Genentech had an amazing research run through the early 2000s, with three new medications approved by the FDA from 2003-2005. Between the need to increase capacity and the earthquake risk at company headquarters in South San Francisco, top execs decided it was time to look for a suitable place for expansion.
They chose Oregon, where they have invested $400 million and created 250 jobs since buying 75 acres of land in Hillsboro in 2006.
"We were very attracted by the business environment, the technical support we felt we could get in the area, and the encouragement we got from the local community and local and state government," said CEO Ian Clark at a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday in Hillsboro attended by top executives, elected officials and hundreds of Oregon-based Genentech employees. (Pictured from left to right are senior VP Timothy L. Moore, Clark, Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Congressman David Wu and plant manager Barry Starkman.)
Oregon workers at Genentech, which manufactures anti-cancer drugs and other medications, have distributed more than 2 million packages of medicine to medical facilities from out of Hillsboro. They also have been preparing for the next step: to get approval from the FDA to "fill" and package Avastin, Rituxan and Herceptin in Hillsboro. This is a process that takes training and technical precision, because, as Moore points out, "It's more than just putting liquid in a vial... We are not filling shampoo. We are filling a life-saving drug that is injected into human beings, which means we have to do things right every day. We have to have technology that delivers, we have to follow our procedures and most importantly, we have to have highly skilled employees."
I got to see a few of those employees on the job (such as the worker pictured to the left, packaging the breast cancer drug Herceptin) during a Tuesday morning tour of the new facility. It's always difficult to tell how accurately these media tours reflect reality, but I was impressed with the attention to detail and the positive attitudes of everyone I observed and spoke with. People seem genuinely delighted to have landed a job with Genentech, and with good reason. Generous benefits and stock options have landed Genentech on Fortune magazine's list of the 100 best companies to work for in the nation for 12 years in a row. Plant manager Barry Starkman told me he would consider participating in the Oregon Business magazine's similiar project, so it could be interesting to see how the newcomers fare in 2011.
Starkman joined Genentech after a 24-year run with Merck, and he says he never would have considered switching if it hadn't been for the great culture at Genentech, and the mission. "You know people's lives are being prolonged because of what we're doing here," he says. "So it's really easy to get up in the morning and come to work."
Starkman has nothing but good things to say about his adopted home in Hillsboro and the experience of getting the facility up and running on a fast schedule. "Oregon set itself apart from the other places in the way they treated us," he says. "They were genuine about wanting us to be here. It wasn't just a facade. It was real. They really wanted us here, and they really wanted to diversify the portfolio of businesses here."
Well they have, and the timing couldn't be better. A wholly owned subsidiary of the Roche Group, Genentech is a key member of a sophisticated global business with enormous potential. As Mike Rogoway of the Oregonian reported this morning, executives have responded coolly to the requests (and less-than-subtle public pleas) that they consider doing R&D in Oregon to take advantage of the neuroscience expertise at OHSU and the opportunities for prime research space at the South Waterfront development (which could certainly use an exciting new tenant). No such luck yet, but it's worth remembering that Intel didn't move to Hillsboro to do R&D either. It just turned out that way. It started with manufacturing and evolved over time.
It may be a bit embarrassing to see public officials publicly beg for Genentech to expand further in Oregon. But when you consider the company's proven ability to please shareholders and employees while delivering crucial meds to patients, it's understandable. This is a company that knows exctly what it is doing. Here's how CEO Clark defines the mission: "We are a science-based R&D company. We focus on diseases with high, unmet need. We try and create medicines that meet those needs, and whilst we do that, we try to create a great place to work."
It's hard to argue with that.
Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business.