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To honor the visit of Commissioner Thierry Breton, Clemens Horn had put on his most beautiful tie on Easter Sunday [April 4, 2021]. The one that sports “chemical” patterns that characterize his profession: a test tube, tubes, mathematical formulas… A discreet fantasy, like the man. In fact, this tie is the one that this German chemist, installed since July 2020 in Burgundy at the head of CordenPharma’s continuous chemistry laboratory (*) [in CordenPharma Chenôve (FR)], usually reserves for the birthdays of his four children.
Thierry Breton wanted, this very special Sunday, to pay tribute to the hundreds of workers who, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, run the 53 sites that produce vaccines in Europe. The CordenPharma factory in Chenôve – a distant heir to the Fournier laboratories, once a historic nugget in the Dijon metropolitan area – is one of six production sites in France. It is here, close to the first vineyards of Marsannay that the American company Moderna tracked down this subcontractor of Swiss origin [one of three CordenPharma facilities involved in the lipid supply agreement with Moderna for their COVID-19 vaccine].
“At CordenPharma Chenôve, we manufacture part of the lipids that envelop the active substance of the Moderna vaccine,” explains Yves Michon, the Managing Director of the Côte-d’Orien site. “This envelope must be strong enough to pass through the body and protect the active substance. But once in the cell, the lipids must dissolve to release the active substance. Everything is a matter of precision, of dosages. Starting in April 2020, CordenPharma’s lipid production went from a few kilos per year to several hundred kilos per month, in connection with CordenPharma Chenôve and our other lipids sites CordenPharma Colorado and CordenPharma Switzerland.”
“In CordenPharma Chenôve, we manufacture part of the lipids that envelop the active substance of the Moderna vaccine,” explains Yves Michon, the Managing Director of the Côte-d’Orien site. “This envelope must be strong enough to pass through the body and protect the active substance. But once in the cell, the lipids must dissolve to release the active substance. Everything is a matter of precision, of dosages.”
Tall, with a bald head, a long face with a relaxed beard, Dr. Clemens Horn’s stature exceeded a little among the employees Breton had come to congratulate and thank. The chemist did not particularly seek to put himself forward. It was the other employees who designated him with a certain admiration as THE recruit who was going to boost the company. Specialist in continuous chemistry, the expert chemist from Chenôve is a kind of genius jack-of-all-trades, custodian of ten patents. The most important is not yet published (a process that speeds up barcode scanning), so, shhh!
The seriousness of his work contrasts with the man’s fantasy and humor. When, at the end of the visit, Commissioner Breton was finishing his sandwich and the atmosphere was relaxing on the lawn in front of the buildings that house the sophisticated piping of the reactors, Clemens Horn discreetly reserved his little birthday magic trick for his colleagues at CordenPharma. And his tie, by magic, straightened! In his pockets, jokes and tricks, optical illusion gadgets, rubber bands with which he entertains his teams in little sleight of hand…
“I use magic to capture attention when I have to make long presentations at conferences,” he says. They can be soporific otherwise. So, a little sleight of hand, and attention is revived. By the way, have you ever tried to organize a birthday party with ten young children? It’s a nightmare! The only moment of silence is when I do magic tricks. And then Clemens Horn, who likes to dissect everything, sees magic as a way to sharpen his mind. “A good chemist must always know a magic trick,” he continues. “The important thing in chemistry, when you are faced with a problem, is to shift your gaze, take a step back, observe the whole and see things differently. With magic, it’s the same. Everything is explained. But we have to look elsewhere. With chemistry, we can also do “magic,” like transforming the smell of vomit into the smell of strawberries.”
“A good chemist must always know a magic trick,” he continues. “The important thing in chemistry, when you are faced with a problem, is to shift your gaze, take a step back, observe the whole and see things differently. With magic, it’s the same. Everything is explained. But we have to look elsewhere. With chemistry, we can also do “magic,” like transforming the smell of vomit into the smell of strawberries.”
