Right chemistry

Right chemistry

When Emily Humphrys and Alison White found interest wanting up the line at the high-tech firm they worked for, they bought it out and re-planted it in the North East, as BQ reports.

We’re the sole place in England which is supportive of the type of work Alison White, Emily Humphrys and their small, thriving company carries out. A recent Mori poll suggests the North East is the only area where the public shows a growing positive acceptance of industries working with chemistry, and our region is pumping investment into White and Humphrys’ enterprise to encourage it.

Perhaps the presence of ICI, Europe’s biggest chemical complex, for more than eight decades made us acquiescent. Perhaps it’s our determination to turn chemistry to the good of our region’s health, where it has sometimes been to its detriment before.

It may be our awareness that life sciences offer us major new economic opportunity; or it may stem partly from the persuasion practised by Nepic, the North East Process Industry Cluster.

Whatever the reason, we find the North East providing more than a third of the UK’s gross domestic product generated by the pharmaceutical industry - that £2bn giving work to 5,000 people like Humphrys and White’s employees in our midst.

Their Cambridge Research Biochemicals (CRB), at this point, employs only 15, yet from its modestly sized unit, looking fit to burst its seams on Belasis Hall Technology Park in Billingham, CRB epitomises enterprise - not only in the custom manufacturing of peptides and antibodies for medical research, but also as a new-era industry.

Pointedly, it’s creating jobs for highly qualified people - jobs the like of which One North East and the regional CBI say are vital to help close England’s North-South wealth and earnings divide. Most of CRB’s staff are graduates, many with an MSc or PhD qualification.

And commercial director Humphrys says delightedly that within the past two years suitable job applicants have been found within the region. CRB is a producer, not a researcher. But as Humphrys explains: “Even in commercial roles you must be a scientist to sell your product technically. Earlier, our people came from other areas of the UK.

Now they’re coming from Newcastle and Durham Universities, where networks have been formed.” The firm’s custom peptides and antibodies serve researchers in universities, biotechnology and pharmaceutical drug companies.

They are the scientific detectives’ research tools, fostering an understanding of the interaction of proteins in diseased states, whether cancer, Alzheimer’s or cardio-vascular: “Every human disease you can think of,” says Humphrys.

So contributors to CRB’s estimated £1.2m annual turnover include multinationals such as Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Novartis and Sanofi Aventis.

“We’re not short of customers,” she says. About 33% of product is exported: 24% to the USA and 9% to mainland Europe. Since most US competition is on the West Coast, CRB concentrates on the East Coast corridor, where its historic associations with Wilmington, North Carolina, date back to its earlier associations with Zeneca. Other clients include the Medical Research Council and 50 or so universities in the UK and Ireland enagaged in medical research, including Durham and Newcastle. The world of academia is a major sales target. CRB gained its present form through White and Humphrys’ management buyout in 2000, though its origins lie in a Cambridge Research Biochemicals set up as a peptide manufacturer at Cambridge in 1980.

Stemming from the world’s second oldest peptide company (after a Swiss firm) CRB can claim by descent to have been one of the first to commercialise its method of synthesis used in manufacture. A few years after the original start-up, it also began producing custom antibodies, which are detection tools for human diseases. In 1989, both researching and providing, CRB was acquired by ICI. The business relocated north to Cheshire and Teesside. Now, under White and Humphrys, and with a recent £34,000 grant from One North East, CRB is expanding production at Billingham with a £100,000 investment in total.

A new chemical synthesiser will raise production. This machine, enabling hundreds of peptides to be made simultaneously on a sub-micro scale, will also enhance the supply service substantially.

Two more chemists are being recruited and, as the company’s 30th birthday approaches, Humphrys says: “We’re optimistic. We’re aiming to become the UK’s number one specialist for research peptides and antibodies and first-choice supplier.

We’re also intent on increasing exports.” Ian Williams, director of business and industry at One North East, affirms: “CRB prides itself on working closely with customers in developing custom products.

Its latest investment will strengthen this section of the business.” Humphrys and White met in 1990. Humphrys, from Teesside, had joined ICI as a radio chemist. White, from Sheffield, was operations director.

“I wasn’t suited to a purely technical role and aspired to a job offering greater contact with people,” Humphrys says.

”I did about four years as an organic chemist, but I was desperate for a commercial role and eventually I got a job in sales and became UK account manager.

“My boss was in the North West, where the peptide work was done. I got moved across there, did that for a couple of years, then got a transfer back to Billingham where my husband worked for ICI.” In 1999, production moved from Northwich to Billingham.

“They were expanding other parts of the business and needed more space in which to grow the large-scale manufacture of peptides. So customs products, the small-scale operation - our bit - had to move out,“ Humphrys recalls. It became apparent to her that strategic management was more interested in the large-scale peptide arm.

A proposal was made and accepted to buy out the smaller lab-scale peptide operation from its parent, by then Zeneca (ICI having split in two). That same year, another rebirth: Zeneca Pharmaceuticals division merged with Astra of Sweden to form AstraZeneca.

The agrochemicals division of Zeneca merged with Novartis Agro-chemicals to become Syngenta. Finally, the specialities division of Zeneca became Avecia under another MBO. This is now nearby in Billingham too, a contract manufacturer of protein-based drugs.

The large-scale peptide operation CRB was previously tied to closed down in 2004. Humphrys, having broken into sales, then wanted to run a company. “It’s what gave me the idea to approach my boss about an MBO.” White, for her part, says: “I was very excited about owning a business I had worked in passionately in for 15 years.” She had joined CRB the day before her wedding. After ICI acquired CRB she was offered the post of production supervisor moving to Northwich.

“That was short-lived. My husband was offered a post as lecturer at Newcastle University, so I needed to move to the North East.

“I wonder now whether destiny had a hand in this. I was immediately offered a role with a group making radiolabelled peptides, and there I met Emily.” Humphrys and White inherited the North East location, which offers advantages.

Staff turnover is low, overheads too - five to 10 times below Cambridge in rents alone. Travel between and home and work is easy, and besides One North East’s grant and other support, there’s the presence now of Nepic - the North East Process Industry cluster - and the Centre of Excellence for Life Sciences (Cels) both with networking.

The management team now also includes a non-executive chairman, Dr Steven Powell of Plethora Solutions. As Humphrys points out: “We wanted someone in this role with a lot of business acumen, especially financially.

He has been a venture capitalist himself, can advise on how to take the business forward and is in a world apart from ours. Also, unlike Alison and I, who are chemists, his background is in biology, and as all our products are chemically made, we sell to biologists.

“It’s great to have someone push you much harder. He’s a mentor, he’s good on the legal side and sometimes he plays devil’s advocate. Also, because Alison and I are two equal owners, we didn’t ever want to get into a gridlock.” Peptides is a market growing by about 15 to 20% a year, and Humphrys and White say they’re happy to be in peptides till they die.

There will be challenges shortly, though. While the weaker pound will help exports – hence attention intensifying towards the USA, Scandinavia, France and Germany - recession looks sure to hit the government-funded public sector’s spending in universities and medical research at home.

“If their budgets are cut that will affect us for a while,” Humphrys says.

“We’re trying to mitigate that by increasing our customer base across different sectors.” Since we, the public, care more than most, we hope that will work.