By Carly Harrington
Knoxville News Sentinel
May 31, 2015
Walking onto a catwalk overlooking the expansive manufacturing floor at ProNova Solutions’ new research and commercialization facility in Blount County, Joe Matteo smiled, declaring they were going to place a “wow” sticker on the railing.
It’s the reaction they get, he said, from everyone who visits.
“This is what it takes,” the president of ProNova’s R&D and manufacturing division said during a recent tour of the 55,000-square-foot facility.
“I think what this room — aside from being really cool — says is, ‘We really believe in the market, and we’re really serious about the market.’ This is a big investment. It’s aggressive, and this is what it takes to be a leader in the business.”
The new LEED-certified buildings at the Pellissippi Place technology research and development park represent the first phase of a more than $50 million capital investment by ProNova, which will celebrate its official grand opening on Tuesday.
The company, a division of Provision Health Alliance, is positioning itself as a leading equipment supplier for the latest in cancer treatment technology — a key component in an overall expansion strategy to own, equip and operate proton therapy centers around the world.
ProNova began last month assembling components for a next-generation, compact proton therapy system that uses superconducting magnet technology developed in conjunction with Oak Ridge’s Cryomagnetics.
ProNova’s first unit installation will be completed this year at the Provision Center for Proton Therapy in Knoxville, where workers are developing manufacturing processes and conducting medical device testing for certification by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CE in Europe.
“We’re really fortunate. To think about this as a startup company and how aggressive we have been, it’s been quite a ride,” Matteo said. “Where we sit in the market, we’re really in an ideal spot. We have the right technology, there’s no doubt about it. We have to execute.”
Ramping up production
Located on 27 acres at the southeastern end of Pellissippi Parkway, ProNova is the first tenant in a development surrounded by homes and farmland along the Maryville bike trail.
About 40 of ProNova’s 120 employees have transitioned from Knoxville to the new facility, where a two-story, 25,000-square-foot office building has been designed with low-level cubicles, a fitness center, and entertaining space and conference rooms for prospective clients.
A series of posters explaining the technology line the walls of an adjoining 30,000-square-foot, high-bay R&D, assembly and testing facility, where several 20-ton capacity wireless cranes have recently been installed and take up a third of the space.
“We don’t want that number to be very big. We want our system to be small and lightweight,” Matteo said. “We’ll build them complete, rotate them, do all of our testing and then disassemble and ship in large integrated pieces so at the customer site, they can be put together quickly.”
With eight proton therapy equipment orders expected to be finalized by year’s end, plans are to ramp up production in 2016. The facility will also design, develop and produce other technologies, including various robotic positioning devices and high resolution X-ray and positron emission tomography imaging systems.
The building is designed to produce 10, two-gantry systems per year. The cyclotrons will continue to be shipped from Sumitomo in Japan, but Pro- Nova plans to manufacture those in the future, too.
Discussions are already underway to expand the facility, which will eventually have the capacity to produce 50 systems a year.
As the company expands, the facility will grow out, moving into a more mass production type environment, where gantries are moved on air pallets through an assembly line, Matteo said.
“Our expansion really depends on the pace of the orders,” he said. “Once we get our medical device clearance, we expect our end of the market to really take off.”
Total cancer strategy
ProNova has already announced it will build proton therapy systems for planned centers at Oxford University in England, as well as in Singapore and Tianjin, China. It is in negotiations with others.
The agreements are part of an overall strategy developed toward the end of last year to provide a total solution for cancer treatment, Provision Chairman and CEO Terry Douglass said.
“We’ve done something not many people have done,” he said. “It was just sort of continually looking at the opportunity, the problem, the resources we had, and here we are.”
Before turning his attention to proton therapy, Douglass co-founded CTI Molecular Imaging in the 1980s, a Knoxville company that developed PET imaging technology. Matteo headed CTI’s cyclotron business. That company was sold in 2005 to Siemens Molecular Imaging.
Now through Provision and ProNova, Douglass and Matteo are spearheading efforts to respond to a market need.
Joint venture partnerships are being established with medical institutions to design, build and operate proton therapy centers. They will be equipped with ProNova’s SC360 proton therapy system.
“It creates a lower cost, more secure investment in those centers. That’s why we’re so confident about being owners in those centers,” Douglass said. “I don’t think I would be doing this with someone else’s equipment.”
The company has evenly divided its market into three geographical areas: the United States, Europe and Asia.
It expects to start with four centers in the U.S. and four overseas, with China having the greatest need.
Through its partnership with the Tianjin Taishan Cancer Hospital, Provision is helping to develop a 1,000-bed cancer center with an adjacent proton therapy facility.
“They want a comprehensive cancer center with all the pieces,” Douglass said. “That turns out to be a big opportunity for us, but it’s also the right thing to do, because you don’t need proton therapy in a vacuum. You need it to be part of the total cancer care.”
Tianjin has already signed a letter of intent for 27 acres where Provision will eventually mirror the same manufacturing model at ProNova.
“It’s a free-trade zone. It’s a really good opportunity for us as a place to set a hub for China,” he said.
The bigger strategic plan, he added, is to create a global cancer network for all of its partners, who will take part in its clinical trials research and developing medical protocols.
“There’s a lot that can be done with existing technology and capability, and a lot of things that can be added to those techniques,” Douglass said. “We want to be the catalyst and model of how to do that.”
What: A division of Provision Health Alliance aimed at developing less expensive, lighter, more energy efficient proton therapy equipment
Location: Research and commercialization facility at 330 Pellissippi Place Way, Maryville
Size: 55,000-square-feet phase 1 building: 30,000 for R&D, assembly, testing; 25,000 office space (expansion up to 200,000 square feet on 27-acre site)
Facility cost: $20 million
Grand opening: June 2: 2 p.m. ribbon cutting; 3:30 p.m. public tours