How Richmond and Petersburg can become leaders in advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing

The VCU College of Engineering and leaders in economic development and private business have a plan to strengthen the region as an emerging business cluster.

Pharmaceutical products in a manufacturing plant line.
A broad coalition of regional economic development, private business and higher education leaders is mobilizing to help build an emerging global cluster of advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing and research and development in Richmond and Petersburg. (Getty Images)

A coalition of regional economic development, private business and higher education leaders is mobilizing to build a global cluster of advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing, research and development in Richmond and Petersburg.

Under a planning grant from Growth and Opportunity for Virginia, a state-funded initiative administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering and its team this week announced a strategy for the region to nurture and grow an interrelated network that would drive new businesses and job growth and ultimately improve access to safe, effective and affordable medicines.

Professor B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D., the Floyd D. Gottwald Jr. Chair in Pharmaceutical Engineering and chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, has been spearheading this effort with private and public leaders from across the region. Gupton is CEO of the Medicines for All Institute based at VCU Engineering and co-founder of Richmond startup Phlow Corp.

To secure the U.S. drug supply chain, Phlow, Medicines for All and other partners are manufacturing, supplying and stockpiling active pharmaceutical ingredients for essential medicines under a $354 million, four-year federal contract.

In Petersburg, Phlow and Civica Rx, an association of leading U.S. hospital systems, have begun construction on multimillion-dollar advanced manufacturing facilities co-located with AMPAC Fine Chemicals. AMPAC is supplying Phlow with active pharmaceutical ingredients for the manufacturing of essential medicines for a national strategic reserve. These initiatives are driving job growth from Richmond to Petersburg. This includes jobs across the spectrum, from those requiring doctorate degrees to those requiring special training but no academic credentials beyond high school diplomas.

More than 50 individuals from dozens of organizations across the region participated in the yearlong strategic planning process and hope to seize on the momentum created by these steps to jump-start the industry. Further developing a cluster in Richmond and Petersburg will create thousands of high-paying jobs, providing a magnet for talent and investment that will establish the region as a globally recognized leader in advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing,” Gupton said. 

It is a very exciting time to watch Richmond take a lead in the use of green chemistry to drive this vital industry for the health care of all of us,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Dean of the College of Engineering. To meet the demand for a trained workforce, we have established a joint Ph.D. program in pharmaceutical engineering with the School of Pharmacy and have established a joint Center for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Sciences. Students from universities across Virginia are interns in the Medicines for All Institute, where they are getting hands-on experience solving problems in drug development.” 

This expanding cluster of advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing is envisioned to become an important part of Virginias long-term growth in advanced manufacturing, increasing the commonwealths international competitiveness and creating good jobs for many Virginians,” said Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. “Several members of our team have worked closely with regional leaders from VCU, the community colleges, private industry, the economic development community and others on plans to address infrastructure and talent pathways necessary to support the growth of the cluster now and in the future.” 

The strategic plan outlines 16 recommendations for improving infrastructure, boosting workforce training, engaging the private sector and coordinating efforts to bring together various stakeholders. 

Among the key recommendations:

  • Form a new regional organization, an Advanced Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Council, to coordinate action toward growing the cluster, with membership from higher education, private businesses and government.
  • Move quickly to satisfy the current demand for lab space throughout the region and put in place long-term solutions.
  • Support the efforts of Phlow, AMPAC and Civica Rx working with the Community College Workforce Alliance, John Tyler Community College, Virginia Economic Development Partnership and the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing to create new, comprehensive training programs for advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing technicians.
  • Seek strategic-level federal support for investments to develop a translational research and development center and a national center of excellence for continuous pharmaceutical manufacturing.

About VCU College of Engineering

The VCU College of Engineering, an innovation front-runner in academics and research, brings real-world education to Central Virginia. Our collaborative and multidisciplinary partnerships prepare undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students for leadership. Part of a premier research university, the VCU College of Engineering enhances regional and global prosperity through cutting-edge developments in tissue engineering, drug delivery, bioinformatics, cybersecurity, mechanical systems and particle science. We make it real by turning great ideas into breakthrough technologies. Our facilities are hubs of discovery, powered by an expanding student body and faculty committed to excellence. We encourage partnering with industry and the community, bringing new collaborators into our projects. Our key research areas include: sustainability and energy engineering; micro and nano electronic systems; pharmaceutical engineering; mechanobiology and regenerative medicine; big data mining; and device design and development. Visit www.egr.vcu.edu.