Behind the iron curtain

PPD acquires AbCRO, strengthens foothold in Eastern Europe

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SOFIA, Bulgaria—Continuing to break down the barriers of the "iron curtain" and gain further entrance into emerging markets, Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc. (PPD) has agreed to acquire AbCRO, an American-owned contract research organization operating in Central and Eastern Europe, for approximately $30 million. The trek into Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia is expected to enhance Wilmington, N.C.-based PPD's expertise in this high-growth region and strengthen existing operations in Poland, Russia and Ukraine.

The agreement was announced Feb. 9. The acquisition is subject to customary closing conditions and obtaining regulatory approvals, and is expected to close on or about the end of the first quarter.

The timing is right, says PPD CEO Fred Eshelman.

"Eastern Europe is a high-growth market for clinical trials and a region PPD has targeted for expansion," Eshelman says. "The region offers a relatively low density of clinical trials per population when compared with Western Europe, has a well-developed health care infrastructure and enthusiastic clinical investigators."

With offices in 33 countries and 10,500 professionals worldwide, PPD is a leading global contract research organization providing discovery, development and post-approval services, as well as compound partnering programs. Its clients and partners include pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, academic and government organizations.

Founded in 1985 as a one-person consulting firm by Eshelman, PPD opened its first office in the region in 1995 and established its presence in Russia and Ukraine last year through its acquisition of InnoPharm Ltd. The company states it offers well-trained investigators, a large pool of easily reachable patients and a lower density of clinical trials compared to Western Europe and North America.

"We are one of the largest CRO's operating in Central and Eastern Europe," Eshelman says. "AbCRO will extend our reach in the region by establishing a presence. Under the leadership of (co-founders) Dana A. Leff and Christa Pleasants, AbCRO has built a strong clinical business, and we are gaining a high-caliber group of more than 230 clinical research professionals. All AbCRO employees will remain with PPD. Once the acquisition is complete, we will have new offices in Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Serbia.

"Having worked with them before, we expect a relatively seamless integration with AbCRO employees, well-versed on PPD procedures and systems," Eshelman adds. "The acquisition will enhance our ability to conduct global studies for our clients in a high-growth region."

The deal also aligns with AbCRO's goals, Leff says.

"For AbCRO, being acquired by PPD means that we have combined forces with our largest client to reach our common goal to be the dominant CRO in Central and Eastern Europe," Leff says.

Leff, based in Sofia, Bulgaria, AbCRO's headquarters, co-founded AbCRO in 2000 after working in Bulgaria for two years and studying the local language and culture. She manages the business activities of AbCRO including financial management, human resources, customer relations, marketing and business development.

AbCRO provides a full-range of Phase II-IV clinical services, including clinical trial management and monitoring, patient recruitment, site identification and regulatory affairs.

Prior to starting AbCRO, Leff served as the marketing and sales director for US Meds, a Bulgarian-based firm. While at US Meds, she identified the untapped opportunity to conduct clinical research in southeastern Europe and returned to the U.S. in 1999 to develop and launch the company.

"While clinical research in Eastern Europe has grown tremendously, there are many possibilities for continued expansion," Leff said. "We look forward to combining our strong client base and expertise with PPD's global resources to build upon our immense growth in this region."

Christa Pleasants, chairman and co-founder of AbCRO, will join PPD's clinical operations in the United Kingdom as a senior director.

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