How Pharmaceutical Innovation is Transforming Virginia’s Gateway Region

By Cindy Sanders

From targeted agents used in precision medicine to broad spectrum treatments addressing common conditions, advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing changes lives. Attracting these critical healthcare manufacturers to Central Virginia is equally transformative for the community.

Virginia’s Gateway Region – the economic development arm promoting Dinwiddie, Prince George, Surry and Sussex counties and the Tri-Cities of Colonial Heights, Hopewell and Petersburg – is leading the charge on creating an emerging cluster of advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing to build a knowledge center, generate high-paying jobs and foster continued economic growth to enhance an already outstanding quality of life. More than $500 million is being invested and 350 jobs are anticipated to be created through an exciting new public-private partnership – and there’s more to come.

A Natural Fit

Nestled along the banks of the scenic Appomattox River, the region grew out of some of the nation’s oldest settlements. Yet, these lovely historic communities are also known for embracing innovation and collaboration. One of the fastest growing areas in the country, Central Virginia features rich traditions, affordable housing, outstanding schools, outdoor adventure and a burgeoning dining and retail scene for an attractive work/life balance.

Keith Boswell, president and CEO of Virginia’s Gateway Region (VGR), says the fast rise of Petersburg as the center of this new industry cluster is extremely exciting but shouldn’t be surprising considering the building blocks, advanced manufacturing knowledge, logistical advantages and collaborative spirit embedded in the region.

“Petersburg is not only the home of advanced manufacturing, but we are also the home of two great interstates and a third great U.S. highway. We’re also very close to the Port of Virginia, which is one of the best on the East Coast, if not the world,” says Boswell. He adds the area is served by three large universities and has a skilled workforce in place.

Additionally, Petersburg is home to AMPAC Fine Chemicals, an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacturer. Having purchased a shuttered German pharmaceutical plant back in 2016 and invested millions in upgrading and expanding the facility, the company has been foundational in establishing the area as a viable hub for advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing.

Virginia’s Gateway Region is also a natural complement to the research and development cluster in nearby Richmond. With the rise of pharmaceutical manufacturing activities in VGR, the state is creating a highly skilled corridor to efficiently move science from bench to bedside.

“While all the building blocks were in place, none of the exciting growth we’re seeing would have been possible if it weren’t for both corporate and community stakeholders coming together to lift the entire region up as an advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing center. A willingness to collaborate for the greater good really is truly what sets Virginia’s Gateway Region apart.”
-Keith Boswell, President, VGR

Addressing a Need

With AMPAC as the cornerstone of a 144-acre tract of land, VGR was poised to move quickly when the opportunity arose to create a new specialty campus to support the emerging industry cluster. “Virginia’s Gateway Region is home to a transformational partnership between Phlow, Civica, AMPAC Fine Chemicals and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medicines for All Institute,” explains Eric Edwards, MD, PhD, co-founder and CEO of Phlow Corp, a public benefit company creating and securing active pharmaceutical ingredients. “Together we’re working on a state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing campus to secure the essential medicines for the United States.”

Edwards adds a number of these critical medicines were already in short supply, and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problem as supply chains were disrupted. “Over 80 percent of the active pharmaceutical ingredients for these key essential medicines have been off-shored to foreign countries over the last four decades,” he says. “What we’re doing is we’re bringing American jobs back here to Virginia’s Gateway Region, and we’re bringing that together with these partners in order to secure a healthy future for tomorrow.”

Frank Gupton, PhD, co-founder of Phlow and CEO of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medicines for All Institute, was instrumental in bringing the partners together to address onshore production and protect the pharmaceutical supply chain. “There is this whole fundamental problem with pharmaceutical manufacturing that has manifested itself in a way that has reduced access to the people that need the drugs the most,” he points out. “Until COVID hit, I don’t think anybody was really aware of where our drugs were coming from and how dependent we were on those issues,” Gupton adds of increasing public awareness. “What we’ve done here is we’ve created a unique ecosystem that is a collaboration between industry and academia … to solve a problem where there’s an unmet need.”

Now, Gupton says, it’s time to reexamine the status quo. “I see this region evolving into an epicenter for this whole technology for reinventing how drugs are produced in the 21st century. What we’re doing is looking at the supply chain on a holistic basis.” Already, new manufacturing platforms are significantly reducing the costs of materials to make much-needed drugs more accessible and affordable.

Elso DiFranco, general manager for AMPAC Virginia, adds the campus model provides companies their own space with the collaborative benefits of proximity. “It allows each company to focus on its strengths, its core competencies – for AMPAC, API development; for Phlow, it will be bringing up the continuous processing technology and then handing it off for scale-up; and then with Civica, it will be the fill and finish,” he says. “There will be some shared services, some shared technologies so you will have a much smoother tech transfer process with everybody being in the same location.”

Successful Site Selection

When considering a start-up, relocation or expansion, an area’s industry expertise, infrastructure, and resources play a key role in the decision-making process. “One of the secret sauces of our region,” says Boswell, “is that we have a lot of industry already here.” He adds the Gateway Region knows and plays to its strengths. “We make things. We make high quality things, and we can do that over and over again,” Boswell says. And, he continues, the region’s large logistics and distribution workforce knows how to take those products and efficiently move them around the country and the globe.

Of course, attracting and retaining employees is another critical component, and one that is rooted in the personality of the community. Steeped in history and blessed with natural beauty, Virginia’s Gateway Region offers a quality of life attractive to a broad demographic from young professionals and families to empty nesters and retirees. “People like to live here; they like to work here; and they like to play here,” notes Boswell.

While the area has a strong talent pool, the need to expand the workforce is a natural offshoot of the rapid growth of the emerging pharmaceutical manufacturing hub. As the sector brings new neighbors to the community, there is a ripple effect of opportunity across all industries. The Petersburg Public Library is wrapping up a $25 million project creating a new conference and events center to enhance community life and add to available meeting space for businesses. From residential and commercial construction to an expanding retail and restaurant scene, there is an unmistakable excitement surrounding VGR.

“If you’re not here, you really need to be,” concludes Boswell. “There’s no better time to think about a new location than right now.”