Published in Health Care
GRAM raises profile with vaccine contract, eyes growth ILLUSTRATION: KAYLEE VAN TUINEN

GRAM raises profile with vaccine contract, eyes growth

BY Sunday, March 14, 2021 06:30pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Producing Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine propels Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing Inc.’s growth while giving business advocates a showpiece when promoting the region.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has made Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing (GRAM) a centerpiece of an upcoming campaign on talent attraction and retention. 

In efforts to lure business investments, The Right Place Inc. touts the company to site selectors nationally and even internationally in marketing West Michigan’s life sciences cluster and its biotech talent and research capabilities. The economic development organization typically prepares an “extra marketing piece” to highlight local success stories as a way to generate interest and target other companies in an industry, said Eric Icard, senior business development manager at The Right Place.

“We definitely have been promoting this story. It’s a great success story,” Icard said. “It’s part of the overall story: Here’s a company that was homegrown in West Michigan, was financed by West Michigan investors and has turned into a major success. The more stories we have to tout like that, the more interest it’s going to gain. When other companies are looking for that next location, the hope is that they will say, ‘This seems to have worked in West Michigan. Let’s check it out.’”

The Right Place is “actively going out and trying to recruit companies like Grand River Aseptic to West Michigan” in hopes of generating a domino effect of companies that want to align with researchers at the Van Andel Institute, the growing Michigan State University College of Human Medicine research base in Grand Rapids, and the Medical Mile, Icard said.

A ‘PR dream’

At the Grand Rapids Chamber, a series of videos over the next six months as part of the “Opportunity Awaits West Michigan” campaign will highlight the region’s life science industry.

The promotion spun out of the pandemic with the appeal of Grand Rapids as a strong, mid-sized city that has “all the urban amenities you want,” plus great access to natural resources, said Andy Johnston, the Grand Rapids Chamber’s vice president of government affairs.

Using testimonials, the campaign will tout Grand Rapids as a talent destination for newcomers as well as for people who grew up here and moved away to return to the region.

“This is a place to thrive in this new normal, this new economy, for a whole host of reasons,” Johnston said.

Opportunity Awaits will highlight the life sciences industry, including Grand River Aseptic, which has recorded strong growth in recent years. That growth led to a $160 million contract last fall with the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed and Johnson & Johnson to produce the COVID-19 vaccine, as MiBiz reported at the time.

“It’s a PR dream. You have a life sciences company in Grand Rapids, in West Michigan, helping to drive the arsenal of health and helping to fill the vials that will put shots in the arms,” Johnston said. “It’s hard to dream of a better wave to ride than that to showcase why great, cutting-edge life sciences can happen right here in our region.”

Contract leads to future growth

A contract producer of pharmaceuticals, Grand River Aseptic has been finishing production of a vaccine concentrate and filling sterile vials for J&J subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Grand River Aseptic has been producing the vaccine for a few months in anticipation of J&J receiving U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval late last month. The doses that Grand River Aseptic produces at a $60 million, 60,000-square-foot facility that opened last summer near downtown Grand Rapids go to another J&J facility for final distribution.

The contract with Operation Warp Speed and J&J runs through 2021 “and potentially beyond that,” President and CEO Tom Ross said.

Involvement in Operation Warp Speed and J&J’s vaccine enabled Grand River Aseptic to make long-term investments to significantly increase production capacity that will allow it do more volume with pharmaceutical companies, and to “just to be prepared for what could happen in the future,” Ross said.

The contract has led to potential future business opportunities for Grand River Aseptic, Ross said.

“It’s definitely a showcase contract and the work we’re doing with Operation Warp Speed and J&J has highlighted the incredible capabilities that GRAM has,” he said. “It significantly increased the amount of awareness GRAM has on a national scale.”

To handle the contract, Grand River Aseptic hired about 125 people over six months and now has a workforce of 350 people. The company plans to hire another 75 people through the end of the year, from entry-level positions to experienced management roles.

The additional staff will “really support the tremendous growth and the additional capacity that we’re adding in the near future,” Ross said.

Grand River Aseptic plans to open a new 110,000-square-foot finishing center late this spring on Patterson Avenue SE near Gerald R. Ford International Airport, and recently purchased sophisticated equipment for the facility near downtown that will arrive next year.

Ross called the company’s involvement in making the J&J vaccine an “honor” and a “privilege.” The development of the J&J vaccine in less than a year “was truly an amazing accomplishment,” he said.

“The opportunity to really save lives and to be part of this solution is something you can only dream of,” Ross said. “This is the type of thing you tell your grandkids about when you get a little bit older and reflect back on what you did in your career. This is an incredible opportunity for us.”

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