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At Argenta, developing and manufacturing leading edge pharmaceuticals takes talent, a drive to innovate, and passion for animal health

Argenta, the venture magazineFor Argenta, it’s all about chemistry. Not simply because they’re the world’s first combined contract research (CRO) and contract manufacturing (CMO) firm dedicated exclusively to animal health, but because creating great chemistry with their clients gives them the lead in a burgeoning industry.

The worlds of chemistry and industry were destined to collide for company founder Doug Cleverly BSc, MSc, PhD. After a successful stint in the US as a chemist for global pharma powerhouses Merial (now part of Boehringer Ingelheim) and Merck, Cleverly returned to his native New Zealand to be closer to his aging parents.

Once home, Cleverly found himself at a loss for the type of work he craved after being involved in the development of the next big thing, like Frontline®, a very successful global product. “I couldn't get a job doing the globally relevant R&D work I was doing when I was in the United States,” he told VENTURE. “I was doing really cool stuff. When I found out there were no jobs in New Zealand doing that I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I start a company?’”

Securing gainful employment was just half his motivation. “When I was in the US, I noticed that pharmaceutical researchers and manufacturers had a very arms-length attitude toward providing services to the veterinary industry. These companies weren't very intimate with me as a client in the sense of trying to get an understanding of what was important to me, or what was important to my company,” he added.

In his view, CROs and CMOs would respond to requests for proposals (RFPs) with impressive action plans, and exhaustive to-do lists without really understanding the deal. Nothing wrong with a great to-do list, but the first thing absent from many was “understand what the client is trying to achieve.” This is rarely described as an action but rather an aspiration, which could be to bring to the market a revolutionary new product,” he recalled. Understanding the attendant risks around the approach taken informs the to-do list, and this can look very different from simply a prescriptive list of things to do; it provides for a lot of what ifs and just in case.

To that end, Cleverly founded ChemLabs, an Auckland-based contract research organisation. It was there he developed a vision to bridge the gap between CROs and CMOs, and created a pioneering business model for the animal health industry. In 2006, the firm purchased a manufacturing facility from Nufarm Health and Sciences, and launched Argenta.

Now with three state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities on three continents – in Auckland; Fort Dodge, Iowa; and Dundee, Scotland – Argenta develops and manufactures a wide range of successful products for clients large and small. Today, the top 10 animal health companies in the industry work with Argenta to develop next-generation pharmaceuticals and delivery systems for distribution in more than 40 countries worldwide.

Argenta’s intercontinental presence gives their clients unprecedented reach. “We can be more dynamic. We can change our working patterns to bring true, real-time change to this industry. The pharmaceutical industry isn't really into real-time changes. Changes take months, if not quarters or halves of years, to do something like that, so to be able to be flexible and proactive means that our clients get the benefits of being entrepreneurial themselves in terms of the way they promote their products to diverse markets.”

Writing in the International Animal Health Journal, Cleverly stressed, “True collaboration, from inception to completion, guarantees a better end product. We call this process ‘Molecule-to-Market,’ and it’s paying off for clients around the world searching for new solutions to diseases and conditions impacting animal health.”

Agility on the Fast Track

Argenta, the venture magazineThe research and development phase of pharmaceuticals for human use begins with animal studies and progresses through clinical trials, a process that takes years. In animal health, the treatment subject is an affected animal, thus dramatically shortening the timeframe from concept to development and commercialization.

“It means that in the research phase, the actual chemistry, the packaging, the process and all that is on a critical path straight away,” Cleverly explained. The tighter the interface between the research and manufacturing phases translates to faster time to market, reduced costs, and fewer delays. “You don't have to go through a separate technical transfer of all the information from the research company to the manufacturing company because it's the same company. It's a huge value add in terms of time to market, which is a concept lost to many. Time to market is oftentimes worth a lot more than the whole development cost, but the development cost is hard cash and time to market is less tangible.”

Argenta’s business model creates avenues of connection that foster innovation, unifying the research and development (R&D) and manufacturing mindsets, which typically run at cross-purposes. “We have an internal division at each site that links research to manufacturing, acting almost like an interpreter. The manufacturing side is very much into efficiency and lean and all the rest of it, whereas R&D is very much into inventing the next big thing.

“The problem with R&D operating in complete isolation from manufacturing is that they will end up inventing something that is difficult and costly to manufacture, that doesn't leverage commonality of equipment and raw material suppliers and raw materials themselves. If we can create things with similar suppliers or similar equipment, similar raw materials and packaging, you’ll have huge savings, and that's something our clients are certainly aware of.”

Identifying unmet needs is another Argenta specialty. “On a number of occasions, we've been given a molecule to work with, and we look at that molecule and see what other uses there are for it in the industry that our client really hadn't thought about. There might be a different presentation of that molecule, it might be adding different drugs to the mix or putting mineral supplements or some other added benefit that the client hadn’t thought about themselves.”

Argenta, the venture magazineWhen Cleverly says Argenta is here to help, he means it in the truest sense of the word. “It's having that hunger to learn more about what the client wants. This leads to the cultural aspect of what we do, which underwrites every service that we provide. If you're brilliant but a pain in the neck or not a great partner, that brilliance isn't useful,” he admitted. “We strive to be intimate with our clients so we know what they're really asking for. We try to find out where they are, where they want to be, and then construct a plan to get them from where they are to where they want to be.”