9 questions for AbbVie’s Ilke Limoncu

The biopharmaceutical company’s director of public affairs talks about opening a state-of-the-art Bay Area R&D facility.

Limoncu said Abbvie's efforts have included STEM education for girls.

In March, AbbVie held the grand opening of a 480,000 square-foot research and development facility in South San Francisco. The biopharmaceutical company is investing in cancer research in the Bay Area and in efforts to foster new scientific talent, particularly among women and people of color. 

To learn more about the Chicago-based company’s goals in California, PRWeek spoke with Ilke Limoncu, director of public affairs at AbbVie.

What made AbbVie build this R&D facility in the Bay Area?

AbbVie had three separate Bay Area organizations: a group in Sunnyvale, one in Redwood City and an organization in South San Francisco. The desire was to bring all three of these organizations together into a new facility so that we could all collaborate more closely together and really build out oncology expertise here. This particular facility in South San Francisco, which is the birthplace of biotech, is primarily focused on oncology research and development and commercialization. 

Within oncology, are there treatments or therapies that AbbVie is focused on?

AbbVie is recognized as a blood cancer leader. We have years and years of expertise in understanding and treating different forms of blood cancer, like chronic lymphocytic leukemia. We have two on-market therapies to treat CLL and different blood cancer conditions. Imbruvica is one, and that marketing and commercial team is actually based in South San Francisco.

The other therapy is Venclexta, and [there are] some colleagues who work on Venclexta here as well. Now our focus is trying to build our oncology expertise into other areas of blood cancer and then in the solid tumor oncology area. This facility here in the Bay Area is going to play a really big role, particularly in the solid tumor research realm because you have a lot of oncology expertise that lives in the Bay Area.

You have a multitude of oncology companies literally across the street from us, and it's a matter of identifying opportunities to partner with some of these companies.

Can you tell me more about what AbbVie has planned for community efforts in the Bay Area?

This new facility represents roughly 1,500 employees today, and most of those employees are focused on oncology and R&D. We really see this as a place for a scientist to come and build their career. 

What we would like to do locally is try to attract some of that scientific expertise, and we do several things already to try to encourage that. 

We partner with the California Life Sciences organization on a program called NexGeneGirls, and that's really an effort to provide young teenage girls who are interested in a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics an eight-week mentorship program where you have AbbVie scientists and mentors participating in that educational experience.

The other effort we have with CLS is called the QuickFire Challenge, and that is an effort to support people of color who are interested in a STEM career, as well. These are university or post-graduate individuals who have some kind of scientific interest or endeavor. We have scientists here at the Bay Area facility who act as mentors.

We hope that we are contributing locally to the community and in the life sciences community that's so rich in the Bay Area.

Are there challenges to opening a facility or launching these community efforts in the Bay Area? There are concerns about cost of living and crime in parts of San Francisco. Does that factor into your thinking at all?

What AbbVie did very thoughtfully here is think about the employee experience in the Bay Area versus the employee experience in Chicago, where we have our primary headquarters. As you can imagine, culturally, they are two different places. And the business environment is also different in the two locations. So we were thoughtful in thinking about what motivates a budding young scientist in the Bay Area to come and work for a company and looked critically at benefits and offerings, from giving people lots of different commuting options, to on-site amenities that other companies also offer that we want to offer but offer better. 

There’s a lot of thoughtfulness about creating something that is appropriate and unique for AbbVie here.

There are various efforts to promote women in science and promote people of color. What do you think will make your efforts different or better than others?

I think there is a real genuine desire from these scientists to mentor people. Think about the fact that you have a scientist who's working full-time in the labs and on the bench and is also providing their own time to mentor these young budding scientists. 

“It's a pleasure to do so,” is what I continue to hear from these scientists, so I think it's a combination of really having the best of the best here and having the right spirit to help enrich the next generation of scientists.

What marketing or advertising campaigns do you have planned?

We created a microsite for AbbVie in the Bay Area. The microsite is geotargeted to people who live and work in the Bay and who want to learn more about who we are. It includes a really cool virtual tour of this facility in two forms: self-guided, where you just go through the facility and you have some call-outs, hotspots for more information; and then also a guided version, where we had a guide narrate through the facility. 

We then amplified those with a paid and organic social media campaign, geotargeted particularly to people in California. 

How does the microsite and virtual tour help the AbbVie brand?

It helps strengthen the AbbVie brand and diversify it in the U.S., because AbbVie historically has been known as a Chicago-based institution. What we aim to do is to get recognition for AbbVie as a great place to work nationally and internationally, but particularly here in California because there is so much life sciences talent that's here. 

Secondly, what these tools aim to do is build AbbVie’s reputation in oncology and to localize that story, to give recognition to the fact that this facility in South San Francisco is almost entirely dedicated to oncology. And you see the oncology experience from beginning to end here, from early research discovery to commercialization. 

What agencies have you worked with in the Bay Area?

I definitely would like to give a shout out to FleishmanHillard, our external communication agency. Fleishman designed our microsite and our virtual tour. They also helped us execute a really successful opening event in March. We had the mayor of South San Francisco here. We had press. We had a wonderful group of employees. 

The other agency partner to give a shout-out to is Edelman. We worked with the Edelman San Francisco office on different forms of this AbbVie Bay Area story for the last couple of years. They have developed a very strong employee-engagement campaign so that the employees who are with us today really understand that they are part of a leading company.

Are there any campaigns you have planned that you haven’t launched?

Not necessarily because we feel strongly that we need to continue what we have been doing so that it has resonance. We have been in this new facility here for about a year, and as a PR professional, I would not recommend launching something new when you have just started building roots around the various campaign elements we have already launched. 

What I see happening instead is that we just build on what we have been doing, so you will see more social media engagement and social media content that speaks to who we are here in the Bay and in California.

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