Media Coverage

Industry Leaders Give Insight on Pandemic Collaborations, Tech Investment and Start-Up Advice

Aug 25, 2021 - IHS Markit

At the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor 2021 Digital Animal Health Summit, leaders from some of animal health’s most prominent firms spoke about how their businesses pivoted to adapt to the ‘new normal’ amid the COVID-19 pandemic and what activities they believe will be key moving forward. IHS Markit analyst Sian Lazell listened to their thoughts.

Several of animal health’s top leaders claim the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a continued need for collaboration between human and animal health businesses, investment in technology, and the ability to quickly adapt day-to-day operations.

Speaking at the KC 2021 Digital Animal Health Summit, top executives from Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, Merck Animal Health, Hill’s Pet Nutrition and DSM Animal Nutrition all agreed the number one priority during the COVID-19 crisis has been the health and wellbeing of staff. Each company has taken a broad range of measures, including physical changes such as ensuring work and break spaces were socially distanced, to virtual check-ins and establishing strategic longer term plans on how to transition business operations from the “old world” into the new one.

Randolph Legg, president and head of commercial business at Boehringer Animal Health, pointed out it has been important for the company to look at how it can stay engaged not only with employees, but also with customers during the crisis, and how the firm can continue to get feedback on the client side. In all cases, investment in digital technology has been vital.

Mr Legg remarked: “For the entire world – in stages – our lives changed very quickly. We had learnings from the parts of the world that experienced COVID-19 first and we tried to apply those learnings in the US, which was on the latter half of the pandemic [peak]. Those learnings really helped us accelerate a few things, one of which was technology. We were not prepared for an about-face, with many customers and employees at home, and of course we had essential employees that were coming to work every day and have been throughout the pandemic.”

Mr Legg explained from a pet owner perspective, it was clear there was a need to look at how Boehringer could continue providing needed services. As a result, telemedicine was a key area the company invested in “early and quickly” to enable companion animal veterinarians to see pet owners on a consistent basis.

Both Mr Legg and Hill’s Pet Nutrition president Jesper Nordengaard emphasized the pandemic is an ongoing challenge that businesses are working to manage. The general consensus among the group of leaders was that COVID-19 will not be going away any time soon. Importantly, they noted the crisis has demonstrated a refreshed view on the link between human and animal health expertise and the need to maintain collaboration.

Mr Legg commented: “It’s not over, we know about the variants. Certainly all our companies in the animal health space are very familiar directly and indirectly with vaccines, so we understand the technology, we understand the disease, we understand viruses. I think that’s helping us all become a learning environment to move forward quickly, but also to help reinforce the need to retain a focus on the health and safety of each other.”

Mr Legg noted like Merck, Boehringer has well-connected animal and human health business divisions. In this context, the firm has witnessed first-hand how interconnected the lives of humans and animals are, and how they are both linked to the environment. He said COVID-19 has illuminated that link for the entire world, especially for those that were not working directly in animal or human health.

He stated: “We continue to find ways to work together. I would say that in the past, it was not natural and always convenient for animal health businesses and human health businesses to work together, especially in the areas of research and development. One of the things we noticed very early on in the pandemic is a lot of the knowledge base, especially around vaccine technology and viruses, resided on the animal health side. It allowed us to use our scientific background and experience in animal health to inform how we could help in terms of developing advancements in medicine against the COVID-19 virus.”

President of Merck Animal Health Rick DeLuca said: “We worked closely with our human health partners because while One Health was a concept that in some parts of the world had a lot of traction and support behind it, it didn’t all over the world. But everybody understands it today. Now, we have to educate people on the myths, as well as the facts, of animal diseases, how [disease and viruses] spread across the world, and where things may or may not have come from. Merck also jumped in to offer its manufacturing expertise to a company to help produce COVID-19 vaccines. We don’t believe this is going away. Maybe in its current form, but we think we’ll have some other repercussions from it.”

Kristin Bonham, vice president of animal nutrition and health for North America at DSM, added: “I have been so excited to see the collaboration between different divisions in our companies. Not only with our customers, but within our own organizations, if you think about the crisis we’re trying to manage through, I think it’s really broken down a lot of barriers.”

Demand for convenience

Although a shift in higher consumer demand for convenience was already underway before the pandemic, Mr DeLuca explained the crisis has accelerated the trend.

He stated: “COVID-19 really turned the switch on overnight, so you have to clear hurdles, you have to implement technology. You have to balance the consumer’s need to get things online with helping our veterinarian partners to keep their businesses operating. You’ve got to balance the desire for contact with the people that don’t want contact, both customers and consumers. Being able to care for pets virtually and in a non-contact way in this [pandemic] is critical. We also saw a lot of people getting new pets.”

Mr DeLuca added on the food production side, Merck had to help processors up their production levels as demand soared. He explained many businesses in different industries were suddenly faced with the difficult and challenging need to quickly scale-up, with production in some cases subject to a “100% increase overnight”.

