Several years ago, Jean-Pierre Maffrand, vice president of research for Sanofi-aventis, came to Tucson to see just what the Tucson Research Center was all about.
After the first day of his visit, Maffrand took aside Daniel Schirlin, the company's vice president for discovery research.
"It's better than what I was told that I would find here," Maffrand told Schirlin.
What happens at the Tucson Research Center, with its new building in Oro Valley formally dedicated next week, is "quite unique to our company," Schirlin said. "We have things" at other sites "that approach what Tucson is doing, but not exactly the same thing.
"They are unique in the way they operate, and work together," Schirlin said. For a small group, the Tucson site contains people with "quite a number of skills. The more they feel under pressure, the more they deliver. It's that biotech spirit. They stand up and go for it.
"We are proud of them," Schirlin said, "and they can be proud of themselves."
Biologists, chemists, analysts and information specialists at the Tucson site deliver "advanced lead compounds" for new pharmaceutical products. These molecules "have a high affinity for a given target, and a good opportunity to be optimized clinically," Schirlin said. Such leads might have application for diabetes, or specialized cancer drugs, or birth defects.
"Every year, Tucson is developing five to seven leads to the organization," Schirlin said. Worldwide, there might be 35 to 40 such leads within the company. "For the size of the organization, it is extraordinarily productive."
Schirlin points to the leadership of site director Beth Koch, scientific director Ken Wertman, and a core of multi-national, long-term scientists who work closely with one another.
"We have a very tight integration of chemists and biologists," said Wertman.
"The site was always kept an integrated site with very integrated staff," Schirlin said. "They are very clever in coming up with ideas few people will even try. They discuss the science, they challenge each other. As a group, they are a small community of entrepreneurs, of inventors, always eager to try something new. They have a good spirit, since the beginning."
Wertman is "close to the origins" of the molecular research effort in greater Tucson that is today part of Sanofi-aventis. He was employee #35, hired in October 1992. Wertman came from Berkeley, charged with the task of "establishing a molecular genetics laboratory in Tucson to support early discovery work."
Early on, the company had collaborators, such as Synergen of Colorado and Genentech of San Francisco, that "brought to us interesting biological questions," questions that could be explored through use of the company's technology.
"We wanted the capability to ask questions of our own," Wertman said.
Now, Sanofi-aventis scientists do just that, searching for "biological tests that ask interesting questions," and "exploit the technology" to find the answers.
Schirlin who has been with the company for 32 years, now works from Sanofi-aventis quarters in Bridgewater, N.J. He spent more than five years heading the Tucson site, and returns for El Tour de Tucson.
"I was part of the due diligence" Sanofi-aventis conducted before acquiring the company known as Selectide in 1995. When the transaction occurred, "Tucson became part of a much bigger operation," Schirlin said.
During Schirlin's five years at the site, "there were times we need to prove more than what we were doing, and everyone responded very positively," working long days and hours without complaint.
"For me, they are my second family," Schirlin said. "I know everyone there, their wives, their husbands, their kids. It is a real different experience than what you experience in a larger site."
The Tucson site is international, with a number of nationalities present. Schirlin was one of the first French people on the site. "They joked about my accent," he quips. "I said 'I think we all have one.'
Schirlin has been to the new building.
"It is something I would have never dreamt of when I was sited there," he said. "We were lucky to get the support from upper management to get such a nice building. Beth, Ken and the others were key to getting this facility designed and built."
The space gives Sanofi-aventis room for other groups, and additional opportunities for "other interesting scientific compounds to be made in Tucson. It can enhance the potential of delivering good compounds to the organization."
"This building, to a lot of people, feels like recognition" that Tucson scientists have demonstrated the power of their technology and their collaborative environment, Wertman said. It's worked. Today, Sanofi-aventis has invested more than $60 million in its Oro Valley facility. But Wertman, and his colleagues, fully recognize their challenge remains ahead.