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I'm Aware That I'm Rare: the phaware® podcast

A new podcast series devoted to raising global pulmonary hypertension awareness with dynamic stories from PH patients, caregivers and medical professionals from around the world. New Episodes every Monday & Thursday!

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Avi Halpert - phaware® interview 319

Mar 31, 2020

My name is Avi Halpert. I work for United Therapeutics Corporation, based in Silver Spring, Maryland. I've been happily employed with UT going on 14 and a half years. Just happened upon UT when I was working in the Silver Spring market, managing and building and had an interview with Dr. Martine Rothblatt one Thanksgiving, and was offered an opportunity to head up real estate and construction for the company. It's one of the best decisions in my life and it was a wonderful opportunity. It continues to be a wonderful opportunity.

We are a unique division of United Therapeutics to have in house real estate and construction, for a small company. There's a team of five of us that build, renovate, buy, and sell facilities worldwide for United Therapeutics, tailoring unique facilities. I think it was the fact that everything is unique within United Therapeutics, that Martine wanted to bring this service in-house rather than outsourcing it to some company that didn't have the connection.

You get an email from Dr. Rothblatt and it's, "Hey Avi, stop what you're doing. I need you and your team to focus on a building in Silver Spring, and in 15 months from now, I want it to be ready and commissioned and have FDA approval." It's those challenges and those stretch goals that come almost every day to us here, at the corporate real estate department, trying to keep up with the vision of Martine and the demands of the PAH industry and its devices, it's drugs. These are special facilities all over the place. Martine takes an incredible interest in real estate. She knows it's a competitive marketplace out there, and she wants people to feel good about where they work and where they manufacturer the drug and where they produce the devices. Facilities are part of our culture. You walk in through a United Therapeutics facility worldwide and you know, with the United Therapeutics facility, it's not that generic, rectilinear facility that anybody else would have.

First of all, I think there's a cultural aspect. Yes [there's] FDA, you have GMP manufacturing spaces and there's a standard of cleanliness and operational efficiencies that are necessitated by the FDA, by the European Union, by the Japanese and other regulatory agencies around the world, that ultimately accept our drug and our devices worldwide. But that unique United Therapeutics culture, where our corporate real estate team sits down with the manufacturing groups and with human resources, and with quality control, and everyone's got their seat at the table, to make sure that the facility meets everybody's goals. An outside consultant and an outside architect just don’t appreciate all the nuances. We do things a little differently and we might want something a little special and a little different from your typical pharma/bio-science company out there.

It's those unique elements that excite, that invigorates, our team from the receptionist and shipping and receiving, to our research departments, to our manufacturing team. Everybody's got a say in it. Everyone's a participant at the table and Martine wants to make sure that we deliver these facilities in a timely fashion, because she knows having these facilities ready, in anticipation of FDA approval, is most important. I remember she told me a while ago, we built a facility and I think it was probably four or five years before we ultimately received FDA approval. And I'm like, "Martine, why are we waiting?" She said, "If we receive FDA approval and then I tell you to go, Avi and team, you've got two years, if we're lucky, to deliver that facility - that's two years where I cannot deliver enough or any drug product to our patient population." So yes, we do occasionally do things at risk, but it's that positive attitude of build it and FDA approval shall come, is sort of a mantra around here.

I think, overall, our team is proud of delivering these facilities, and when we see a drug product ultimately leave it. The most unique thing about what we do is all the buildings, even if they are more of an administrative function, there are people in there that are making things happen to make lives better, and extend the lives of patients and families that are dealing with PAH and dealing with rare oncology cancers. But Martine pushes us, she pushes us with timeframes. Sometimes the timeframe, if you look at when custom manufacturing equipment needs to be produced overseas and when she wants the facilities delivered, the times don't even match up, because it takes longer to manufacture the equipment before a building could be ready. She has a vision of where things should be and sometimes pushing the limits with local municipalities is a real driving force. We built a new drug manufacturing for our Unituxin pediatric neuroblastoma drug here in Silver Spring. We had to get a zoning text amendment to allow for our mechanical floors not to count as overall floor area ratio. We essentially built a 30,000 square foot building where we were, by right, entitled to build about a 15,000 square foot building.

