Organon is back in Oss. In 2010, the success story of the former Organon, a pharmaceutical multinational and the developer of the contraceptive pill, came to an end. Today, ten years later, great things are happening again behind the familiar blue wall.
Almost one hundred years ago, in 1923, Salomon (Saal) van Zwanenberg founded NV Organon in the town of Oss in the Dutch province of North Brabant. Saal was the director of the family business Zwanenberg's Slachterijen en Fabrieken, the largest export slaughterhouse in the Netherlands. A true entrepreneur, who, based on the idea that ‘Our Lord created everything for a purpose’, set up a collaboration with scientists to find a useful application for his slaughterhouse offal and waste. The answer was insulin, extracted from the pancreatic glands of cattle and pigs. Organon was the first company in Europe to market this substance as an effective medicine for treating diabetes. Over the years, an extensive selection of hormone-based drugs followed, including the contraceptive pill Lyndiol, introduced in 1962, which is probably the best known. Thanks to this product, Organon became a world player in the pharmaceutical industry and an important economic driver for the region.
As you walk through the grounds at Organon's site almost a century later, you still see much that reminds you of the company's former glory, in addition to new buildings. That tradition is often just skin-deep: hyper-modern laboratories and production facilities nestle behind the dark brown brick façades and stained-glass windows. Wenny Raaijmakers, the current director of Organon Oss, is proud of the organisation's rich history. “But the new Organon really is a very different company,” she says.
When Wenny joined the company in 1999, Organon was doing very well. The company - part of Akzo Nobel since 1969 - was a successful producer of anti-depressants and on the verge of launching two revolutionary hormone-releasing contraceptives: the contraceptive implant and the contraceptive vaginal ring, both invented in Oss. About 4,500 people worked in Production and Research & Development back then. But, just ten years later, the ‘end of the success story’ was breaking news in all the media. So what went wrong?
According to Wenny, it was not the end, but the company in Oss did suffer a major setback. “In 2007, Organon was sold to Schering-Plough in the USA - a big disappointment for the people here. Two years later, the company merged with another major American pharmaceutical company: MSD (known as Merck in the USA). MSD had nearly one hundred production sites and more than ten R&D sites worldwide. To remain competitive, the number of locations had to be reduced. As a result, the research activities were transferred away from Oss and more than a thousand jobs were lost. Subsequently, some of the raw material production was sold to Aspen. But Oss remained an important production location that steadily increased its output over the years and benefited from substantial investments.”
To ensure that the pharmaceutical knowledge and expertise built up over the years would not be lost, a partnership that consisted of MSD, the Provincial Authority of North Brabant, the Municipality of Oss and the Brabant Development Agency (BOM) established a Life Sciences business park on the former Organon site, the current Pivot Park. Many of the companies working on pharmaceutical innovations here were founded by former employees of Organon and MSD.
Organon, the ‘pride of Oss’, is now also back. In 2020, MSD decided to split off the women’s health activities and create an independent listed company under the familiar name of Organon. The idea was simple: if you sharpen your focus, you make better choices and you can help patients more effectively. The new Organon is active worldwide and supplies (medicinal) products to more than 140 countries. Two thousand of the approximately nine thousand employees work in the Benelux organisation. The largest of the six production sites - with some 1100 employees - is located in Oss. Wenny: “In the MSD organisation, we were just one small cog in a huge machine. We have much more impact now.” Furthermore, the focus on women’s health in the broadest sense has opened up a wealth of opportunities: “This is an area that still does not get enough attention. There are problems that need addressing in the area of contraception or fertility, but also, for example, conditions like endometriosis.”
When MSD announced the new organisation in February 2020, the general reaction in Oss was initially somewhat indifferent. But when it became clear not long afterwards that the company would be renamed Organon and more was known about who would be managing the company, the level of enthusiasm increased markedly. Wenny: “A number of strong, highly respected MSD managers deliberately chose to move across to Organon; people with ideas, who were eager to start a new company and collaborate effectively. That provided a positive boost.”
The fact that the acquisition of a start-up and a collaborative partnership were announced shortly after the IPO gave everybody an idea of the new organisation’s ambitions. The companies in question are working on drugs to treat severe bleeding during childbirth and to prevent premature births. For the big pharmaceutical companies, this is the new way of innovating, explains Wenny. “We seek to collaborate with small companies that have come up with something fantastic and have already done their clinical research, but lack the expertise, resources and partners for large-scale research, manufacturing and commercialisation.”
As work started to split off the activities and set up the new organisation, the coronavirus pandemic flared up. A difficult and challenging time in which the production site in Oss showed what it is capable of. “We produce a muscle relaxant here that ensures people can be ventilated better and more safely,” Wenny says. “This drug was invented by Organon, but is mainly imported these days (at a cheaper price) from India and China. The coronavirus pandemic led to a massive increase in demand. Because import was not possible, we doubled production in two weeks in order to supply enough of this muscle relaxant for all of Europe initially, and countries outside Europe later on. Our people worked day and night. We all know that we produce medicines here, but now we could all see why; everyone knew someone who was seriously ill.”
Organon also offered practical help by supplying masks surplus to its own requirements to hospitals and GP surgeries in the area. And equipment normally used for completely different products was re-purposed to produce hundreds of litres of disinfectant, a diluted form of the ethanol generally used in the factory, for GPs.
Now that much has returned to ‘almost normal’, the company can start thinking about future developments again. The new organisation for example, complete with new and renovated offices and machinery. And achieving the company's mission of making a difference in the field of women's health. Wenny Raaijmakers is looking forward to this: “From our site in Oss, we have an important role to play here. We see opportunities for expanding our production capacity; an exciting challenge.”
The well-known blue wall on Molenstraat in Oss, the symbol of the company, has also been given a makeover. RoosArt has turned it into a gigantic painting depicting three people, who symbolise research, development and production, and a butterfly that symbolises the quest for new solutions. No one passing by can fail to notice that great things are happening behind this wall again.
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