Viral vector manufacturer Vibalogics adds CEO to lead expansion, COVID-19 response

Tom Hochuli
Tom Hochuli previously oversaw cell and gene therapy operations Lonza's Houston area site. (Vibalogics)

In the bustling cell and gene therapy space, commercial manufacturing capacity will have a tough time keeping up with the potentially dozens of candidates hitting the market in the coming years, experts say. One German company plans to expand its U.S. footprint to help meet that demand, and it's found the right leader to get it there. 

Vibalogics has added Lonza veteran Tom Hochuli as CEO as the German viral vector manufacturer eyes expansion plans stateside, including a new commercial production facility on the East Coast, managing director and former CEO Stefan Beyer said last week. 

Hochuli, the former cell and gene therapy operations head at Lonza's Houston area site, will come on board at a crucial time as Vibalogics navigates the early days of its COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing pact with Johnson & Johnson and goes house hunting for its new plant. During his two-year stint at Lonza's 300,000-square-foot facility, Hochuli oversaw a workforce expansion of around 400 employees and had a chance to get intimate with the cell and gene therapy space. 

In making the move, Hochuli touted Vibalogics' "great reputation" and big-name clients in the pharma space. 

"(Cell and gene therapies) are products that change people's lives, and there's a huge imbalance in the market between supply and demand for these processes," Hochuli said. "So I'm really excited to work with this company and take it to great places."

Vibalogics was the target of a buyout by private equity firm Ampersand Capital in May 2019 that Beyer said allowed the CDMO to focus more on its life sciences offerings after years of wallowing in a diversified business that had tentacles in the poultry and meat industries. 

"Ampersand jumped on board and has realized the great potential we have developed during the last four to five years," Beyer said. "It was really great that we have been able to continue with our strategy by convincing (them) to look into biologics."

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Part of that strategy is a gung-ho expansion in the U.S., anchored by a commercial-stage facility to dramatically expand Vibalogics' offerings.

Hochuli will be tasked immediately with overseeing the search for that facility, which he said has targeted at least two dozen existing sites in major East Coast biopharma hubs. Along with Vibalogics' Cuxhaven, Germany, plant handling clinical-stage manufacturing, the new U.S. site will expand the company's offerings in the booming cell and gene therapy space.

"If we look at our portfolio of customers, they're large, top-10 pharmas and biotechs; many are located in the U.S., and our feeling is we can better serve (them by) being on both sides of the Atlantic," Hochuli said.

With the search likely drawing to a close in the coming months, Vibalogics is hoping to get the facility up and running by the third quarter of 2021, Hochuli said.

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Vibalogics is one of a suite of CDMOs narrowing their focus on a cell and gene therapy space notorious for its expensive and complicated manufacturing. Experts in the field have called for a major expansion in commercial production capacity to keep up with what could be as many as 10 to 20 newly approved cell and gene therapies each year through 2025.

Meanwhile, Vibalogics is also meeting an uptick in demand for its viral vectors after the company signed a deal with J&J's Janssen unit in May to help produce vectors used in clinical testing for its COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

With Vibalogics already sporting a preexisting relationship with J&J, the vaccine manufacturing pact was a sign of the company's standing among some of the world's biggest pharmas, Beyer said.

"We have proven that we can not only promise things, but we can deliver," he said. "Without the former experience with us, (the deal) would have been impossible."