SHINE Medical Technologies CEO Greg Piefer used a ceremonial shovel Thursday to gouge into mud on the edge of a farm field where his company’s new medical radioisotope manufacturing factory soon will rise.
He and others at the ground breaking for SHINE’s long-awaited development had some tough spade work to turn over the thick, wet soil.
But that was apropos given SHINE’s eight-year fight of gathering funding, getting regulatory approval and launching a nuclear molybdenum-99 production plant on the outskirts of Janesville—years Piefer summed up as a “big bet.”
At a groundbreaking at a farm complex just south of the SHINE’s future plant site, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, undersecretary of the National Nuclear Security Administration, laid out SHINE’s progress on the Janesville project to a crowd of about 350 local officials and SHINE investors:
“Moly-99 enables us to fight back,” Gordon-Hagerty said.
Earlier this decade, Gordon-Hagerty’s agency gave SHINE $25 million to bring domestic moly-99 production to Janesville under a federal initiative to bolster a safe, secure supply of a vital compound often in critically short supply worldwide. She used the word “fight” to talk specifically of moly-99 being a critical first line of defense in medical testing for thousands of Americans every day.
Gordon-Hagerty might as well have been talking of other fights—such as SHINE’s near demise and recovery after a key investor unexpectedly pulled back at a time when the company’s finances were dwindling.
“The company almost died in 2013,” Piefer said. “We ran out of money, spending about $7.5 million dollars that we didn’t have, we had a funding round that we thought was going to close and didn’t.”
At that time, Piefer said, the company had about two weeks cash on hand. But he said SHINE’s team stuck around and battled through an arduous federal regulatory process as the company’s business officers trudged on trying to prove to investors that SHINE’s nuclear particle accelerator technology—the first of its kind—could work on a commercial scale.
SHINE has since secured enough funding, including a $150 million financing deal the company reached last fall with a New York private health care investment firm. Last month, the city of Janesville transferred for $1 ownership of 91 acres of land it had granted SHINE through a $9 million, tax-increment financing deal the city council originally approved in 2012.
A full decade will have passed by 2022, when SHINE projects it will launch production and shipping of medical moly-99 at its Janesville plant.
Piefer in the past has spoken about the frustrations and challenges of selling the concept of nuclear particle acceleration to investors. He seemed more at ease Thursday and was almost jocular as he gave the ceremony crowd a crash course in SHINE’s core business.
“This is a factory that makes medicine from … former Russian nuclear warheads that the U.S. has bought and taken off the market,” Piefer said. “We put that in this building, and it comes out as medicine. That’s just stupidly cool.”
Alongside moly-99, which is a radioactive agent used to illuminate bone and body tissue in medical imaging tests, SHINE also plans to produce isotopes that are used as cancer-fighting agents, Piefer said.
Also, Piefer said, SHINE plans to build a second, ancillary production facility in Europe, possibly by the mid-2020s. It would be used to provide extra capacity and a backup supply in SHINE’s plans for global distribution of radioisotopes, SHINE President Todd Asmuth said.
Beloit-based NorthStar Radioisotopes already has entered the market with equipment and moly-99 it produces at a university research reactor in Missouri.
That gives NorthStar a two-year jump on SHINE.
Asmuth told The Gazette he believes NorthStar’s entry is good news for medical patients who now face worsening shortages of moly-99. He said SHINE believes the market is large enough for multiple players.
“We think there’s plenty of market out there to be had, and we already have (supply) agreements already in place with three companies. We think we’ll obtain a lot of the market,” Asmuth said.
In 2011, SHINE and the city agreed to a landmark TIF deal that has grown to about $12 million through amendments that include funding to offset SHINE’s cost of building a test facility where it now is testing its particle accelerator technology and fine tuning its future plant production processes.
The test site is adjacent to SHINE’s future plant campus across Highway 51 from the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.
SHINE now has 90 employees, many in an office in downtown Janesville. They have been preparing for construction of SHINE’s production plant and readying an operating permit application that the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission must approve before SHINE can commercially produce and ship moly-99, SHINE officials have said.
SHINE plans to apply for the operating permit sometime this year. The approval process could take up to two years, officials said.
At Thursday’s ceremony, City Manager Mark Freitag spoke about 2011, a time when Janesville still was in the grips of the Great Recession. The local economy had collapsed after the closure of the General Motors plant and the disappearance of thousands of local manufacturing jobs.
City officials at the time worked up an unprecedented TIF deal with SHINE, a multi-million dollar land-and-loan package for a startup company that was unproven and undeveloped and based on technology that few without a background in physics might fully grasp.
SHINE’s development plans came with the prospect of dozens of high-paying, skilled jobs in nuclear equipment, material handling and engineering.
Freitag was not the city manager in 2011, but he and the city’s economic development and planning staff have worked with SHINE through the company’s twists and turns, including its yearslong slog through a complex, federal regulatory process.
Freitag said SHINE and its prospect of a plant in Janesville, has been more than a small part of the city’s own fight back from troubled times.
He called SHINE the community’s “partner.”
“But most importantly, you are our friends,” Freitag said.