‘An unprecedented event:’ ProNova breaks ground on $53 million cancer therapy system
By Robert Norris | (email@example.com)
As years went by without a business opening in Pellissippi Place, the questions took on the attitude of kids in the back seat bored with the trip to the beach for summer vacation.
“How much longer?”
“Why’s it taking so much time?”
“Are we there, yet?”
On Tuesday, the shovels were finally in the sand at the groundbreaking for ProNova Solutions LLC, a company that is dedicated to making its own groundbreaking advances in proton therapy.
Matt Murray, associate director at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research and past chairman of Blount Partnership Economic Development Board, presided over the ceremony. He stood where ProNova will construct its first two buildings in the research and development park off Old Knoxville Highway at Pellissippi Parkway.
He pointed out that Maryville City Manager Greg McClain, Alcoa City Manager Mark Johnson and Blount Partnership President and CEO Bryan Daniels and others spent years of planning and coordinating to bring Pellissippi Place to reality.
In the end, the cities of Alcoa and Maryville and the counties of Blount and Knox pulled it off with a collective effort.
“This was not an easy park to develop because it represents a partnership among local governments — not simply within a community but also across county borders,” Murray said. “This is an unprecedented event. You’ll have to look far and wide across the region and across the country to find that kind of cooperative spirit. Credit goes to those that made the tough decisions.”
Murray also referenced the critics who were less than engaged in the project.
“And then those that stood by and watched the grass grow. There was nothing going on here. Of course we had the Great Recession, and we could blame the lack of activity here for that,” he said.
Then came the told-ya-so reminder: From the beginning, proponents of Pellissippi Place had cautioned that the R&D park was a long-term investment that could take 50 years to build out.
“If you go back to when we opened this park, we said that it would be many years before we would establish an economic presence here in this park, and today we’re here to celebrate this,” Murray said.
Protons against cancer
Proton therapy is an advanced form of radiation therapy that uses a single beam of high-energy protons to treat cancer. The advantage of the process is that, unlike conventional radiation therapy in which X-ray beams deposit their energy into the healthy tissue before and after the tumor site, with protons, the dose to the tumor is the same, but the dose to healthy surrounding tissue is much less.
ProNova plans a $53 million investment in its facility, with phase one consisting of a 30,000-square-foot office building and a 40,000-square-foot manufacturing structure. The company will have the only commercialization facility in the world where the entire proton therapy system can be tested complete with protons.
Terry Douglass, ProNova chairman and CEO, said the company was started in 2011 to compete with companies in Belgium and Japan that also are developing proton therapy systems.
“We believe that this is a great opportunity for us. We’re excited about being in this park, being the lead company in this park in terms of our growth and expansion,” he said.
Seventy people have already been hired by ProNova for positions in research and development, operations, marketing and sales.
When the company announced its plans, it forecast 500 jobs would be created by 2018. Douglass upped the ante Monday. He projected that by 2023 ProNova will employ more than 2,000. Construction will start as soon as architectural and construction drawings are complete. Expect amenities such as walking paths and waterfalls.
“We want this to be a place where you feel welcome,” Douglass said. “This is not just a company location, but it’s a community location.”
Technology on a roll
Joe Matteo, division president of R&D and manufacturing, said ProNova won’t stop with marketing its initial product. It will develop super-conducting magnet technology, permanent-magnet technology, super-conducting cyclotron technology, precision robotics, mechanisms for specialized designs, imaging, X-ray imaging, PET imaging and potentially MR imaging.
“All of that will be developed at this site, and then all of the software that links that together,” he said.
ProNova has already built and tested its alpha-phase super-conducting magnet in Oak Ridge, and has built and is testing its beta phase of magnets. It has filed “quite a few patents and we’ve got a few more in the works.”
ProNova is close to an agreement with its first customer. It is engaged in collaboration with six different countries and has had visitors from around the world.
“So we really have international presence, and we hope to be setting the pace in development of technology,” Matteo said.
The company’s search for employees also is far-reaching.
“We’re attracting the best talent in the country. There’s no doubt about that. We have no real issues in getting people here when they see the technology,” Matteo said.
He added that the company needs continued support from the local community.
“It is really important to us. We are bringing people in from all over the country. We’re hiring locally, and we’re leveraging local resources. We need collaborations with local researchers and service providers. We are growing at breakneck speed, and you can’t do that alone.”
Or without testing your limits.
“Tough times are ahead of us. We’ve got a big, complex product to build,” Matteo said.
Mayors on stump
After the executives, the mayors had their say.
• Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell: “It excites me that they’re the first anchor here. I don’t think that we could have gone out and got anyone (better). ... That’s exactly what we needed. They bring everything to this park that this park is going to need to grow. Where they go, others will follow.”
• Alcoa Mayor Don Mull: “It’s amazing that we can all get together in our counties and see something like this come to fruition.”
• Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor: “This really is a coup for our chamber and our community. This is an amazing industry we have located here. They are going to build a facility that is almost beyond our comprehension right now.”
• Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett: “In addition to investing millions of dollars in this site, ProNova Solutions will also employ hundreds of people in our great community, and that’s good news for all of East Tennessee because economic development here in Blount County is good for our entire region.”
Murray noted that the groundbreaking creates the third point of an economic triangle including Oak Ridge, UT and Pellissippi Place.
“Each of these players, each of these end points of this triangle has an important impact, an economic impact, a quality-of-life impact on this region,” Murray said.
“That type of partnering arrangement from a business perspective is consistent with the partnering that’s gone on to make this happen, to make this facility location happen here in Blount County — again a partnership between four local governments. We stand to gain a lot more through our cooperation on these matters than through competition against one another,” Murray said.