Cell Culture Media Is Big Business
Merck’s Darren Verlenden discusses the strategy and ethics behind the expansion plan in Lenexa, Kansas
| 4 min read | Interview
As Head of Process Solutions for the Life Science business sector at Merck, Darren Verlenden drives differentiated product and process innovations. With nearly 30 years of experience in the industry, he has come face to face with the challenges that come when bringing bold and creative therapies to market. When we heard about the €23 million investment into Merck’s cell culture media plant in Kansas, we wanted Verlenden to explain the reasoning.
What’s the strategy behind the expansion?
Global demand for bioproduction and associated process solutions is increasing. And cell culture media is an essential raw material used in the manufacture of life-saving therapies. Because of its central role in biomanufacturing, a consistent supply of high-quality media is required to deliver the necessary concentration and protein quality for therapeutics. In short, we expect to see strong growth here. The expansion is also in line with our strategy to expand and regionalize our manufacturing network.
With the expansion, Lenexa becomes our largest dry powder cell culture media facility and Center of Excellence in North America. By adding 9,100 square meters of lab space and production capability to manufacture cell culture media, the investment reflects our strategy to expand and diversify our supply chain to ensure we meet current and future demand for cell culture media.
We now have three centers of excellence for dry powder cell culture media manufacturing across the globe. Our site in Nantong, China, serves the Asia Pacific region, and another site in Irvine, Scotland, serves the Europe, Middle East and Africa regions.
How does the company plan to use digitalization and Industry 4.0 to improve manufacturing capacity?
We already see a great deal of value that digitalization and industry 4.0 can bring in as we aim to speed up processes and gain better transparency for all stakeholders involved. For example, we are working on developing a digital platform that will leverage capabilities around data mining and artificial intelligence to enhance our cell culture formulation offerings and single chemical ingredients in terms of quality and performance.
We have also developed a program, named eMERGE, which is optimized to proactively exchange eData with our customers and enhance their knowledge management approach without ever requiring them to leave their established data ecosystem. I’d say it’s poised to digitally transform logistical and analytical processes.
Furthermore, we have developed an in-line Raman analyzer that enables customers to implement automated process control from media preparation to cell culture expansion as they move towards Industry 4.0. The Raman PAT platform can monitor USP performance attributes in real-time, empowering process optimization and streamlining quality assurance to enhance manufacturing capacity and efficiency.
In what ways does the expansion contribute to the achievement of Merck’s sustainability goals?
Our life science business is aiming for climate neutrality by 2040. As of 2022, we have already achieved a 33 percent absolute reduction in scope 1 and 2 emissions globally compared with our 2020 baseline – and all our sites in the US are already matched with 100 percent renewable electricity. With this expansion, we had the opportunity to upgrade multiple pieces of equipment to improve energy and water efficiency.
Water stewardship and conservation is of key importance to us, and our life science business goal is to reduce our water intensity score by 10 percent. We replaced a continuously operating purified water generation system to one that works on-demand. We updated our older roof with a white thermoplastic polyolefin membrane roof, which has sun-reflective properties. As part of upgrading the roof, we also replaced five rooftop air conditioning units that used ozone-depleting R22 refrigerants with units that use non-ozone depleting 134A-refrigerant. Other upgrades included in the Lenexa expansion were replacing an older chiller with a more energy efficient model, and upgrades to our compressed air systems.
Expanding the footprint of our operations is a necessary move to improve the products and services we provide to our customers and their patients around the world. But we are acutely aware of the impact these expansions could have on the environment. Addressing and improving our sustainability and environmental policies is a responsibility I, and the teams I lead, take very personally, seriously, and proactively.