AstraZeneca unloads an R&D campus after shedding 650 workers

AstraZeneca's Wilmington, DE, headquarters.--Courtesy of AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca ($AZN) has sold off another sprawling research outpost in its global reorganization, this time ditching half of its Delaware headquarters to JPMorgan for $44 million, according to local reports.

The 58-acre site forms the southern wing of AstraZeneca's Wilmington-based American HQ, and the drugmaker plans to vacate the site by year's end, the Philadelphia Business Journal reports. The south campus was once home to AstraZeneca's Global Medicines Development unit, but, as part of its sweeping R&D rethink announced last spring, the company said it's laying off 650 employees at the site over the next few years, transferring another 550 or so to other drug development shops, including subsidiary MedImmune's headquarters in Gaithersburg, MD. About 2,000 employees will remain in Wilmington once the shuffle is complete, focusing on commercial work, the company said.

The sale is all part of AstraZeneca's top-down effort to make its R&D operation at once more productive and more efficient, a plan that will result in thousands of layoffs and consolidate much of the company's research footprint into a $500 million hub in Cambridge, U.K. The move, spearheaded by second-year CEO Pascal Soriot, has seen AstraZeneca exit neglected disease development, shudder labs around the globe and strike up a spate of collaborations with academia and biotech.

Now the company is gearing up for its for its big consolidation, dispatching fleets of scientists in a sort of recon effort to get the collaborative ball rolling before it settles in by 2016. Sliding into Cambridge's healthy ecosystem of biopharma research makes "a clear statement of intent about putting science at the heart of everything we do," Executive Vice President Mene Pangalos said last week, and AstraZeneca's R&D plans follow a long-standing trend of drug developers ditching suburban office parks and cozying up to universities, medical centers and other biotech innovators.

There is of course no guarantee that a change in scenery will jump-start AstraZeneca's stilted pipeline, but similar efforts have proved profitable for the likes of Novartis ($NVS), Sanofi ($SNY) and Pfizer ($PFE), and with generic competition fast eroding its revenue, the U.K. drugmaker has plenty incentive to try something new.

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