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Building on Excellence: Novocol Pharma's Expansion Journey

Health innovation is happening right here in our community. Atif Zia talks about Novocol Pharma's growth and global impact in our latest expansion story.

Waterloo has long been known as an advanced manufacturing powerhouse, making everything from cars and robots to laser projectors and lunch meat.

One of the longstanding manufacturers in the region is Novocol Pharmaceutical of Canada, a sterile injectable fill-finish manufacturer. Established in Cambridge, Ontario – one of Waterloo Region’s three cities – in 1979, the company has thrived for over four decades. In 2000, it was acquired by France-based Septodont Group, which upgraded and expanded the facility, solidifying its presence in the community.

In addition to serving global markets with sterile injectable dental anesthetics, Novocol serves global biopharmaceutical and pharmaceutical partners as an embedded Contract Development and Manufacturing Organization (CDMO) doing business as Novocol Pharma and specializing in aseptic fill-finish.

Since the pandemic, the company has partnered with the Government of Canada to expand its biomanufacturing capacity and has subsequently forged a partnership with vaccine maker Moderna to provide “fill and finish” support for their domestic vaccine supply chain and enhance pandemic preparedness.

Atif Zia, Chief Operating Officer for Septodont and President of Novocol Pharma

Atif Zia, Chief Operating Officer for Septodont and President of Novocol Pharma

We recently spoke with Atif Zia, Chief Operating Officer for Septodont and President of Novocol Pharma, to learn more about the company’s growth and expansion in the region.

Here are the highlights from our conversation:

We began by asking Atif what’s special about Waterloo.

“The location is good. It’s close to Toronto and the US. It’s situated in a manufacturing-oriented area of the province with transportation and secondary packaging companies nearby,” he shared. “There are also technical organizations that can support a manufacturing plant, whether it’s engineering firms or maintenance and construction companies.”

But a major factor in Novocol Pharma’s success is access to a diverse talent base within the community. Waterloo has a rich history as a manufacturing center and is home to three post-secondary institutions that produce co-op students and highly skilled, work-ready graduates.

“In a 24/7 manufacturing operation with over 500 employees, having the ability to hire top talent across various professions is key,” said Atif.

Novocol’s workforce is made up of skilled tradespeople, including electricians, millwrights, and mechanics, as well as engineers, scientists, quality associates, technicians, machine operators, chemists, microbiologists and corporate professionals.

Some of the employees, Atif added, have been with Novocol for almost 40 years. “Our employees have a sense that they are a part of a community and contributors to a company that has a great mission serving its customers and patients worldwide” Atif shared. “We have grown by retaining talent, manufacturing quality pharmaceutical products and providing value to our customers.”

A long-term growth strategy

Novocol maintains a long-term growth strategy, looking ahead five to ten years rather than focusing on just short-term quarterly results. In 2010, the company invested $35M in a plant expansion and upgrade, modernizing equipment and expanding warehousing and product capacity.

Atif explained, “This investment modernized our plant and gave us the capacity to grow our business with technology to make the highest quality products. In manufacturing, especially in the pharmaceutical industry, you can’t run on old technology. Periodic upgrades are necessary.”

At the same time, the company’s proximity to the vast American pharmaceutical market gives the company an edge in securing customers. “We are highly specialized and capable of offering our customers short delivery times, high-quality products and reliability,” Atif added.

Winning a place in the vaccine supply chain

When the pandemic struck, Novocol swiftly committed to invest in capabilities to support the “fill and finish” segment of the vaccine supply chain as it had become an urgent national priority. In March 2021, the company received $32.7M in financing support from the Government of Canada to strengthen its domestic fill-finish biomanufacturing capacity.

This investment would enable the company to “contribute to strengthening Canada’s preparedness for future pandemics, as well as create skilled jobs and economic development in the country’s biopharmaceutical ecosystem.”

Two years later, in May 2023, the company entered into a long-term agreement with Moderna to be a contract manufacturer for aseptic fill-finish, labelling and packaging of Canadian-made mRNA vaccines. The Government of Ontario, through the Ontario Together Fund, provided financial support to Moderna to assist with the creation of manufacturing capabilities necessary to fill and finish the vaccines at Novocol’s Cambridge facility.

“We’re very proud to have such an important customer in Moderna,” said Atif. “This partnership is putting Canada back on the map as a sought-after destination for expertise in vaccine production and other injectables.”

Innovation in life sciences

Novocol operates in a rapidly evolving and competitive industry where product innovation is extremely important. However, innovation extends beyond the products themselves. Zia explained, “It’s also in how you conduct your operations.” The company, for example, leverages advanced analytics and market analysis tools to make informed decisions.

The company will continue to grow in the region, according to Atif. “We have ambitions to expand our manufacturing footprint, create jobs, increase revenue and profitability through ongoing investments in our plant.”

Growth is inevitable due to the essential nature of the company’s work. “We help practitioners treat their patients,” he shared. “Participating in the life sciences and health sector is quite an honour. It’s one of the most meaningful industry sectors globally.”

" We have ambitions to expand our manufacturing footprint, create jobs, increase revenue and profitability through ongoing investments in our plant. "

Atif Zia

COO, Septodont and President, Novocol Pharma

Best practices for business growth and expansion

Novocol’s impressive growth and expansion in region over four decades have provided valuable lessons that can benefit other companies on a similar trajectory. Based on his experience, Atif shared the following key advice:

  • Understand your serviceable and obtainable market. Determine the market you intend to serve and identify where you fit within the value chain of your industry sector. Focus on creating customer value.
  • Build an organization with the right talent. Ontario is flush with talent, so ensure your team is made up of skilled individuals in various disciplines who align with your objectives.
  • Consider leapfrogging. Look ahead to future technologies instead of relying solely on what you’ve done in the past. Stay informed about advancements in your industry and adapt accordingly.
  • Explore partnerships within the region. Supporting local businesses and establishing reliable partnerships with suppliers can enhance value chain integration and contribute to mutual success.

Support through the expansion journey

For Novocol and Septodont, Waterloo EDC has been a great connector. “As businesses, we tend to always think we can do everything on our own or that we have to hire consultants and pay them a lot of money,” Atif explained. “But Waterloo EDC introduced us to various levels of government and helped us to take advantage of different financial programs.”

Waterloo EDC connected Novocol to the City of Cambridge to cut through red tape and obtain necessary construction permits during its expansion. They also connected Novocol with talent development and immigration resources, which were helpful when filling new positions – and to Sustainable Waterloo Region to support their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Learn about all the complimentary services and support Waterloo EDC offers.

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