BY KEN THOMPSON
PHOTOS BY CHRISTINE PETKOV
Nestled near the Wabash River and tucked away from Greater Lafayette’s other industrial complexes, Evonik Industries’ Tippecanoe Laboratories is preparing for the next global pandemic.
During the summer of 2022, Evonik announced it would build a Lipid Innovation Center on the sprawling grounds of its Shadeland plant. The United States government, through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), is contributing up to $150 million toward the estimated $220 million project. BARDA’s goal is to promote the “advanced development of medical countermeasures” to protect Americans and respond to 21st century health security threats – such as COVID-19. Lipids played a crucial role for vaccine production during the pandemic.
“Certainly, the project is a boost to the image of Evonik in the Greater Lafayette community,” says Daniel Fricker, vice president and site manager for Tippecanoe Labs, one of the world’s largest contract manufacturing facilities in the pharmaceutical industry.
Customers big and small
Companies such as Evonik offer pharmaceutical companies comprehensive services ranging from drug development to manufacturing. In Shadeland, Evonik makes drugs for more than 20 industry clients.
“Customers big or small, the well-known pharma names or startups come to us with requests to produce a molecule,” Fricker says. “We have a deep knowledge of producing pharmaceutical products and hold up the standards of good manufacturing practices.”
These skills also will be applied in the innovation center for lipids, products that almost became household names during the COVID-19 pandemic because of their crucial role in delivering novel mRNA vaccines to millions worldwide. Germany-based Evonik provided lipids to the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from a facility in its home country.
Greater Lafayette was picked as the site for the new Lipid Innovation Center after a global search process.
“It made the most sense here,” says Yvonne Hurt, a leading project manager for the facility. “Tippecanoe has a strong infrastructure and a highly skilled workforce.”
‘A secret weapon’
Fricker believes the decision went in Greater Lafayette’s favor partially due to the Midwest’s reputation for hard workers.
“The Midwest is a secret weapon,” says Fricker, who previously worked for Evonik in Saudi Arabia, Germany and Louisiana. “This speaks of people, society, and government realizing that the Midwest has the necessary capacities for such a strategic development. You are building on a proven Silicon Valley model.”
Modeled on California’s information technology cluster Silicon Valley, Indiana has become a home to a large, highly specialized and diverse health science industry.
The new facility is expected to add 80 highly paid jobs to the Greater Lafayette community when production begins.
That’s a significant boost to a current workforce of nearly 680 employees – plus an additional 150 contractors that assist with maintenance, logistics, catering and security on site.
The only larger Evonik facility in the U.S. is in Mobile, Alabama.
Groundbreaking is set for 2023, with production expected to begin in 2025.
“It will open up a lot of potential and a lot of growth for the local economy,” Hurt says.
What exactly is a lipid?
In layman’s terms, lipids protect a molecule called messenger RNA (mRNA), which was the key ingredient in the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. The mRNA, produced in a lab, carries genetic information to teach our cells to make proteins. Those proteins then trigger an immune response inside the body.
Several different lipids form a lipid nanoparticle that encases the mRNA molecules.
In other words: Lipids are fundamental to producing highly effective mRNA-based vaccines.
“Without those lipids, mRNA wouldn’t work,” Hurt says.
The lipid nanoparticles are too small to be seen with the naked eye or a conventional microscope. “Think of them as tiny bubbles of fat protecting the mRNA so that it can get to where it needs to go,” says Hurt. “Without the lipids, the mRNA would break down in the body and never reach its target area.”
The potential of mRNA-based medicines seems limitless. “We’re working on every imaginable infectious disease,” says Drew Weissman, professor of vaccine research at the University of Pennsylvania. The list includes hepatitis C, HIV and malaria. But mRNA technology also can help treat diseases such as cancer.
Evonik’s lipid center in Tippecanoe County will ensure that there are enough lipids available for these new applications.
“In Tippecanoe, we are not only helping to prepare for future pandemics, but we’re also preparing for the fight against many other diseases,” Hurt says. “Our new facility has the capacity to meet global demand.”
Just three years ago, COVID was a word people couldn’t use in Scrabble. Now, it’s a reminder that a virus can cause worldwide deaths and serious damage to global economies.
