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ABQ firm uses high tech to guarantee low temperatures

SAVSU Technologies has hitched its fortunes to the rapidly-emerging, personalized-medicine industry.

The Albuquerque startup, which launched in 2010, only began commercial operations last year. But its thermal shipping containers are now delivering frozen cells and genes to institutional customers on five different continents, providing a critical bridge for the emerging industry to bring new, cutting-edge therapies to market.

“Hundreds of companies and institutions are now using our product, from research universities, hospitals and clinics to some of today’s biggest pharmaceutical, biotechnology and specialty-shipping companies,” said SAVSU CEO Dana Barnard. “The only continents we’re not yet on is the Antarctica and Africa.”

That puts SAVSU, which stands for State of the Art Vaccine Storage Unit, on the ground floor of a nascent industry that many believe could fundamentally change how people fight disease.

“We expect to be a world leader in our segment of this market,” Barnard said. “We’ve built our technology in parallel to the cell and gene therapy industry. The first commercial therapies only began selling one year ago, and we launched our commercial operations alongside the industry’s development.”

To manage its transition from research and development to commercial operations, the company moved in December from a 2,000-square-foot space near the Albuquerque International Sunport to a 10,000-square-foot facility in the north I-25 industrial corridor near Jefferson and Osuna. It doubled its workforce to 20 people in the last year, and it expects to double the employee base again this year, Barnard said.

Its thermal shipping containers provide the temperature controls, robust protection and built-in monitoring systems needed to safely deliver cyro-preserved and hypothermo-preserved cells, tissues and organs, said SAVSU President and Chief Technology Officer Bruce McCormick.

SAVSU CEO Dana Barnard with a new environmental test chamber, one of two the company recently installed at its new facility.

“We’ve built out our products with four different temperature ranges and various sizes,” McCormick said. “The market for cryogenically frozen materials is growing rapidly…but they have extreme shipping requirements. You can’t deliver these therapies to patients without this type of technology.”

Highly temperature-sensitive biologics and pharmaceuticals must be preserved in the original state they were prepared for up to a week or more for delivery to every corner of the world, Barnard said.

“These are therapies designed for individual patients with individual doses,” Barnard said. “They’re high value and difficult to replace.”

Globally, industry spends about $15 billion annually on all cold-chain medical shipments, including about $9 billion for transportation and $3 billion for specialized packaging, according to estimates by Chain Link Research and Pharmaceutical Commerce magazine. But use of currently available cold technologies results in between $15 billion and $35 billion spent annually to replace products lost because of temperature alterations.

Apart from proprietary thermal packaging, the company’s built-in, online monitoring system provides customers with real-time tracking information and conditional knowledge of container contents. It offers 24/7 monitoring of ambient and in-container temperatures, package location, whether the container has been opened and for how long, and the time remaining to safely deliver therapies to end users.

That’s critical for supply chain management, allowing a huge network of people, from original shippers to researchers and doctors, to know what’s going on and what actions to take, Barnard said.

“If you have a doctor waiting to do a procedure on a patient, the doctor will know immediately if the package has arrived at the hospital, or if it’s within one mile of arriving, to prepare,” Barnard said. “It will tell him if the container has been opened and how much time before the product goes bad once it’s opened.”

It took years to build the monitoring system’s hardware and software, said McCormick, who created SAVSU’s original thermal packaging technology.

When the company started in 2010, it first focused on temperature-controlled vaccine deliveries to remote areas, particularly in developing companies where lack of power often ruins medicine before it can be used. The World Health Organization used SAVSU containers in clinical trials for an Ebola virus vaccine in 2015, and many health organizations still use them today, McCormick said.

But in 2014, the company decided to refocus on the emerging cell and gene therapy industry, launching it on a four-year research-and development path to build its monitoring system in connection with new containers specially made for that market.

SAVSU built all the hardware and worked in partnership on the software with Seattle-based BioLife Solutions, which offers cyro- and hypothermo-preservation for cells and tissues. BioLife is now a minority investor in SAVSU with 44 percent of company stock, including a $5 million investment it made in September.

Michigan-based Barson Corp., a high-performance materials company with operations in New York, is majority owner, with 55 percent of SAVSU stock, said Barnard, who is also CEO of Barson. McCormick and Barnard have worked together to build SAVSU from the start.

The company has invested about $10 million to build its technology. BioLife’s latest $5 million investment allowed SAVSU to finance its new facility, including high-tech equipment for design, testing and manufacturing of containers.

The company subcontracts some components to Mexican companies. It makes others in Albuquerque, and assembles the final product here.

The containers are then leased to specialty shipping companies and other customers, providing SAVSU with recurring monthly revenue.

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