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Friday, May 20, 2022

TOP GROWTH COMPANY

HemaCare Corp., a biotech company specializing in supplying human bioproducts and blood to researchers, has enjoyed rapid growth and expansion during 2018 and into 2019, with a 41 percent increase in revenue last year and a new headquarters in Northridge. It was the top growth company last year on the Business Journal’s Valley 50 index, as measured by revenue percentage. But this is not another hot startup. HemaCare started in 1978 and recently marked its 40th anniversary. Chief Executive Pete van der Wal attributes the company’s success to quality of products and longevity in the field. “We have decades of experience recruiting donors, managing donor relationships and performing apheresis collections – more than any of our competitors,” he said. HemaCare describes itself as more than a blood bank, with the ability to extract and ship blood samples needed for research projects and store samples which can be bought directly. A network of distributors work with HemaCare to deliver product, or customers can buy product directly on the company’s website. Bioproduct can be customized for each client since the need for samples can be varied: research and development, a clinical trial, and collection for an FDA-approved therapy are just some examples. Suppose a biotech start-up is developing a therapy for sickle-cell anemia and needs white blood cells from a specific demographic, or needs cells that are frozen and can last for the duration of a study; HemaCare can provide these types of material. In another case, a company nearing clinical trials might need samples that are FDA-approved. HemaCare has the necessary documentation to comply with regulatory agencies. The company also has a separate operation to recruit blood or tissue donors. Compensation for donors varies based on the type of collection performed; usually individuals are quoted on a case-by-case basis, according to the company’s website. Donor requirements are outlined on the website as well, with participants asked to be in good health and feeling well, at least 18 years of age, weigh at least 110 pounds, are not pregnant and have valid identification. The main donor center is in Northridge, but the company also has a relationship with Clinical Discover Institute in Miramar, Fla., where human blood products are collected on HemaCare’s behalf. Stefanie Homann, a scientist at CSL Behring in Pasadena, currently receives leukopaks, or a collection of white blood cells, from HemaCare for sickle-cell disease research. White blood cells from healthy donors provided by HemaCare help further gene therapy research for patients with the disease. Extracting the cells needed for research takes precision and the right equipment, Homann said. HemaCare is able to provide cells by giving donors a “reagent,” or chemical that triggers a certain type of cell to transfer from the bone marrow into the blood stream to allow its collection and returning plasma and blood liquid volume back to the patient; this process is called apheresis. “They also process some of the blood and leukopaks, and provide cryo-preserved cell samples for research,” Homann explained. “They have very much evolved over time. They started out I believe as a blood bank-type business and they have developed this in a really good way for their donors, and also for their customers, being that immunotherapy is such a new and forward-moving kind of therapy.” Van der Wal noted that growth really began in 2014 and the extra push in the past year is directly related to the emerging fields of immunotherapy, cell therapy and regenerative medicine. “HemaCare is in the right place at the right time, with the right skill sets that are in high demand to profit from the multi-billion-dollar biopharma and biotechnology companies,” van der Wal said. “Biopharma and biotechnology companies are racing to bring their cellular and immunotherapies to market. HemaCare is uniquely positioned to facilitate the research.” New headquarters HemaCare’s van der Wal describes the company’s product as “vertically integrated” in its support of specific uses like immunotherapy research. Tailoring bioproduct for customers helps expedite the long road to get a treatment to market. The Northridge facility allows HemaCare to double its donor collection and on-site cell processing. Four clean rooms, isolation, cryopreservation and biobanking services see to that. “Our competitors … are merely commodity sources of raw human biological material,” van der Wal added. Sourcing for donors goes back to 1978, making for a sizable database today. Outreach across varied demographics and clinical parameters helps bolster donor numbers. “Most of (HemaCare’s) donors are coming back many times so they are able to maintain their donor pool – that’s a really good sign and not every site is able to keep up with that,” added Homann. The company’s new headquarters is located at the tech-friendly Mix at Harman campus at 8500 Balboa Blvd. in Northridge. The facility has 39,862 square feet, a significant upgrade from the previous 16,500-square-foot facility in Van Nuys. The company moved in December. Other tenants at the complex include Facebook Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., and other health care companies such as Pharmavite, Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. and Heritage Provider Network. According to HemaCare’s annual report, the lease in Northridge costs about $116,000 per month, or $2.91 a square foot. HemaCare received $2.4 million in tenant improvement allowances from the landlord. The lease runs for 11 years with an option for HemaCare to extend it another 10 years. Expanding market In addition to CSL Behring, customers include Novartis International in Switzerland, Kite Pharma in El Segundo and Dendreon Pharmaceuticals based in Seattle. As these companies develop immunocellular therapies and gene therapies, they use HemaCare bioproducts to reduce the risk of FDA problems when a company is looking to proceed to clinical trials and commercialization. “HemaCare … can customize most of the collection protocols if we ask them to do so,” said Homann. “Now that we’re preparing for a clinical trial, we will need all the qualification and documentation, and they are able to provide this as well.” There has never been a better time for companies like HemaCare, according to Brian Neman, chief executive of Sanguine Bio, another bioproduct company in Sherman Oaks. “It’s a combination of all things happening together – policy and reimbursement, science and technology, patient interest and engagement in patient advocacy, data and informatics, structuring and machine learning, algorithms and artificial intelligence – all of those things are coming together,” Neman said. “The time is certainly right for a patient’s specimens and data to influence research and therapy development.” While Sanguine doesn’t offer specialized bioproduct like HemaCare does, they also further medical research by matching blood samples with the research projects. “We’re working with patients directly to not only collect blood samples but also medical record data so we can match them up with clinical trials,” Neman said. “It’s a concierge clinical trial matching service and we have tons of medical records from patients that will make it easy for them to participate.” Whether it’s offering material tailored to specific research or matching patient data with relevant research, the bioproduct industry certainly seems to be making an effort to meet research and development teams halfway and do their part to get needed drugs and therapies to market. Trust in the quality of HemaCare’s product led to numerous partnerships at the end of 2018, including Vital River, a subsidiary of Charles River Laboratories in China. In March, the Northridge company announced an extended partnership with Tissue Solutions in Glasgow, Scotland, for access to diseased human biosamples. On the other side of the bioproduct business, companies like Sanguine and HemaCare also have to ensure donor recruitment and keeping a robust donor pool are high on the list. Stock market response The company has adapted to market shifts. In its 2011 annual report, it listed two business lines: a “blood products segment” and “therapeutic services segment.” As more research requires biological materials, HemaCare has found ways to supply it. The company’s stock trades over the counter. HemaCare stock in 2018 jumped from $6.65 in June to $13.88 in August, maintaining that high through the summer and fall before heading back down to single digits by the end of the year. It closed on April 10 at $13.93. Looking forward, the Northridge company wants to build its team in multiple departments, sourcing talent locally. Van der Wal also expects there to be an increase in operational capabilities, fresh and frozen products for health and disease-state products, and an expanded menu of isolated cells. Expanding into other international markets is also on the menu, with more collaborations and partnerships sought, van der Wal said.

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