In the Horn family, chemistry flows from father to son (his father taught it). The young Clemens grew up in Frankfurt in this world where we run after mice in the garden to better dissect them… “Chemistry, it stinks, it changes color and it explodes, it’s still a particular job”, he admits. In France, the industrial sector, and even more the chemicals, suffers from a bad image, while in Germany, it is central. Learning is less developed. Here, deindustrialization has taken its toll. We measure it bitterly when we compare, on the map, the twenty or so COVID-19 vaccine production sites located across the Rhine versus the few sites identified in France.
“It’s linked to training,” says Yves Michon. In France, we have an extremely theoretical elite training. Intellectually, we have very strong elites with lots of Field medals, etc. [polytechnicians, editor’s note] who go to MIT to put everyone two lengths behind. I know it from experience, from my family. On the other hand, when it comes to setting up a lab and going from idea to practice, our Swiss friends or our German friends put us four lengths behind.”
French chemistry graduates do not necessarily find employment in France at the end of their course. Among Horn’s colleagues in Chenôve, some French people first started out in Belgium, at Solvay, before finding work in their homeland. Dr. Matthieu Giraud, Global Director of the Peptides, Lipids & Carbohydrates technology platform at CordenPharma International, is a case in point. “After my doctorate in Montpellier, I went directly to Switzerland where I had many more opportunities than in France,” he confirms. It was very easy for me to find work in Switzerland. I then joined a German company. I didn’t speak a word of German. The production workers spoke only German – I got by with English and Spanish, and they took me anyway. I’m not sure it would happen so easily in France.”
“We here in Chenôve are looking for general practitioners, not specialists, because our clients are very diverse,” said Yves Michon, happy to have been able to turn around a company which had fallen to 100 employees after years without a course. In a few years, since the takeover by CordenPharma, it has grown from 100 to 180 people. “Our brand image is growing, so it’s easier to get markets.” Not so easy to attract brains to Burgundy. In Chenôve, there are a dozen doctors in chemistry. “Do you know what they say? When you come to Dijon, you cry twice: once when you arrive, once when you leave,” jokes Yves Michon.
Clemens Horn chose France for a long time. And once again, it is Europe, at what it does best, that is at the heart of its destiny. “I did Erasmus, in the UK, at the University of Sussex, Brighton. And there I met my wife, Nathalie, a Frenchwoman. Then he obtained a grant from the Marie Curie action program – Europe again! – to finish his research for two years at Pierre Fabre, in Castres. This European program (328 million euros) benefits more than 1,600 researchers in Europe and around the world.
“Erasmus creates a network. The godfather of my children is Italian”, underlines Clemens Horn, aware however that one cannot force people to emigrate. In a specialized profession, where the talent market is European, the Erasmus card is nevertheless a considerable asset. Even CordenPharma CEO Dr. Michael Quirmbach is an Erasmus alumnus. “In Germany, the university system is very pyramidal,” continues Horn, who went through the University of Nuremberg. At the bottom of the ladder, there is the student who must know everything. Above that is the lab assistant who needs to know where to look. And above that, there is the professor who must know where to find the assistant,” he jokes.
In the world of chemistry, Horn learned a lot by spending 14 years at Corning, in Fontainebleau, France, his previous job. “Everything that was chemical at Corning fell on my table: I made glasses, cell phone components, fiber optics… We have to constantly evolve. One day a teacher told me something: “If you find something in a book, it’s because it’s no longer valid, it’s too old.”” In the field of continuous chemistry, there is laboratory equipment which was developed by Clemens Horn. Sometimes very simple things, like controlling an on / off valve by programming a small application on a cell phone. “It’s not difficult and it doesn’t cost much,” he slips modestly. “Clemens reads a journal where scientists exchange practical solutions,” recalls his colleague Cyril Bécat, responsible for engineering and maintenance. It’s always funny. There was an article where we learned how to fix a GPS on a turtle…” It’s true that it can still be used!
From Burgundy, with the pandemic and social restrictions, he has not yet seen much. “I don’t think I like snails very much,” he slips, as if apologizing. I am not a great wine connoisseur either. But we adapt.”
(*) Continuous chemistry consists in obtaining a result by mixing several continuous jet streams. This makes it possible to obtain a more stable, more precise result at a lower cost. As if, to obtain a pie dough, we constantly mixed flour, milk and eggs in a continuous jet…