How Ozempic Is Transforming a Small Danish Town

As the sun sets over the harbor in Kalundborg, a small town about 60 miles west of Copenhagen, light streams through the glass walls of Shaun Gamble’s cafe and bathes his afternoon customers in a warm glow. It’s an enviable location — on the water, next to a large playground — except for the fact that little else is nearby.

That is expected to change soon as the town benefits from America’s scramble for weight-loss drugs.

Nearby, at a sprawling manufacturing plant, Novo Nordisk makes nearly all of its semaglutide, the active ingredient in the company’s wildly popular diabetes and obesity treatments Ozempic and Wegovy. The company has been in Kalundborg for half a century but in the past two years announced it would invest 60 billion kroner, or about $8.6 billion, into expanding the facilities here. It’s the largest manufacturing investment in Denmark by a company, and it’s happening in this town of fewer than 17,000 people.

The money is part of Novo Nordisk’s global transformation to ramp up production of its best-selling drugs, but perhaps nowhere will feel the impact like this coastal community. Novo Nordisk plans to add 1,250 jobs to the existing 4,500 employees at the Kalundborg plant. A highway is being extended; investors are snapping up houses and planning new construction; universities have begun offering biotech courses to feed Novo Nordisk and nearby businesses with workers.

Mr. Gamble, who opened his Costa Kalundborg Kaffe four years ago after a job at a nearby Novo Nordisk warehouse, is optimistic. The cafe’s business is unsteady — busy in the summer when tourists flock to nearby cottages, yet money-losing for much of the rest of the year when it’s rainy and windy.

But the municipality, bolstered by Novo Nordisk’s boom, plans to open a library and cultural hub next door. Mr. Gamble is investing, too, planning to open earlier and serve more food, including breakfast.

“In five years it’ll be a totally different town,” he said. “That’s what I’m betting on.”

Novo Nordisk is already reshaping Denmark’s economy. The country’s economy grew 1.9 percent last year, among the fastest in Europe and all thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, led by Novo Nordisk. Without it, the economy would have stagnated.

Nearly all of Novo Nordisk’s revenue is earned overseas,more than half in the United States alone.

There are other, more tangible benefits for Danes. The company is the largest corporate taxpayer in Denmark. Last year it paid about 15 percent of the country’s entire corporate tax intake, more than other big Danish companies like the brewer Carlsberg, the toy company Lego and the shipping firm Maersk.

Some analysts wonder if this blessing could become a curse, recalling Finland’s long recession when Nokia lost its dominance in mobile phones with the arrival of the iPhone and Android smartphones.

Stephanie Lose, the economy minister, isn’t too concerned that Denmark will suffer a similar fate. “The pharmaceutical sector is not as interwoven with the Danish economy,” she said. Novo Nordisk’s employees represent just 1 percent of the Danish work force — though it did account for 20 percent of the jobs added last year.

Some of the corporate taxes that Novo Nordisk pays return to the communities where the company operates. Gladsaxe, the municipality on the edge of Copenhagen that includes Bagsvaerd, the home of Novo Nordisk’s headquarters, is investing in day care centers and new sports facilities, and is building a light rail transit system with other regions outside the capital.

“Our economic leeway is generally larger thanks to Novo and the many other companies we have,” said Trine Graese, the Gladsaxe’s mayor.

Kalundborg knows the benefits and risks of pinning the town’s fortunes to one company. A shipyard briefly dominated the town’s economy early last century, but was decimated during the Great Depression. In the 1960s, Kalundborg thrived as the manufacturing site for Carmen Curlers, which pioneered electric hot hair curlers, causing a sensation in the United States. Then the company was sold to the American firm Clairol, fashions changed, thousands were laid off and the plant eventually closed in 1990.

“The third time is the lucky one,” said Martin Damm, the mayor of Kalundborg municipality, which has branded itself “Biotech City.”

Educational opportunities are already undergoing a transformative change. For years, high school graduates left town to continue their education, and Novo Nordisk struggled to retain scientists and other employees with advanced training.

Now, three universities offer courses in biotechnology and related subjects in town, with more institutions arriving soon. The Novo Nordisk Foundation also finances the Helix Lab, where graduate students complete their master’s thesis working with local companies, including Novo Nordisk.

The company’s investment is expected to draw more people to the area. Recently, Kalundborg has been able to sell plots of land it had previously been struggling to shift to private developers. And there is talk of opening an international school to teach children in English to accommodate the drugmaker’s increasingly international work force.

For now, first-time home buyers must compete against investors in Copenhagen or other locals looking to rent space to temporary construction workers, said Jesper Olsen, a local estate agent.

Still, the changes have had a limited impact for some.

“It’s great to have new people to talk to,” said Malte Glad, 19, as he got his hair cut. But, for people his age, Kalundborg is “still a little bit slow,” he said. On the weekend, he often heads to other cities for entertainment.

Justyna Anna Kowalczyk, a 22-year-old student from Poland, studies engineering at University College Absalon. She works part time across the street at Novo Nordisk, and hopes to make it a full-time job after graduation.

“I like little cities,” she said, because she’s from one. But it’s the connection between the university and Novo Nordisk that matters: “That’s what brought me here.”

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