Tucked just out of plain sight of motorists traveling along the I-94 corridor in Kenosha County, there’s a three-story, 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Pleasant Prairie that marks the next stage of growth for a family-owned pharmaceutical company that wants to shake up the industry.
Lincolnshire, Illinois-based Nexus Pharmaceuticals Inc. officially opened its first U.S. manufacturing facility in the Prairie Highlands Corporate Park last summer. The $100 million investment represents the first phase of a $250 million multi-phase project that the company plans to complete in 10 years. It’s the first project of its kind within the sterile injectables industry in the past three decades in the United States.
Nexus produces critically needed injectable drugs, such as sodium nitroprusside, which is used to lower blood pressure. Today, Nexus’ products are used in more than 5,000 hospitals nationwide.
What sets the company apart is its commitment to creating high-quality generic and specialty drugs in the U.S. While other pharmaceutical companies primarily source raw materials for their products from other countries like China and India, Nexus sources most of its materials – and manufactures most of its products – domestically, although some raw materials do need to be sourced internationally depending on demand.
Nexus is in its second generation of family leadership, with six family members currently involved. The company has nearly 200 employees.
Part of Nexus’ overall goal is to help ease America’s reliance on other countries for critical drugs and address an ongoing shortage of almost 200 drug products. To that end, Nexus plans to create more than 400 long-term jobs in an industry that is historically underrepresented in Wisconsin.
“(The Nexus development) was a breakthrough for Kenosha County, in terms of attracting these high-level jobs in science and research and development,” said Heather Wessling Grosz, vice president of the Kenosha Area Business Alliance. “It’s in an industry that Wisconsin doesn’t typically win. I think it broke through the barrier of being able to expand a pharmaceutical base into the state of Wisconsin.”
Nexus’ selection of Pleasant Prairie shows that Wisconsin remains a true competitor in the manufacturing industry, said Grosz.
KABA first heard of Nexus in early 2018 through the economic development group Milwaukee 7, which learned the company wanted to transition from contract manufacturing to producing its own drugs. At the time, Nexus was considering both Illinois and Wisconsin but was leaning slightly toward Wisconsin. KABA took the Nexus team on a tour of the county’s business parks and informed them of the support they could get for their development, ranging from state tax credits to possible loans.
“We got to know their family, and we got to know how big of an investment it is to be in the pharma industry and how this is kind of new territory. There just really isn’t a lot of these kind of developments,” Grosz said.[caption id="attachment_558016" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Photo of the Ahmed family in 2021. Top left to right: Usman Ahmed, Ayesha Ahmed, Aman Ahmed, Omair Ahmed, Shahid Ahmed and Mariam Darsot.[/caption]
It’s not only the type of jobs Nexus is bringing to Wisconsin that is unique, but also the company’s approach to how drugs should be made.
Nexus was founded in 2003 by Mariam Darsot and Shahid Ahmed. Darsot’s background is in organic chemistry, and Ahmed’s in analytical chemistry. From their experience working in other lab settings, the couple realized they wanted more control over how products were being made.
“We had worked at many companies and many different places, and we weren’t happy with the environment. I was the one who helped him found the company,” said Darsot, who had led the company as president and chief executive officer until Oct. 3 of this year.
For its first five years, Nexus exclusively operated in the ophthalmic space. Then, in 2009, Nexus launched its first injectable product, Benztropine Mesylate, which is used along with other medications in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Nexus specializes in creating difficult-to-manufacture specialty and generic injectable drugs that are easier to use, higher quality and less labor intensive than what is already available on the market.
The launch of Benztropine Mesylate – which allowed the company to start turning a profit – was born from a customer’s tip that the drug was continually seeing price increases. There also wasn’t much competition in creating the product.
But new issues started to arise shortly after Nexus entered the injectables space. Initially, the company was mostly doing business in India, and problems ranging from compliance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards to product quality emerged. The Ahmed family quickly realized they wanted a domestic facility that was near their Illinois headquarters so they could remain actively involved in the manufacturing process.
