Company profile: Chemicals to order
Excelsyn, which specialises in the gram to kilo scale manufacture of fine chemicals, is profiting from the growing market for niche products, reports Sarah Houlton
Excelsyn's main customers are in the pharmaceutical, speciality and biotech sectors, where relatively small quantities of material are needed at short notice for clinical trials or to support niche commercial markets. 'We do projects that are really too small for the big guys, and too big for the smaller guys,' says president and chief executive Ian Shott. 'We think the business opportunities are moving to that space - there are fewer blockbuster drugs and companies are increasingly going for niche products.'
This makes for a varied working life for Excelsyn's chemists, such as Huw Roberts, team leader for process R&D at the 70-strong company, based in Holywell, UK. 'I look after a group of chemists and together we deliver projects for customers, choosing the best synthetic route and running small-scale lab production jobs,' he explains. 'One of my roles is to try to develop the technology side of the projects. For example, recently we had a project that involved a high-energy thermal rearrangement reaction, which is great in the lab but when you scale this kind of chemistry up it's totally unfeasible because it's too dangerous. The answer was a continuous flow microwave technique, which was much safer. It's great to be able to apply good science to solve problems, and look broadly at the use of different technologies.'
Make or break
Biotech companies that don't have their own manufacturing capabilities, but need kilo quantities of their developmental drugs, often come to Roberts and his team. 'A lot of these compounds are make-or-break for them, and it's really important that we understand their expectations, and can provide their products quickly and at the right quality,' he says. 'It's very satisfying when we get good feedback from them, and the repeat business is quite considerable.'
It means that there's much more to the job than the chemistry. His whole team of chemists has a great deal of interaction with the customers. 'On a day-to-day basis we are all engaged with the customers, and also our own business development people. Not only do we flex our chemistry capabilities but we're also developing a softer skill set, learning about project management, customer delivery and expectations.'
Gareth Jenkins, vice president, R&D, says that on the technical side, they tend to employ recent graduates and PhDs who have done a lot of lab work but have had very little exposure to plant-scale chemistry. 'There's a lot of learning about the scale-up issues that chemical reactions face when they move from the lab to the plant - a good lab reaction is rarely good first time in the plant,' he says. 'The environment is very different, too, with all the pipes and industrial equipment, which can take a bit of getting used to!' He says that many of his colleagues come to love being out in the plant, and they gain invaluable experience - they know every trick in the book about how to get a process to work. But that's not the only career option - there are plenty of opportunities for career development, either within chemical production itself or moving away from the lab and the plant into another role. 'Some people come to realise that they really enjoy the interaction with the customer, and that can lead them into a career in business development or project management,' he says. 'We also find chemists move across into analytical sciences, so they become much more involved in developing methods, looking for impurities, getting involved in the quality side, and maybe even moving across into quality assurance. You can discover during your work as a chemist that you're interested in other parts of the chemical industry, and go off in another direction.'
Working for a small company like Excelsyn enables this varied career path because of all the exposure to other activities that it gives. And Roberts believes that this variety is very empowering. 'It makes me feel like I'm contributing an awful lot to the success of the business,' he says. 'Of course there are challenges - like any small enterprise there are resource constraints - but that helps you take a more proactive approach to problem solving, and gives excellent opportunities for learning and growth by trying new things.'
Sarah Houlton is a freelance writer based in London, UK
Providing small molecule synthesis and support services, from first scale-up campaign right through to commercial production.
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