Koch said.

Wednesday's dedication event concluded with an afternoon scientific symposium, "Regenerative and Translational Medicine in the Southwest," with speakers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Tucson's Critical Path Institute, the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and the University of Arizona.

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