Optimism reigned during a daylong symposium to mark the dedication of MilliporeSigma’s new M Lab™ Collaboration Center in Burlington in the fall. There was a palpable sense that biotech and the life sciences are on the cusp of monumental change, built on both innovative methodologies and greater collaboration across corporations, sectors and countries.
That notion of thoughtful evolution — with an emphasis on improved efficiency and collaborative efforts — was also a thread running through an “armchair interview” with Stefan Oschmann, chairman of the Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany Executive Board, and Udit Batra, CEO of MilliporeSigma, the life science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. The session was led by Fortune magazine editor-in-chief Clifton Leaf.
We’ve moved from a chemical concept of drug making to a more biologic one. Are we ready for that?
Oschmann: You used the right terminology. It’s a more biological paradigm, although there’s still some future in small molecules in oncology and elsewhere. But we have seen that monoclonal antibodies have really changed medicine substantially, and we may be on the verge of the next revolution through cell-based therapies — CAR-Ts, TCRs or gene therapy — and that will really change things.
The drug industry was sort of built as, you take a small-molecule drug and use it for everything. It’s the aspirin model. We have to rebuild the model for drug discovery, don’t we?
Oschmann: Historically, drug development was mostly about trial and error. It still is to some degree. There’s a lot of biological risk in drug development. If you look at the novel approaches, specifically the cell-based therapies, this is more like an engineering approach where, hopefully, you have a lot less failure.
Batra: We’re in a highly collaborative environment, so we started thinking through what a new system could look like, what an open-source drug development and manufacturing system could look like. This would relieve smaller biotechs from the burden of investing in every capability. Sources development is just a start. What about medical development? Can there be centers of excellence in each activity rather than many in one?
Oschmann: The purpose of this organization is to enable research, to enable people who solve problems, who make science faster and more efficient. How can we make biotech faster, cheaper, safer? How can we help scientists in the lab focus on what they really like to do, and that’s real research. It’s fascinating to be in touch with basically all the scientists in the world who work on new drug discovery methods and new biotech methods.
Batra: It’s not a theoretical topic. Bioprocessing is one example, gene editing is another example, cell therapy is another one. We are working with collaborators. We have met with colleagues from academic institutions who said, “Do you work directly with academia, or do you only work with biotechs to help them with bioprocessing?” So we just have to evangelize that this is what we do.
As a leading company in your space, how do you change government or regulatory inertia?
Batra: We are now a leader in using gene editing to make cell lines. Rather than studying toxicity of various molecules in vivo, even in animal models, you can actually do this in vitro with cell lines that we have developed. That is an active conversation with the FDA. Who says the standards that we put together when the testing methods were, for lack of a better word, more primitive and not using the latest technology are the ones that we need to use now? Why can’t we have the same speed of adoption? That is our belief, and we’re working with the regulators hand-in-hand. Stay tuned.
Oschmann: We have other businesses, too. I’ll give you an example. We have developed a technology to use liquid crystals in windows. So you wouldn’t need blinds anymore, external or internal. That saves a lot of money, makes buildings more energy-efficient, etc. But there’s so much conservatism in the construction industry, as in the healthcare field. So we have to set up a window factory ourselves to give proof of concept, to prove to architects and construction companies that this really works. It takes some time. There is always some skepticism toward novel technology, and people have a show-me attitude.
Do you see a point where the lines between these businesses will start to blur and you’ll start to have machines that deliver drugs in a different way, using different technologies from different parts of your realm?
Oschmann: There are obvious synergies between the life science business and the healthcare business. We need a very clear, strict wall between these two businesses for competitive reasons, but at the same time people can collaborate in areas that are not sensitive. We also see a lot of synergy between the performance materials business and life science and healthcare. Udit is sponsoring several projects where we use novel sensor technology for the integrated digital lab, to give you one example, using liquid crystal technology in ophthalmic products, etc. We’re hoping we will see very concrete examples of how this works.
We’re here today to celebrate a new collaborative space. What have you learned about the way people interact that can teach you about innovation and collaboration moving forward?
Oschmann: Architecture is very important for science and technology. Often innovation is about applying a technology that is very well-established in one field to a totally different field. Such ideas happen when people from different disciplines get together in open spaces. Think of the cafeteria and other such spaces where people meet. This is why the basic design of research- and technology-type space has changed so much. We see that in this building. What looks so very nice has quite a utilitarian background.
Batra: Problems are function-agnostic. So we define a problem and then say, “Okay, who can bring what skill set to the table?” Somebody who has deep knowledge in a completely different function at a strange moment — you might be consuming a hoagie at lunch — gives you an insight that you wouldn’t have otherwise had. That’s the type of by-chance interaction that leads to terrific collaboration. It is not about holding hands or having parties in these open spaces. It’s about having competent people who are working on difficult problems, who are looking for impulses from others who are equally intelligent in their own areas.
Learn more about MilliporeSigma’s M Lab™ Collaboration Center in Burlington, Mass., which officially opened on October 11, 2017.