Filling specialists load plunger bowls during aseptic processing

Ontario’s rich biotech and life sciences sector, proximity to the border and a wealth of skilled labour injects this pharma company with everything it needs to succeed on the global stage

When the pandemic hit, catching the world off guard and causing drug manufacturers to scramble, Novocol Pharma president, Atif Zia, thought to himself, I know we can be more helpful. Because of its status as a Contract Development and Manufacturing Organization (CDMO), the Cambridge, Ontario-based sterile injectable fill-finish operation is poised to be on the frontlines of future pandemic preparedness.

Now, with a $32 million investment from the federal government injected right into the company’s Ontario campus, capital manufacturing upgrades will strengthen the province’s biomanufacturing capacity and future-proof Canada for anything else that might come our way. “It’s part of the solution for Canada’s future,” says Zia.

That ability to help extends from Ontario out to the world, raising the province’s global profile in the life sciences field. “We fit in the value chain as a service provider,” says Zia. “With this investment, we are going to actively seek business to bring to Ontario.”

Atif Zia, Novocol Pharma President
Atif Zia, Novocol Pharma President

The Ontario Advantage

Novocol has been around for almost 100 years and set up a location in Ontario in 1979. The company, part of the France-based Septodont Group since 2000, initially began as a manufacturer of proprietary dental anesthetic before broadening its market position as a CDMO for injectable cartridges used in rescue auto-injectors and chronic disease treatment such as diabetes. At present, it is among the largest injectable manufacturing companies in Canada. With the new investment, it will expand its fill-finish capabilities to include vials and syringes for products such as vaccines and therapeutics.

As a location, Cambridge provides many advantages to the company. “The big advantage we have in Ontario, compared to other [Canadian] provinces, is our geography,” says Zia. “Most customers have the U.S. market as their target market, with the intention to extend to export markets. [In Ontario,] we’re one hour away [from the U.S.].”

And, while logistics offer a key competitive advantage, Zia has found that being based in Ontario gives the company an edge in more ways than one.

“We have a rich base of academic institutions here,” says Zia. Combine that with Ontario’s long history of manufacturing and industrial growth, as well as its many leading health care and research organizations, and you begin to see a strong case for the province as a life sciences hub. “If we pull all these together, we have a strategy,” says Zia.

“All these elements position us well to be a recognized destination for those who want to do this kind of business.”

A Skilled Local Workforce

Novocol logo

As business pours in, Novocol, with over 400 employees and decades of experience, is ready to take on the challenge of future-proofing the country from future pandemics. “CDMOs are growing because often pharma companies don’t have in-house manufacturing capabilities for their products,” says Zia. “A large amount of job growth is being created by the CDMO part of our business because we have the know-how, and we have the skilled labour.”

Part of building that skilled labour force is surrounding yourself with an ecosystem of educational institutions with strong life sciences backgrounds. “We’ve always maintained employment for internship and co-op students,” says Zia, who looks for talent at McMaster, Ryerson, Waterloo, University of Toronto, Conestoga College and Mohawk College.

“We’ve been successful in hiring students [from Ontario’s robust education ecosystem] and propelling them into the future.”

The workforce contracted by Novocol also feeds into the success of the biomanufacturing company. “We use local suppliers whenever we can for goods and services,” says Zia. From facility upkeep to suppliers for equipment, labelling and packaging materials, these connections create a broader economic impact in the community.

International Connections

With that skilled workforce behind the company, their commitment to local and international business comes naturally. From its Cambridge site, Novocol exports to over 30 countries worldwide and that foreign revenue directly impacts Ontario job growth.

“Being part of the global Septodont organization gives us know-how in regulatory processes and essential understanding of international compliance,” says Zia. This international regulatory insight is one reason pharma companies around the world look to Novocol’s expertise when it comes to filling and finishing their products.

International connections show up right inside Novocol’s manufacturing facilities through the company’s commitment to diversity. “It’s Canada, so the right thing to do is to have a diverse workforce,” says Zia. Not only does he consider it an ethical obligation, but Zia has also found that the varied skill sets of those who immigrate to the province are particularly appealing: “It provides us with skilled employees who may have arrived in Canada with years of experience that they bring to us,” he says. “It immediately adds value to our workforce.”

That added value is commonplace outside of the nearby urban centre of Toronto, which BBC Radio named the most diverse city in the world. But being on the periphery of the city impacts those valued employees in the form of a more accessible cost of living. “We’re helping our community with job growth and economic development, enabling our employees to enjoy a high quality of life, and I think that’s what Ontario is all about,” says Zia.

“When I think of some of the long-term employees working for us, they have raised families in the community—now their children are going to university or are established in their own careers, making them proud,” says Zia.

From the tight-knit Cambridge, Ontario community and the Waterloo region to the global market, Novocol is able to focus on an operation that makes business sense while also innovating and focusing on patient wellbeing.

“It’s extremely fulfilling,” says Zia, “because it’s purposeful work.”

June 10, 2021
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