“We really had an eye-opening experience and realized we should be manufacturing more and more pharmaceuticals in the U.S. COVID-19 really highlighted that. When COVID hit, it was difficult getting around 25 different essential medications,” said Usman Ahmed, the newly named president and CEO of Nexus Pharmaceuticals.[caption id="attachment_558020" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Ayesha Ahmed
A family affair
Usman is one of four family members representing the next generation of leadership at Nexus Pharmaceuticals. The others are Ayesha Ahmed, general counsel and vice president of human resources; Omair Ahmed, chief strategy officer; and Aman Ahmed, director of international affairs and government relations.
Each sibling has their own area of expertise. When each of them made the decision to join the family business, they fit within the company like pieces of a puzzle. Having experience outside of Nexus only strengthened each of their areas of expertise.
The next generation has taken on the task of building out a fully vertical business, said Ayesha.
“It gave us a lot of perspective about how difficult it is to be an entrepreneur. You have to be able to take the good days and the bad days,” said Ayesha. “It’s been an incredible, humbling journey. Sitting in this building, I tell Usman all the time, I can’t believe that we have two facilities and we’re at the place we are today.”
Ayesha graduated from the Chicago-Kent College of Law in 2006 and spent some time at a boutique firm. After coming to a crossroads in her career, she called her father for some advice. He recommended she come back home to work for the family business.
Ayesha had a feeling of trepidation around joining Nexus and wanted to make sure she maintained strong relationships with her family members.
“I saw how passionate Usman was … I think that was a huge draw for me. Also, seeing my parents’ vision and just thinking I’d like to be a part of expanding the company,” she said.
Usman Ahmed has a background in finance and previously worked at JPMorgan Chase in New York. The Great Recession financial crash led him to approach his parents for a possible career change in 2009. The way his family sees it, Usman has the strongest vision for the company heading into the future.
“We already knew that he would be the president and CEO because he was very passionate about the business,” said Darsot. “He was (previously) the COO, so he was taking on a big role. We were all ready for him to become CEO and president.”
Darsot officially retired earlier this month but remains active in the company through her role as board chair.
Ayesha said there is a lot of mutual respect between all the siblings and each of their roles within the company, so the transition process was natural and “democratic.”
“CEOs have to be really big visionaries, and I think Usman by far is the one with the big vision,” she said. “He’s the one who really helped us come to the decision to open this facility, for example.”[caption id="attachment_558018" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Nexus’ pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in Pleasant Prairie.[/caption]
Bringing new values to big pharma
Since moving into the injectables space in 2009, Nexus has launched 18 products. Its first ready-to-use product – an ephedrine sulfate injection, called Emerphed – launched in April 2020. The creation of Emerphed came after pharmacists and anesthesiologists made the request for a ready-to-use ephedrine product.
“With no need for compounding, diluting, or mixing, Emerphed saves valuable staff time while also reducing the potential for preparation error and waste,” the company said in a news release announcing the product’s FDA approval.
As Nexus continues to create both generic and specialty drugs, product shortages are not the only driver of innovation. Usman said the company considers both what customers are requesting now and what products will be needed several years from now.
“Not having that pressure or commitment (from shareholders or investors) allows us to focus on what’s best for the business right now, five years from now and 10 years from now,” said Usman.
Reputation in the pharmaceutical industry is everything, so the company must ensure it always has supplies of its critical products on hand for customers. To combat supply chain issues, Nexus is selective in where it sources its raw materials. The company manufactures its products solely in the U.S. or western Europe.
“We want to be a part of the solution when it comes to the affordability question of health care in the United States. We read about it all the time, that medication pricing is out of control. The products that we make, they’re all administered at the hospital level and are critical-need products. We really do want to bring a value-based approach to our customers,” said Ayesha.
As Nexus continues to grow, its new facility will support the production and supply of injectable drugs in an array of therapeutic areas including anesthesia, oncology, cardiovascular and neurology.
While it is common practice for pharmaceutical companies to sell their products off – often for as much profit as possible – Nexus remains committed to creating its own affordable drugs. All profits made are reinvested back into the business.
