white cell technology building
A rendering of the new $150 million cell culture technology center that will be built on the company’s West Berkeley campus. Photo: Bayer
A rendering of the new $150 million cell culture technology center that will be built on the company’s West Berkeley campus. Photo: Bayer

Bayer HealthCare broke ground Thursday morning on a $150 million cell culture technology center that will develop biological therapies to be used to treat cancer and heart disease, among other ailments.

The investment is not only Bayer’s largest yet in Berkeley, but is an attempt to position the drug company to more quickly develop biologics, products that are produced from living organisms and from recombinant DNA technology.

The 40,000-square foot structure is modular in design, which means therapies can be ramped up or down or switched around more easily than in traditional laboratories, according to Dr. Judy Chou, the senior vice president and global head of Bayer Biotech. That flexibility will lower the risk – and costs — of developing new biologic therapies, one of the fastest growing areas in the pharmaceutical industry. The cell culture technology facility will also allow Bayer to develop clinical trials for patients, which means medicines will get to market more quickly.

“The reason this facility is so important is that biologics are very hard to make and complex to scale up,” said Chou. “This will provide a whole new launch pad for our new biological products and allow us to introduce solutions and therapies to patients much faster.”

L to r: Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín; Wolfram Carius, executive vice president and head of Bayer pharmaceuticals product supply; Judy Chou, senior vice president and global head of Bayer Biotech; Tsu-Jae King Liu, dean of the college of engineering at UC Berkeley; and Robert LaCaze, executive vice president and head of the Bayer oncology strategic business unit. Photo: Steven Immergut/Bayer

The new facility won’t be completed until the end of 2021, according to a press release. Bayer expects to hire about 100 new people to work there.

The Berkeley campus will continue to manufacture three blood-clotting drugs used to treat hemophilia – Kogenate F, Kovaltry, and Jivi. In July 2017, Bayer completed the construction of a $100 million quality assurance control facility.

But competition in the manufacturing of drugs for hemophilia is growing and this led Bayer to let 431 employees go in 2018 from the Berkeley campus, to improve “efficiencies.” Some took buyouts but 227 were laid off. Worldwide, Bayer, which purchased Monsanto for $66 billion in July 2018, has announced plans to reduce its workforce by 12,000. When it appeared Germany would take many years to approve a new factory to manufacture blood-clotting drugs, Bayer consolidated those operations in Berkeley.

The 100 new jobs will be open to all, said Chou. Bayer has no particular plans to reach out to the union representing the workers to bring back former employees, she said. Bayer employs about 1,000 people in Berkeley, down from a high of around 1,500. It employs another 600 in nearby cities.

Bayer and the city of Berkeley have a 30-year development agreement. Signed in 1992, the agreement allows the company to construct buildings with only an administrative use permit if the structure is less than 40,000-square feet, according to Sasha Damouni Ellis, director of U.S. media relations in the pharmaceuticals division. (See the permit issued for the new building.) Bayer and Berkeley are starting to talk about an extension of that agreement which expires in 2022, said Chou.

As part of that agreement, Bayer has been a strong supporter of community science through BioTech Partners and other programs. In 2012, the city of Berkeley honored Bayer for its community contributions, noting the pharmaceutical giant 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. Many of its workers volunteer in the community as well. In 2007, the then-head of the Berkeley campus noted that the company paid $7.7 million in property taxes. In 2018, the Bayer Foundation donated $250,000 to the Berkeley Community Fund to help send Berkeley High School graduates to college. Each year the company pays for a shuttle to run from BART to its campus.

Fluor will design and construct the facility and GE Healthcare will integrate its FlexFactory technology platform into the center, according to a press release.

The new facility will also allow Bayer to partner with other companies developing biologic therapies and help bring them to market, according to Robert LaCaze, executive vice president and head of the Bayer oncology strategic business unit.

The construction in Berkeley demonstrates Bayer’s commitment to the region and a recognition of the talent available, said Chou.

“We have all the pieces here, all together,” she said. “We have the right talent we can leverage at the existing Berkeley campus and in the surrounding areas. The East Bay has a lot of potential to grow. And we have 45 acres land on this campus to further expand.”

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...