ProNova premieres today in Pellissippi Place
By Bob Norris
June 2, 2015
It’s showtime at Pellissippi Place in Alcoa. Just under four years after its incorporation in July 2011, ProNova Solutions LLC is holding its grand opening today. Guest speakers and a ribbon-cutting ceremony are set to start at 2 p.m. Public tours of the new facility will start at 3:30 p.m.
Joe Matteo, division president of ProNova, is ready to show off the new facility that will manufacture the next generation of proton therapy systems that could revolutionize treatment of certain cancers.
The potential impact on the region’s economy is eye-popping. A University of Tennessee study commissioned by the Blount County Chamber of Commerce projected that as ProNova grows it could generate more than 5,000 jobs with total annual incomes of nearly $500 million.
Those are “wow” numbers, and Matteo believes that will be the impact on visitors today as they get their first look at the 30,000-square-foot part of the new building that is dedicated to research and development, assembly and testing. His point was made while stepping from the second floor of the 25,000-square-foot office space onto the catwalk overseeing the voluminous work area.
“This is when you say, ‘Wow!’ Every person who walks out here says, ‘Wow!’” Matteo said. “This is a pretty serious building.”
Indeed it is. Although it also has its folksy touches with rooms having names of local flavor such as Rocky Top, Smoky Mountain, Townsend and Maryville.
About 50 ProNova employees have transferred to the Pellissippi Place location from the Provision Center for Proton Therapy in Knoxville, where ProNova has 10,000 square feet of office and R&D space.
ProNova has about 120 on staff now. By the end of the year, about 190 are expected to be on board.
Many of the employees are young, and they helped design the new building that is located next to the Maryville-Alcoa Greenway. A slab by the staff parking area will be a set up for basketball and volleyball. Inside there is a fitness center equipped with treadmills and other exercise equipment — showers, too.
The office area features two well-furnished customer conference rooms.
“We’re bringing in customers from all over the world. They’re buying potentially the most expensive thing they’ll ever buy, so they expect to be treated well. They’re going to bring their most senior officials from their facilities, “ Matteo said.
What kind of price tag? Depends on accessories and the number of rooms. This is a big ballpark.
“What we think of as the ideal offering is a two-gantry system,” Matteo said. “You’re probably in the $34 million range with a whole number of features. That can go way up with multiple rooms and go down in a one-room system.”
When at full production capacity, ProNova will be capable of building 10, two-room systems in a year. The company has 27 acres of space and preliminary plans allow for construction of five more buildings that could bring construction up to 50 systems annually.
“We believe in this. In the long term this is going to be a big business that’s going to grow. When CTI located where it did, we were the first company in that area. There was nothing around it. And everything grew up around it. Here we have tremendous opportunities. It’s a beautiful setting,” Matteo said.
CTI is CTI Molecular Imaging, the Oak Ridge company that brought positron emission tomography (PET) from the lab to clinical reality so the breakthrough technology could benefit millions of cancer patients. Terry Douglass, CEO and chairman of ProNova, was co-founder of CTI.
The company is the new kid on the block when it comes to manufacturing proton therapy devices. But ProNova has big plans. People taking today’s tour will see why. A series of diagrams show the evolution of proton therapy devices. The Belgian-made model currently in use at Provision weighs in at 240 tons. It rotates 360 degrees around the patient. That’s an advantage. Next in line are ProNova’s current top contenders. They’ve managed to bring down the tonnage to 90, 60 and 50. But to do that they’ve had to restrict the pivot to 180 degrees.
Then there’s ProNova at the front of the line. Weight: 25 tons. Rotation: 360 degrees
Proton therapy skeptics — typically competitors or insurance companies — come at ProNova on the matter of cost. But Matteo is confident that is being addressed and will inevitibly fall in ProNova’s favor.
“That’s the easy way to pick on proton therapy,” Matteo said. “But when you start looking at the cost to the patient plus the cost to the insurer, because it’s more precise, we can deliver more dose in less time with confidence. As soon as you can do that then you can start to reduce the cost to the patient. And you actually improve the experience for the patient — fewer treatments. Some cancers respond better to the higher doses.
“There’s a lot of power hidden in there that we have yet to really exploit,” he said.
While some insurance companies balk at paying for proton therapy, he said employers who cover their employees’ health costs are more receptive when made aware of the advantages. For another thing, being smaller and lighter is a money-saver. Matteo cites capital costs, building costs and operational costs on the plus side for ProNova. And there’s another advantage: The ProNova gantry can handle 30 percent more patients and better workflow in a vault 40 percent smaller with a treatment area 23 percent larger.
Then there’s the technology.
“We have a number of patents in the works and they’re starting to come through. We’re proud of that,” Matteo said.
The superconducting magnets are the heart of the system.
“There’s five individual magnets in here and one big vacuum chamber,” he explained. “This operates at 4 degrees Kelvin, which is about minus 453 degrees Fahrenheit.”
The Oak Ridge connection
And don’t forget the Oak Ridge connection. There’s already a one-fifth-scale model of the gantry at ProNova. It was produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory on the largest rapid prototyping machine in the world. In lay terms, that’s 3-D printing, or additive layer manufacturing. ORNL’s expertise was prominently on display when they rolled out a car for President Barack Obama to show what they could do.
“This a partnership with Oak Ridge. This is the next-generation gantry that’s made out of (carbon-fiber impregnated plastic) plates. This allowing us to test our assembly process,” Matteo said.
As for the job-producing power of ProNova. He believes it will happen. It did with CTI.
“We’re very focused on outsourcing,” he said. “What we’ll do is we’ll bring something in-house until we get the processes dialed in and we’re confident and we’ll give that to somebody.”
Once the process is perfected and outsourced, ProNova plans to do what it does best — R&D.
“Our value is in the design and validation, and then we don’t add value anymore. So we’ll send that to somebody else and then we’ll worry about developing the next one,” Matteo said. “That’s where we really add value.”