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Virus battle inspires leader of big RTP syringe manufacturer

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After retiring from a senior job at pharmaceutical manufacturer  ThermoFisher Scientific in March, Franco Negron was studying how injectables — what laymen call syringes — could be produced faster and more effectively.

Then he got a call from Jay Walker, the Connecticut-based founder of Priceline and other companies, including one that also wanted to transform the syringe industry as the global pandemic rages.

“I said I’m absolutely in,” Negron told Walker. “This is what I was looking for as a way to transform this critical area of the industry.”

Since July, Negron says he and Walker have worked 24-7 to build ApiJect Systems, culminating in today’s plan to build a $795 million factory in Research Triangle Park that is expected to employ 650 people. The site will produce billions of syringes initially used to deliver COVID-19 vaccines.

Financing for the project is coming from public and private sources. The U.S. International Development Finance Corp. is lending $590 million at 4.5%, while Wall Street investment bank Jefferies Financial Group is raising $200 million for the project.

While COVID-19 is the initial focus, ApiJect expects the N.C. plant to be a long-term force in creating products to battle other diseases including cancer. The Durham site was chosen after Negron considered many locations, including Columbia, S.C., where it has already rehabbed an older facility to make syringes in partnership with another company.

“There was no doubt in our mind that RTP was the right location for many reasons, including access to technical expertise, academia, the location and easy access to suppliers nationwide. This will be a national asset,” Negron says. He has had lotsof experience in North Carolina, having worked for Patheon, which was acquired by ThermoFisher, and Raleigh-based Valeant Pharmaceuticals.

ApiJect didn’t provide specifics on a groundbreaking or expected completion of the plant. Its syringes still need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, just like the vaccines that are being tested by Pfizer, Moderna and others. Financing also requires due diligence by government officials.

But the S.C. plant is in operation and will be able to produce as many as 45 million syringes a month by the end of the year, triple the existing pace, Negron says.

ApiJect benefits as a startup by having industry veterans and a small size that allows it to be nimble, Negron says. Its inexpensive syringes will be both a complement and competitor to Corning’s more elaborate glass vials for delivering COVID-19 drugs. New York-based Corning plans to make its Valor Glass vials at sites including a new plant under construction also in Durham.

The importance in fighting the pandemic inspires Negron, a Puerto Rican native who has five grown children. “I want them to know that I did everything I could to bring a solution to the front. I’m inspired to think that Franco did something about this crisis.”

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