United Therapeutics, in most of our markets, has a unique story to tell and it's a compelling story. But it's what our team does when we meet with local council members, and local officials, and department of permitting services, and construction, and utilities. We tell them the story and we tell them what we ultimately need and we find a way to deliver these buildings in unique and quick timeframes in urban environments. Even in our North Carolina facility, which we have plenty of grounds, we are meeting with town managers and we are meeting with permitting people. The first thing we do, rather than talk about our project, is talk about our company and how special it is, and what a small population of patients that we are servicing.

Once people understand that we're not building that 7-Eleven or that new gas station and that what we're doing is important. Everybody talks with passion. I bring our annual report, which are unique. We have our own in-house art department that loves showing how different we are. I bring an annual report. Most recently, for our pediatric neuroblastoma drug, our team came up with a little cartoon book and finger puppets that help tell the story to these young patients and their families. You put it on the table and everybody's like, "Why did this real estate person come, who's asking me to approve a set of plans or a site plan or ask for a variance to a building code. Why'd they bring a children's book and finger puppets?" I'll leave it down there. Then I'll tell why we do these special things. Patients and their families are important to us and we make sure that the buildings are state of the art, and that we can deliver the drug product and the drug devices out of these special buildings.

We have an in-house art department that comes up with unique art throughout our campuses worldwide. I need to make sure that we have a home for it. We have a living, breathing sculpture in one of our buildings, and I had to make sure that the fire code would allow us to hang this piece of art from the ceiling, and that it wouldn't interfere with the fire system. So, it's a collaborative effort. There's nothing that doesn't happen that everybody has a finger in it. It's part of our branding. I think we're a little subtle. We like to stay off the radar. We weave that into the architecture, also. A few times we've been called out by municipalities that say, "Hey, those lungs on the building, that's signage." And we go, "Oh no. It's just an architectural element." So, art is important both for the public and when we have visitors. They'll see it throughout our complex. We work hand in hand with art and legal and our marketing department to make sure that it's very clear that you're in a United Therapeutics facility anywhere in the world.

I came from the construction industry and I was building Kentucky Fried Chickens and Walgreens throughout the Washington metropolitan area, and knew nothing about the pharma industry, other than when I picked up my prescription. I can tell you if they told me that I could pay $10 and get generic, I did it. It wasn't until I met everybody at United Therapeutics and recognized what pharma is truly about and what goes in to a name brand drug, and what kind of passion and love happens. It's integral to everybody over here and how we know that we make a great, lifesaving drug. It's truly important. When I told Martine that I knew nothing about the industry and knew nothing about manufacturing and her comment, I'll never forget it was, "Avi, if I give you the resources to deliver on my vision and the company's vision, will you take the job?" And I said, "Sure." Then I paused. I was recently married and I said, "I'd like to check with my wife first." She said, "Check with your wife. I'll see you in two weeks." And I've never looked back.

I love construction. I love what I did for the first portion of my life. But to know that our team is delivering amazing buildings all over the place. [When] I'm on trains and in hotels and in restaurants, you find, quickly, you're less than two degrees of separation from somebody that has a lung ailment or cancer. Just knowing that I'm part of something bigger here at United Therapeutics.

I walk around all of our buildings on a regular basis and take pictures and send them to our engineering team and I'm like, "This doesn't look right. Can you deal with this?" And they're like, "Hey, this is facilities and engineering." [And I tell them] "No, it's our building and I'm going to make sure that it looks the way we delivered it five years ago, and two years ago, and 15 years ago.

So, it's important to myself. It's important to Martine. It's important to everybody that works on my team, Thomas, and Andy, and Amy, and Alaina, and Rob. We take everything that we do very personally and we're passionate about it. I hope we continue to be able to deliver these fascinating buildings. But more importantly, it's the fascinating science that comes from the buildings that is important to everybody here at the United Therapeutics.

This is Avi Halpert, and I'm aware that I'm rare.

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