There were jokes. There were fond reminiscences. There were stories about hard times endured and challenges overcome. But most of all, there were testaments of great pride and appreciation from the leaders who shaped, nurtured and built Biogen’s giant Research Triangle Park biomanufacturing campus into one of the world’s leading biotechnology manufacturing sites.

The 20th anniversary celebration of Biogen RTP was an opportunity to honor the site’s past, present and pending triumphs, told by six former general managers who possessed a collective vision to succeed, no matter what the obstacles in front of them.

Joydeep Ganguly, the current vice president and general manager of Biogen RTP, led the group down memory lane as they shared their experiences with a group of several hundred people. Again and again, the importance of culture reverberated across the stage, as every speaker commended Biogen employees for their teamwork, collaborative spirit and collective desire to excel at their jobs.

Ganguly also recognized two former leaders of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center as important members of the team that helped bring Biogen to the Triangle. He thanked former NCBiotech leaders Charles Hamner and Norris Tolson for playing significant roles in the recruitment effort that landed Biogen two decades ago into North Carolina, well before it would become the state’s largest biotech company. NCBiotech President and CEO Doug Edgeton, Vice President Bill Bullock and other NCBiotech representatives in the audience were also honored at the event.

This celebration demonstrated that building a life science culture is a complex puzzle involving trust, commitment, patience and willpower. On this day, much of the fascinating Biogen RTP “inside story” came from insiders themselves, each of whom lived their own segments of the history.

“We were the first seven employees at Biogen RTP, and we met at a local hotel for the day to talk about what we really wanted this site to be,” said Hal Price, the general manager from 1995 to 2001. “We came up with strong ideas outside the norm for a manufacturing facility. Jinger Gibson (the human resources manager) advocated for no absentee policy, noting that people signed a contract and we expected them to be here. Sure enough, they were here. These attributes – an open society with few barriers — are alive and well today.”

Price also presided over a bell-ringing by employee Jimmy Smith, who joined the company after a stint in the Air Force and was recognized as one of the many Biogen employees who not only make leading therapies for battling multiple sclerosis, but also raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. This was the 47th such clanging ceremony for the facility.

Jim Vincent, who was chairman and CEO of what was then Biogen Idec from 1985 to 2002, came up with the bell as a way to celebrate major events. It may be a throwback to his days as a student at nearby Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, possibly linked to the Victory Bell traveling trophy awarded the winner of the annual Duke and UNC football game. Vincent remains a Duke trustee.

Sometimes by design and sometimes by chance, the RTP culture evolved into one that values teamwork and perseverance. Former general manager Glen Williams (2004-05) recalled the triple-wide trailer that housed all 60 Biogen employees for a period of time in 2004, and how the tight quarters initially seemed impractical.

“I thought, ‘this is crazy,’ but looking back, it was the best move we could have made,” said Williams. “It set the stage for a positive team culture. You got to know your neighbor and experience teamwork in a way that wouldn’t have happened if we had been spread out.”

This team spirit helped carry the plant through many a challenging event, from a blizzard that dumped nearly two feet of snow on the Triangle in 2004 to the sudden recall of Tysabri in 2005, a blow that could have overwhelmed and fractured a lesser group of professionals.

Teamwork also propelled the site from a strictly commercial plant to a diversified campus that now produces products for phase one and two clinical trials as well as flexible volume manufacturing for variable batch sizing and rapid supply of clinical materials.

“We wanted to transform the type of production we did here at RTP, and we proved to leadership that we had the capabilities to expand,” said Esther Alegria, Biogen’s senior vice president of global manufacturing who served as general manager of the RTP facility from 2008 to 2011.

“Leadership rallied around the strategy to build a facility with extra capacity, and RTP has more than proven its adaptability and core expertise across multiple platforms.”

The exponential increase in manufacturing output has required hard work and long hours, but having fun is also an integral part of the Biogen culture, added Alegria, who once levied a $10 mock fine to a colleague whose cell phone rang during a meeting, breaking a taboo she’d established.

“I stopped the meeting and asked him for $10, and he pulled out his wallet and said he didn’t have any cash. I told him we take credit cards,” said Alegria. “I’m a believer that if your team can laugh together and have fun together, then they can work well together.”

Joking aside, Biogen’s vision for the future is lofty and ambitious, and will it require extraordinary focus, dedication and teamwork to accomplish.

“The key is that we keep the vision in clear focus,” said John Cox, Biogen executive vice president of pharmaceutical operations & technology who garnered his experience as general manager at RTP in 2006-07.

“We intend to change the world of healthcare, specifically the world of dementia, to address one of the biggest healthcare crises of our time. This vision is not about supplying drugs for 200,000 people as we do today, but about supplying drugs for tens of millions of people around the world. That’s our future and the challenge that’s in front of us.”

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center

Note: Becky Levine is a free-lance contributor to the N.C. Biotechnology Center.