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'Playing in the big leagues': P.E.I. fish health company sells for $1.3 billion

Elanco began on the Island in the late 1980s as AquaHealth with 20 employees. The company, now with 140 workers, was recently purchased by animal health giant Merck for $1.3 billion. (Alex MacIsaac/CBC - image credit)
Elanco began on the Island in the late 1980s as AquaHealth with 20 employees. The company, now with 140 workers, was recently purchased by animal health giant Merck for $1.3 billion. (Alex MacIsaac/CBC - image credit)

An international animal health company with facilities in Prince Edward Island has been sold to a global powerhouse to the tune of $1.3 billion.

Elanco Animal Health entered into an agreement to sell its aquaculture business to Merck Animal Health.

Elanco's aquaculture assets include a fish health vaccine lab in Charlottetown's West Royalty Industrial Park that employs 140 people.

Rory Francis, CEO of the P.E.I. BioAlliance that includes Elanco among its 60 companies, called the Merck sale a "coming of age" for the biotech sector on the Island.

Rory Francis, CEO of the P.E.I. BioAlliance.
Rory Francis, CEO of the P.E.I. BioAlliance.

Rory Francis, CEO of the P.E.I. BioAlliance, says Elanco's sale is part of the evolution of the province's biotech sector. (Alex MacIsaac/CBC)

"It's the evolution of the [BioAlliance] cluster in terms of being now part of the global community with multi-national companies purchasing high-quality assets that we've developed in Prince Edward Island," Francis said.

"Companies like Merck will grow businesses. So it creates another opportunity for us to grow here in P.E.I. — grow that business, grow employment opportunities and grow the technologies here."

Elanco began on the Island in the late 1980s as a startup called AquaHealth, one of the founding companies of the P.E.I. BioAlliance. It employed only 20 people at that time.

AquaHealth was purchased by Novartis Animal Health in 2000, growing to over 120 employees before it was purchased by Elanco in 2015.

"Elanco's technology here includes some really specialized DNA vaccine manufacturing capability," Francis said. "Starting back in Novartis time, DNA vaccines developed here in P.E.I. [were] the first registered vaccine for animal health in the world. One of the most valuable vaccines for fish health in the world right now … is manufactured here in P.E.I."

The $1.3 billion sale to Merck, itself an animal health giant, also includes Elanco assets in Vietnam and Chile. Francis estimated the P.E.I. facility to be about half of total sale value.

'How do we do more here in P.E.I.?'

While a news release on the sale didn't comment on whether Merck would retain all of those 140 Elanco employees on the Island, Francis is optimistic that the vaccine manufacturing arm will remain local.

"It gives us an extra sense of security that the existing platform here will be an important asset for Merck into the future. The opportunity that we will be taking in our conversations with Merck will be, 'OK, how do we do more here in P.E.I.?'" he said.

"It means we're playing in the big leagues."