Bayer HealthCare held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday to formally open its new $100 million quality assurance control building in West Berkeley.
Members of the Berkeley City Council, a representative from Gov. Jerry Brown’s office and one from Assemblyman Tony Thurmond’s office, educators, developers, and advocates for people with hemophilia gathered under bright blue skies as Bayer officials and others used oversize green scissors to snip a blue ribbon and open the building.
The three-story 80,000-square-feet building will be used to test the components that go into Kogenate FS, the facility’s signature product to assist those with Hemophilia A, an inherited genetic disorder that leaves people with blood that does not clot. It takes Bayer 240 days to transform single cells into Kogenate FS and the components are tested about 300 times in that period. The new building means that Bayer can consolidate four testing facilities now spread around the campus into the new structure.
“We look to further improve the quality of care, the quality of life for these patients, and even one day maybe to find a cure,” said Joerg Heidrich, who heads up the Berkeley site, in opening remarks.
The building is the largest capital investment Bayer has ever made in the West Berkeley campus it has owned for 42 years. Bayer, then known as Miles Inc., first acquired land in Berkeley in 1974 when it purchased plasma producer Cutter Laboratories (est. 1897). The German multinational added 15 acres to its original 30 acres investment in 1999 when it bought the old Colgate-Palmolive property. Bayer now occupies 45 acres bounded by Dwight Way to the north, and Grayson Street to the south, between Seventh Street and the railroad tracks.
Bayer broke ground on the new building in April 2015 and completed construction in two years. Operations in the new building will be phased in and the structure should be fully operational in mid-2018.
About 1,000 people work at Bayer’s facilities in West Berkeley with another 600 scattered in Emeryville and San Francisco. Those employees work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to make Kogenate, which replaces a blood-clotting protein called Factor VIII. All that work produces about 400 grams of the medicine annually, which amounts to less than a cup of the white powder. It takes about 240 days to turn cells into the product.
Peter Barbounis, a board member of the Hemophilia Foundation of Northern California, assisted in the ribbon-cutting ceremony and told the crowd that Bayer’s product had transformed his family’s life and that of many others. Barbounis’ nephew and grandson both have hemophilia.
His 35-year old nephew John grew up before the release of Bayer’s produce, Kogenate, said Barbounis. He spent much of his childhood in the hospital being treated with blood-based clotting agents. As a result, his nephew – like many older hemophiliacs –now has joint problems.
In contrast, Barbounis’ 11-year old grandson, Vincent, injects Kogenate every few days. The drug immediately increases the blood-clotting factor in his blood to normal, which means his grandson leads a normal life. He plays baseball and basketball and studies karate.
“The two worlds are so different,” said Barbounis.
As visitors arrived at the Bayer campus, they were greeted by students dressed in white coats who were part of Biotech Academy, one of Bayer’s major community initiatives. When Bayer signed a development agreement with the city of Berkeley in 1992, it committed the company to working with youth to get them involved with the biotech field.
For the past 24 years, thousands of students from Berkeley High, Oakland Technical High School, Antioch High School ad San Marin High School in Novato have learned about the biotechnology industry by taking hands-on, college preparatory science classes in their last two years of high school and working the summer in between at a Bay Area biotech, green tech, or health care company. Bayer HealthCare, Kaiser Permanente, The Biotech Academy, Lawrence Berkeley Lab, UC Berkeley Genomics Sequencing and Stem Cell Labs, Libby Laboratories, Tethys Bioscience, and others all offer the student paid internships.
The students often then enroll in Berkeley City College or another Peralta College where they are assisted in getting a biotechnology associates degree or a certificate of achievement, said Melvina King an associate vice-chancellor for workforce development and continuing education who came to the ceremony.
“We want to form a pipeline into the biotech world or STEM world,” said Lynda Grayden, the executive director of Biotech Partners.
In 2012, the city of Berkeley honored Bayer for their community contributions. Berkeley noted at the time that Bayer had contributed $20 million to the city, created hundreds of jobs, trained thousands of students and distributed funds through its foundation to support key health and education programs. Bayer also installed a 1,000-panel solar array in 2012, the city’s largest.
While Bayer only makes pharmaceuticals at its West Berkeley plant, protesters have picketed outside the gates to protest pesticides the parent company makes elsewhere. In 2012, a group of about 50 demonstrators said that Bayer is a major producer of Neonicotinoid pesticides (Neonics) and that research show this line of pesticides has a direct role in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which is killing off honey bees.