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Ash Stevens: Developing Chemicals Proudly Made in the USA

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

Forty-nine years ago, Wayne State University unveiled its brand new Detroit Research Park, located across from the John C. Lodge Freeway not far from the football stadium. The ceremony was held in front of a crowd of dignitaries that included Mayor Jerome Cavanagh. One of the first such endeavors of its kind in the nation, the grand opening was a big deal—yet another achievement in a city that seemed to have no limits to its success.

Ash Stevens, a contract research and chemical development company, promptly moved into the Detroit Research Park, got to work seeking government research grants, and waited for its fellow tenants to move in. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Years went by until eventually low-income housing went in where startup companies were intended to be lodged. Many would say it’s a typical Detroit story of decline, except for one significant difference: Ash Stevens still maintains an office in the Detroit Research Park, though it has long since expanded to a manufacturing facility in Riverview, MI to accommodate what is now the bulk of its business: the development, registration, and manufacturing of the active ingredients in cancer drugs such as Velcade, Vidaza, and Clolar.

“You’ll never see our brand in the marketplace,” says Stephen Munk, CEO and president of Ash Stevens. “We strictly do the chemistry piece. Our clients range from the biggest pharmaceutical corporations to the smallest companies.”

Munk notes that since January 2003, the Food and Drug Administration has approved about 100 active-ingredient chemicals. Out of that 100, three belong to Ash Stevens.

“We’re up there with Pfizer, Merck, Roche, Eli Lilly … I think that’s pretty cool,” Munk says.

Also pretty cool, in Munk’s opinion, is the fact that his company’s chemicals are manufactured in the United States, where they’re subject to a level of quality control that can be missing in foreign operations.

“It’s very difficult to inspect active ingredients,” Munk says. “As a patient, I’m very concerned that about 80 percent of our active ingredients are being made in India and China. As an American, I find it a travesty that we aren’t making more active ingredients here.”

He points to the Heparin scandal of 2008, where dozens of Americans died after receiving injections from a tainted batch of the popular heart drug that was traced back to a facility in China. The result was a massive recall by the drug’s maker, Baxter International.

“What happened with that batch of Heparin is that a group of Chinese scientists decided to use a cheap, hard-to-detect ingredient that looked like Heparin,” Munk says. “It wasn’t an accident, it was willful contamination.”

One could speculate that anxiety over a future similar scandal originating in an overseas facility has led an increasing number of pharmaceutical companies to seek out the services of Ash Stevens.

“We broke a sales record in 2008, then we beat it in 2009, then we beat that record in 2010, and I think we’ll beat it again in 2011,” Munk says.

The company’s employees now number 75, and that count is growing. Just this week, the company finalized a loan for a $12 million expansion at its Riverview facility. Ash Stevens plans to finally close its Detroit office and consolidate operations in Riverview within the next five years.

“We’re very happy to be growing in Wayne County,” says Munk, who previously worked for Allergan in California. “We find Michigan to be a very good place for the kind of business we’re in. There are a lot of good customers out there for our work.”