Solvias builds NC HQ for biologics, cell and gene therapy testing

A Swiss contract research organization, Solvias, is establishing a cell- and gene-therapy (CGT) testing center in Morrisville, where it plans to employ more than 170 people by the end of 2025.

Solvias, founded in 1999 via a management buyout from Novartis, is a privately held global provider of chemistry, manufacturing, and control (CMC) analytics to life sciences companies. It has leased a 50,000-square-foot site owned by Longfellow Real Estate Partners at Discovery at Perimeter Park, on McCrimmon Parkway, near the southeast boundary of Research Triangle Park.

Solvias testing center
Morrisville testing center

The company did not disclose the value of its planned investment but said the facility will be built out in at least two phases over the next couple of years, with hiring underway now. The site will expand Solvias’ reach into CGT and biologics opportunities focused on advanced treatments for cancer and rare diseases. It’s the latest testament to North Carolina’s ascent to global leadership in cell and gene therapies.

Steven Smith, who joined Solvias last November as general manager of U.S. operations, has been named general manager of the Morrisville site. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy, Smith held various leadership positions in the military, earned two master’s degrees and has subsequently spent about two decades in North Carolina, much of it in the life sciences and in management consulting. His experience has included stints with Corning and PPD in Wilmington, and he was a general manager of Catalent in Morrisville.

Smith, who lives with his wife and children in north Raleigh, said the Solvias leadership team moved quickly, taking less than a year from initial discussions of an idea for this type of facility, to celebrating the actual pre-construction launch in Morrisville at the end of May. “We have our permit to construct, and we have fully designed the first of our two phases of this buildout, which will start at 50,000 square feet.”

Smith - Solvias
Steven Smith, General Manager
of Solvias' Morrisville site.

Solvias leaders looked at about a dozen potential lab locations for their U.S. headquarters, including sites in New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, he said. But when company executives visited North Carolina, “We made this decision right away. It was so fast – within about three days, everyone said this is where we’re going to go.”

He said some colleagues teased him about wanting the new site to be in the Research Triangle because he was already here. But he said the decision was actually easy for everyone. It came down to the state’s global reputation for expertise in cell and gene therapies, the excellent research universities, the workforce and related training systems, cost of living and doing business, quality-of-life advantages, and the availability of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center to provide valuable partnerships, connections and services to the state’s life sciences community.

Solvias has 500 employees at its global headquarters in Kaiseraugst, Switzerland, near Basel, plus 50 in Canton, Mass., 45 in Basel, 200 in Hombourg, France, and 40 in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The France location also focuses on CGT and biologics therapies.

“I’m so glad this turned out the way it did,” said Smith, whose Research Triangle team has been working from temporary rental offices. “We’re already aggressively recruiting in the local area to fill our need for bench scientists, those with large-molecule backgrounds, all the way from senior scientists to lab techs, backgrounds in everything from biosafety to molecular biology, cellular science, even virology. We have a handful of employees on board now, and I told the team we’re all going to be full-time recruiters for awhile. We’ll be well over 150 employees in a few years.

“We’re looking for people with experience and leadership talent, but also appreciate the ability here to extract talent right out of the universities. We hope to be able to train folks with a long pathway into the future. I can’t only hire old guys like me,” he laughed. “We need some who can start their careers with us and hopefully still be here growing for 20 years.”

The company says it offers comprehensive analysis solutions including characterization and raw materials testing, stability and impurities testing, and drug substance/drug product release testing to more than 800 companies worldwide.

Smith said the Morrisville facility will serve as the company’s North American headquarters and as a hub for CGT and biologics analytical services. “It will offer critical cell-based potency assays, advanced next-gen sequencing capabilities and related testing services supporting multiple biologic modalities,” according to a company news release.

Solvias bldg in Morrisville
Solvias building in Morrisville.

From the outset, the new testing center will support characterization and release testing of CGT and other advanced therapies, including adeno-associated virus gene therapies, mRNA therapies and antibody drug conjugates.

Noting that the global CGT and advanced biologics market is expected to maintain a double-digit annual growth rate over the next decade, Archie Cullen, Solvias' chief executive officer, said, “Our new center strongly complements our biologics and CGT sites in Europe and expands our world-class testing capabilities in the U.S. Our team is thrilled to bring our newest center of excellence to Research Triangle Park, a leading research and development center and burgeoning hub for the life science industry. We will continue to invest in expanding our capabilities to support our customers with their critical work of developing and maintaining life-changing therapies.”

In 2021 Solvias established its U.S. presence with the purchase of Chemic Laboratories in the Boston suburb of Canton. That was Solvias' first acquisition after partnering with health care investors Water Street Healthcare Partners and JLL Partners in June 2020 to grow the company strategically.

“I’m very happy that we landed in North Carolina,” Smith said. “It was the right call, allowing us to make an impact on CGT. We have a lot of smart people on this project."

Jim Shamp, NCBiotech Writer 
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