“They’ve launched all these drugs and instead of maybe selling them to a bigger company and cashing out and leaving, they instead took the investment from the sales of these drugs and said, ‘Let’s grow our company,’” said KABA’s Grosz. “I think Mariam and her husband were instrumental in instilling the values in their family to say, ‘We want to continue with our product launches, but we also want to control the next step of the process.’”[caption id="attachment_558019" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Usman Ahmed and Mariam Darsot. Credit: Jake Hill[/caption]
A signal to other companies
Although the pharmaceutical industry is one of the smaller sectors within Wisconsin’s manufacturing and biohealth industries, its representation is growing. BioForward Wisconsin’s 2022 Industry Landscape and Economic Impact Report shows that there are 92 companies employing more than 6,000 people in the drugs and pharmaceuticals sector in the state. That’s out of a total 2,044 companies employing 51,530 people across the biohealth industry statewide.
For Wisconsin to continue to attract businesses like Nexus, the state needs to be more vocal about sharing its success in innovation, said Michael Harrison, director of Milwaukee operations and education initiatives at BioForward Wisconsin.
“Pharma companies rely on universities and startups to provide the innovation that they can acquire and develop into the next blockbuster therapy,” said Harrison. “If the reputation for cutting-edge research and top-notch startups isn’t there, pharma may continue to overlook the Midwest.”
He believes Nexus selecting Wisconsin as the site for its manufacturing facility could signal to other companies that the state has the strength in high-tech manufacturing and biomanufacturing as well as the supply chain and talent needed to support the growth of their business.
“This is another step in the reshoring of pharmaceutical manufacturing to the U.S.,” said Harrison. “Many of us have had to deal with supply chain issues due to the overseas manufacturing of many of the goods we purchase. By bringing this manufacturing to the U.S. and to Wisconsin, we are ensuring that the U.S. will have continuous and ready supplies of much-needed drugs and therapies.”
In addition to providing a supply of critically needed drugs, the jobs Nexus is bringing to Wisconsin could have a much bigger impact than the 400-plus positions expected to be created at the new facility. The Industry Landscape and Economic Impact Report shows that jobs created in the biohealth industry have one of the highest rates of “employment multipliers.”
“This means that for every job directly created by our industry, we indirectly support 1.5 more jobs in Wisconsin, like in a supplier or a service provider,” said Harrison.
While Wisconsin’s private sector employment declined by 2.7% from 2018 to 2021, the biohealth industry grew by 10.6%.
“Our biohealth industry is booming in Wisconsin, and our continued growth is leading the state out of the economic challenges of the pandemic,” said Harrison.[caption id="attachment_558017" align="alignnone" width="1280"] A Nexus microbiologist works in the state-of-the-art facility’s new microbiology laboratory.[/caption]
Next steps for growth
A company just doesn’t decide to build a $100 million facility without a plan for future growth. That’s where Usman comes in as the visionary of the family. There are two strategies he sees as being pivotal in Nexus’ continued success.
“Now, we’re going to be able to make even more types of injectable products and more complex generics,” said Usman. “That’s going to be a big factor in our growth. We’re going to focus more on our ready-to-use products. We’re not making a new molecule. We’re basically reformulating existing molecules. They’re easier to administer and there’s less risk of medication errors.”
Moving forward, the company will invest more money into the creation of novel and complex formulations. The new Pleasant Prairie facility is a key tool in this process as it houses cutting-edge technology, including an advanced isolator system and lyophilization (freeze-drying) machine.
Nexus also plans to partner with local institutions to provide job training and career and research opportunities. Ayesha said that finding qualified workers continues to be one of Nexus’ biggest challenges. Part of the company’s approach to finding talent is having a pipeline of potential future employees in the works. Nexus has partnerships with Gateway Technical College and UW-Parkside. The culture of a family business also works to the company’s advantage.
“The culture here is really collaborative and really supportive,” said Ayesha. “It’s not just one person out for themselves, it’s a team. People chip in when one person has a big project. Just that kind of mentality has helped us keep that family feel.”