For Hill’s, the convenient e-commerce channel was already a key part of business before the pandemic hit. However, Mr Nordengaard believes the crisis “really drove a tidal wave of households online” and made people realize the convenience of shopping virtually.

He said: “It was interesting to see a lot of our business partners that were traditionally brick and mortar discovered ways of living in an omni-world, and created new ways of engaging with their customers, whether it was click-and-collect or curb-side pick-up. That also yielded new touch-points that we had to consider. For example, if you go to the vet you cannot go in with your pet, so you hand over your pet curb-side and then you wait. That’s an important touch-point now where you can educate and engage with pet parents.”

Although Mr Nordengaard perceives “a real move towards the digital world” amid the pandemic, he does not think the evolution marks the end for brick and mortar businesses, as these organizations have proven they can adapt the way they deliver products and services.

He commented: “We’ve seen brick and mortar finding a way to live in this world and design their offering to where the pet parent wants to shop. That’s really what we should think about – how we make it as easy as possible to shop our products and for pet parents to be compliant with the veterinarians’ recommendations.”

Flexible work structure

During the COVID-19 crisis, a large number of people moved to working from home. Even though many workplaces are now beginning to re-open, countries around the world are still subject to varied and changing restrictions.

Moreover, businesses are seeing mixed responses from employees, with some preferring the change in work environment and others preferring a traditional setting. With the pandemic ongoing and still on the horizon for the foreseeable future, there remains a significant degree of changeability and uncertainty. So, what is the most important factor to ensure successful day-to-day operations in the new normal?

Ms Bonham remarked: “We cannot go back, as DSM, to ‘this is how the world was before’. We’re just in the first month or so of piloting what we’re calling our ‘hybrid’ workplace, and I think the biggest thing is we’re going to have to be flexible. We cannot write a set of guidelines now about the top 10 things we’re going to do because they’re going to change.”

Echoing this perspective, Mr Legg said: “Flexibility is important and at Boehringer it’s the first thing we talk about. Obviously we’re still not at a stage where we are able to implement a lot of the strategies that we’ve been talking about in the last few months, but as we look to the future and what we call the ‘future of work’, we’re using flexibility as one component, but also employee empowerment as another.”

Innovator collaborations

When asked what advice the leaders would give to start-ups looking to partner with bigger animal health firms, Mr Legg said it is important to quickly determine if innovation is ready to move forward, what specific route both entities want to take in terms of collaboration and to be aware of the differences in pace each company can move at.

He explained: “When we look now at innovation, we do look at it a little differently. In the past, we had a very traditional way of looking at innovation as an internal thing. Now, we look much more outside of Boehringer and look to partners. What we find is that innovation is coming from different places and different types of companies from around the world. A lot of times it’s partnering, sometimes it’s an acquisition. Other times it’s a pure collaboration where you’re working with not only an innovator, but other companies in your space. 20 years ago, working shoulder to shoulder with a competitor on an innovation that involved different dynamics of a disease category, was really not a very common practice at all. Nowadays it does happen.

“I think our emphasis on external collaboration will continue to grow. Many times it takes just an hour meeting to understand if there is something that is going to move forward, or if you just complement each other’s business practices and decide to go a different direction. I think both answers are good to get to very quickly, so that not only can the [bigger] organization understand where to invest its time and energy, but also those innovators out there looking for the right partners can continue to search for that organization.

“One of the challenges we’ve seen, and this really comes into play with acquisitions or specific collaborations that have a legal agreement, is when you join a large company as a partner, we’ve got lots of business processes that sometimes don’t make us very quick and agile. Yet these organizations that we partner with are used to making decisions very quickly and moving quickly. That’s a lot of what we can learn from them, but also as a large organization you’ve got be willing to step back and reduce your level of complexity that might inhibit your ability to innovate.”

Merck has a range of collaborations, including with entities from an academic background and those already established as a business. Mr DeLuca believes the key to driving successful innovation is being open to different types of partnerships, and for companies to be clear and transparent with each other.

He said: “You need to have different arrangements because we want to create win-win relationships. That’s the best way to succeed and each partner out there wants different things. Be clear with what you’re asking or if you’re not sure, tell us up-front because we’re happy to help out. It’s a small industry and we want to see it flourish as well.

“Innovation can come from putting minds together. You may have tried something in the past but you don’t know what technology other companies have, so it’s always best to make contact and find out what people are doing. We actually developed a ventures group and we’ll not only partner, but we’ll actually invest in companies if we think we can give [assistance such as] technical expertise or advice to accelerate programs. We’ve bought out some of those investments over time and we’ve decided not to buy out things over time as well. It’s just a matter of what both of you are looking for when you get started.”

Reprinted with permission of IHS Markit




Tweet @AHCorridor

News Releases

The Connector

KC Animal Health Blog