By Margaret Magner
Special to The Guardian
While P.E.I.’s bioscience sector has enjoyed considerable growth and visibility within the past decade, the accomplishments built by an earlier generation of bioscience entrepreneurs continue to generate new levels of prosperity and global recognition.
The origins of Sekisui Diagnostics P.E.I. are rooted in Diagnostics Chemicals Ltd. (DCL), founded in 1970 by renowned P.E.I. entrepreneur Dr. Regis Duffy. The business he established in a local garage ultimately grew into an international chemical and diagnostic product manufacturing company.
In 2007, Massachusetts-based Genzyme Corporation acquired DCL’s diagnostic division to expand product offerings and commercial/R&D infrastructure.
Four years later, Sekisui Chemical, a longtime business partner, purchased Genzyme’s diagnostic product businesses to increase global presence in western markets. It is located in the West Royalty Industrial Mall.
Sekisui Diagnostics, with 550 employees in North America, Germany and the U.K., is an affiliate of Sekisui Medical, itself a subsidiary of Sekisui Chemical Co. Ltd., headquartered in Japan, with 210 associated companies, 20,000 employees worldwide, and 9 billion USD in annual sales.
When companies change hands there is risk of consolidation, but the potential of the P.E.I. location clearly impressed Sekisui Diagnostics, now in the process of closing its Framingham, Mass. manufacturing facility and transferring operations to a newly expanded plant in P.E.I.
Sekisui Diagnostics P.E.I. develops and manufactures clinical chemistry reagent systems and point-of-care rapid diagnostic tests, primarily for cardiovascular, liver and infectious diseases, and diabetes.
In 2012, Sekisui invested $3.4 million in P.E.I. infrastructure and equipment, including an 8,000-square-foot expansion, automation and facility upgrades, and 17 new positions. In 2013, the P.E.I. site expects to manufacture and/or package some 350,000 litres of product — nearly one billion in vitro diagnostic tests — with 95 per cent exported outside Canada. The company’s products are currently used in over 90 per cent of countries around the globe.
Lee Lipski, Sekisui Diagnostics plant manager, oversees the P.E.I. manufacturing operation. He began visiting the Island 20 years ago when the company was still DCL.
“Regis Duffy gave me his car to drive around. I almost got stuck on a clay road during spring thaw.”
He said the decision to focus operations in P.E.I. was determined by several factors.
“We looked at infrastructure costs, labour rates, level of experience, knowledge base and transfer complexity. Strong support from government partners and the P.E.I. BioAlliance made business here extra attractive.”
Lipski is proud of his team which has undergone two acquisitions in the past five years.
“The process can create uncertainty, but they know the importance of what they do and have risen to the challenge. There is tremendous loyalty. Some of our 107 employees have been here 35 years.”
Cindy Coady, associate director of quality control and material validations, was originally hired by DCL to establish a private sector testing lab for seed potatoes. She remembers handwritten batch records before the company began doing business with Fortune 500 companies with a significant impact on global health worldwide.
Marlene Walker, scientific director, was once a UPEI student on a DCL work term. Returning to P.E.I. after graduate studies in Ontario, she was quickly rehired.
“It’s where I wanted to be,” she said.
Like Coady, she takes pride knowing “patients at P.E.I.’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital or babies halfway around the world benefit from products made and tested here.”
Packaging manager Jeannette Brousseau says she values the rewarding work environment offering a career in P.E.I. She’s been with the company 29 years, packaging chemical reagents made by her sister, an employee of 34 years.
Zoey Mossman, once a health system medical lab technologist, is a Sekisui technical services specialist, developing a career path within the private sector. She recently represented the company as a Sekisui International Youth Ecology Summit chaperon in Kyoto, Japan, where 617 children speaking eight languages debated environmental issues.
Sekisui Chemical president Naofumi Negishi traveled from Tokyo to P.E.I. in 2011 to better understand his company’s new acquisition. Like Lipski, he developed an appreciation for the people and natural beauty of the Island, and its significant potential.
“We’re in a recession-resistant industry, driven by global clients and thriving emerging and domestic markets,” says Lipski.
“That should translate to double-digit compound growth in P.E.I. over the next five-to-seven years. Building on the past, we can combine the stability of an established business with the entrepreneurial spirit of a start-up.”
One in a series of stories about the P.E.I. BioScience Cluster by Margaret Magner, Ph.D., who lives in Charlottetown.