Interview – Heino von ProndzynskiWhen Roche Diagnostics dedicated its new $150 million manufacturing center in Branchburg last week, the event brought Heino von Prondzynski from Basel, Switzerland. Von Prondzynski is Global CEO of Roche Diagnostics, a division of health care giant Hoffman-La Roche. Roche Diagnostics has 19,000 employees and some $6.2 billiion in revenue. The new Branchburg facility, which will make kits for genetic testing, will employ 800 people and create some 350 new jobs over the next few years. Von Prondzynski, who was formerly president of the Chiron vaccines division in Emeryville, Callifornia, discussed the new plant with Staff Writer Martin C. Daks.
NJBIZ: Why did you need this new building?
Von Prondzynski: This 285,000-sq.-ft. facility is the world?s largest Polymerase Chain Reaction manufacturing site, and will supply Roche?s products that are based on our Nobel prize-winning PCR technology.
NJBIZ: PCR technology lets technicians take minute samples of genetic material and replicate it for testing. Can it be used in cloning ?
Von Prondzynski: No, it has nothing to do with cloning.
NJBIZ: Is the new building devoted strictly to manufacturing?
Von Prondzynski: No. There will be about 800 people, and there will be all different kinds of jobs. There will be blue-collar workers, scientists, assistants and marketing.
NJBIZ: what will the average salary be?
Von Prondzynski: I really couldn?t say at this time.
NJBIZ: You already have some PCR research facilities in California. Why did you pick New Jersey for this new project?
Von Prondzynski: Well, 13 years ago we started our molecular diagnostics center in Nutley, and then we bought an old manufacturing facility in Belleville. But it could not be enlarged, so we decided to build a completely new site in Branchburg.
NJBIZ: What will happen to the Belleville site?
Von Prondzynski: It will be closed by the end of 2006, and the people there will be able to commute to Branchburg to work. It was important to pick a location that was not far away from the existing experts.
NJBIZ: How many people currently work in Belleville?
Von Prondzynski: I believe about 500 to 600.
NJBIZ: Is Roche getting any economic incentives from the state to engage in this expansion?
Von Prondzynski: Not to my knowledge. We?re investing our own money.
NJBIZ: Any plans for further expansion, here or elsewhere in the state?
Von Prondzynski: No. Let?s first get this site up and running. At the moment we?re only planning a single [eight-hour] shift here, but we could work in a second or even third shift if needed to increase volume. but for the next three years we should be able to satisfy our global demand with a single shift. [The Branchburg location produces about 140,000 PCR kits per month for worldwide distribution.]
NJBIZ: What are some conditions that PCR technology can detect?
Von Prondzynski: It tests for HIV/AIDs, hepatitis B and C, cancer, and it can also indicate how quickly or slowly a person will absorb a drug.
NJBIZ: What kinds of institutions will typically use your kits?
Von Prondzynski: Hospitals, labs, reference labs and, to some extent, physician offices.
NJBIZ: Can law enforcement agencies use PCR technology?
Von Prondzynski: The technology is being used for forensic purposes, also to determine paternity.
NJBIZ: Once a blood sample is taken, how long does it take to analyze?
Von Prondzynski: Depending on the equipment at the lab, it will take a maximum of six to eight hours.
NJBIZ: How has the PCR technology changed the way diseases are treated?
Von Prondzynski: Before PCR, you would have known that you suffer from AIDS, or hepatitis C, but you would not get more detailed information on the virus, how many you might have and what kind of therapies might cure the disease. And those tests were not as specific?they could only give indications after a couple of weeks. Also, for blood screening, you had so-called window cases, where people were already infected but not detectable. This detection is now possible with PCR, which is important when the window [for treatment] is quite narrow.
NJBIZ: Can PCR also help to determine if a person is at-risk for specific diseases, such as certain cancers?
Von Prondzynski: It can be used to determine predisposition, but so far there are no predisposition tests available for complex diseases [disorders generally traced to the interaction of multiple genes].
NJBIZ: What do you like about New Jersey?
Von Prondzynski: The people here are very motivated and enthusiastic. Their expertise, and the support we get from the community, is excellent. Also, the countryside is very nice. But it?s quite cumbersome to come from New York to Branchburg. This morning I found there was quite a lot of traffic.