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Author: Barbara Figge Fox. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
January 19, 2000. All rights reserved.
Celgene’s Celgro: Better Pesticides
Thanks to consumer resistance to genetically modified
raw materials, almost all agrochemical companies are in some kind
of upheaval. Celgro Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Celgene
CELG), is in a fortunate position. It has a technology that will help
farmers to grow a crop but will not genetically affect the crop.
Celgro produces more potent, less harmful herbicides and pesticides.
"We do gene engineering to improve the quality of the
says George Matcham, senior vice president of Celgro. "We use
the discriminating power of biology in the form of enzymes to make
the right chemicals. This cuts in half the amount of chemical that
is released into the environment. You get to use less."
Celgene grew so fast in 1997 that Celgro had to move into space at
Exxon in North Jersey. Celgene’s work on thalidomide — once a
pariah in the drug industry, now one of the hottest new compounds
— was coming to fruition at this time. "As the separate
at this time of explosive growth, we were squeezed out like a piece
of wet soap," says Matcham.
Last October, squeezed out once again, Celgro moved 20 people to the
Technology Center of New Jersey on Route 1 South in North Brunswick,
where the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA)
the $2 million fit-out costs for 18,000 square feet of lab and office
space. Typically start ups in biotech are rich in ideas and poor in
cash. "We asked other landlords if they would finance the buildout
and nobody was prepared to do it. But the EDA was looking for tenants
for their Tech Center that would bring to — and keep jobs in —
New Jersey, and that would set a technology profile and emphasize
the closeness of Rutgers and the possibility for collaboration. Our
profile was an exact fit." Celgro will pay back the $2 million
as rent over a 10-year period.
"It is a vast improvement over what we had at Exxon and it suits
our multidisciplinary research," says Matcham, who retained 3,000
to 4,000 feet for expansion in a high bay area that could accommodate
a fermentation pilot plant. "This is a great deal. It provides
a platform for success."
Celgro is trying to develop both compounds and the technology to use
enzymes to make "chirally pure" chemicals at less cost.
are more cost conscious than sick patients, so the agrobusiness has
to be more thrifty than the pharmaceutical business. Says Matcham:
"Our competition is first and foremost the internal R&D groups
of the large corporations, but we are the only boutique firm with
an exclusive focus on the agrochemical industry and chiral
Here’s how the "chiral" principle works: Imagine trucks,
with fuel oil and headed for a port. Some unload their fuel into the
tank of a freighter. But half the truckloads are rejected and are
dumped into the ocean.
The truck analogy illustrates conventional methods for making
which come in two versions, D and L, each a mirror image of the other,
as if right and left handed. The D and L forms are chemically similar
but biologically different. "With conventional chemistry, a random
process, you will typically get 50 percent of each form, D and L,"
says Matcham. "Yet the power of an agrochemical generally resides
in only one of the forms, D or L."
"Three dimensional molecules and receptors discriminate between
these mirror image forms of the same chemical," says Matcham.
Send only the type of chemical that these cells will accept (unload
all your trucks in the right place) and you reduce the chemical damage
to the environment.
For instance, a Celgro patent on a rice herbicide — esprocarb
— is used in Japanese paddy fields, where the introduction of
chemicals into water is a serious concern. Farmers are able to use
half the amount of the Celgro herbicide product normally needed.
"This doesn’t apply to all agrochemicals out there. Far from
says Matcham. "This phenomena exists in some important herbicides,
insecticides. and fungicides. We try to develop our technology on
behalf of the manufacturer and owner of the product so they can use
it to produce a purer product and perhaps provide extended patent
coverage for that product. We also do research of our own on compounds
— like esprocarb — that fall into this category but have not
One of six children, Matcham’s father was a British Air Force
so he spent his childhood at various overseas posts but from age 11
attended a 400-year-old boarding school near London, Christ’s
He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Wales, Class
of 1973, stayed for his PhD, did postdoctoral work at the University
of Miami, took a junior faculty position at Cambridge University,
and then went to Shell’s agrochemical research center.
Matcham credits Kenneth S. Dodgson, a professor at the University
of Wales, with being his mentor. "He showed confidence in me.
When I went into the undergraduate program at the University of Wales
I was an average student and when I came out I had a first class
degree. Everything about this man — the way he did science and
the way he interacted with other people — enhanced his
says Matcham. "Wall Street would have loved him."
"I came to the states in 1988," says Matcham, "when Celgene
was a company with about 30 people yet without a good idea of what
it was going to be. But at Celgene I knew that I could make a
In the next couple of years we saw the potential of agrochemical
and saw the potential of enzyme engineering to impact manufacturing
CUH2A, represented by Beth Weisenberg, designed Celgro’s new home.
"We put the greatest emphasis on the labs and the geographical
arrangement of the scientific offices to maximize creativity,"
says Matcham. Instead of sticking the offices in the corners of the
labs, they are clustered around an 800-foot "huddle area"
with sofas, coffee tables, bookshelves, a white board, and access
to the library. "When the scientists come out of their offices
they come into the interaction area, and this opens onto the research
corridor," says Matcham. "I like to think that we transferred
the typical layout for a creative business like advertising into the
layout of our building."
Center II, North Brunswick 08902. George Matcham, senior vice
732-509-2020; fax, 732-509-2022.
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