Preparing a pipeline for lipids
When there is a next pandemic — and chances are there will be another in our lifetimes — how will Evonik Tippecanoe Laboratories be prepared to produce the lipids for a vaccine?
“We cannot foresee what’s coming, but we are working with a lot of partners, including many different universities, to build a pipeline ahead of time,” says Hurt, who grew up in Granger, Indiana, and graduated from Purdue University — just a couple of miles away from Tippecanoe Labs, on the other side of the Wabash River.
Purdue is an important partner for Evonik. “I’m thrilled with Purdue University, especially with their Alliance for the Advanced Manufacturing of Pharmaceuticals,” Fricker says. “It exactly meets our needs. I don’t see a better partnership than this one.”
The Lipid Innovation Center is planned with an eye toward flexibility and quick adaptability to future needs.
“We are one of the key factors for the preparedness of the United States in case of a future pandemic by adding our assets, our competencies,” Fricker says. “The facility is also designed for different processes, so we can easily transfer a not-yet-known product into this plant.”
Evonik produced lipids within its Health Care business well before the COVID outbreak.
The inside of two dryers for pharmaceutical powders at the Tippecanoe site.
Right, top: An operations employee connects the fill spout to a tote bag for packaging. The process is contained to ensure that employees are shielded from potent pharmaceutical compounds.
Right, bottom: Evonik employee inspects the operation of a centrifuge isolating a pharmaceutical product at the Tippecanoe Laboratories.
“We have been working on mRNA and lipid technology for many years,” Fricker says. That capability was crucial for the quick reaction to the COVID outbreak and the strategic partnership with the German biotechnology company BioNTech.
“Using our ‘A’ team of engineers, we set up the lipid production in Germany in only eight weeks – months earlier than originally planned.”
The project’s name, “Speed of Light,” stated its mission to support the development of a COVID-19 vaccine in record time. Evonik played a pivotal role in that effort.
This success helped convince the United States government to make a significant investment with Evonik. The $150 million buys the U.S. a 10-year period of priority access to lipids in case of another pandemic.
History of innovation
The history of the Tippecanoe Labs facility goes back to 1953 when the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company completed its construction. Evonik, one of the largest specialty chemicals producers in the world, purchased the plant in 2010.
Brett Giltmier, an engineer and senior manufacturing manager at Tippecanoe, has been on site for 19 years. He witnessed its transformation from a facility serving only one company (Eli Lilly) to one that now collaborates with more than 20 customers – producing highly potent medicines for chemotherapy, for example.
“I’ve been here long enough to appreciate this trajectory. It’s wonderful to see a place with our history of innovation taking the next step into the future,” says Giltmier, who pointed to the innovation buzz in the Greater Lafayette community created by Purdue’s Discovery Park District, the massive mixed-use multidisciplinary research and business park. “We fit in very well with that as we have been doing similar things for a long time.”
Tippecanoe Labs, therefore, has deep community roots.
“The community involvement and support from our employees is our bedrock,” Giltmier says.
With an annual budget of $75,000 for community outreach, Evonik aims to make an impact on the Greater Lafayette community. Evonik’s focus for these funds is education, social services and youth activities.
Among the programs it funds are Partners in Education, Drug Abuse Resistance
Education (D.A.R.E.), and the Wizard Science Program. Evonik employees also take part in United Way, Greater Lafayette Honor Flight, Junior Achievement, food drives, Taste of Tippecanoe, Clothe-A-Child and blood drives.
“We want to extend the partnership with the community,” Fricker says.
Next for Tippecanoe Labs
The groundbreaking for the Lipid Innovation Center will take place in late March. But executives are already looking at what might be next for Tippecanoe Labs.
“The master plan always foresees an expansion,” Fricker says. These decisions depend on market opportunities, scientific advances and smart business decisions, of course. The announcement of the new Lipid Innovation Center that made global headlines last summer is a case in point.
“A few years ago, nobody was thinking about a pandemic, and I don’t think a whole lot of people knew what messenger RNA was. But Evonik and a few other companies were already working on this – otherwise, the COVID-19 vaccine wouldn’t have been created so fast.” ★