Making Media a Priority: An Interview with Susan Riley of Advanced Bioprocessing

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Susan Riley is vice president and general manager of Advanced Bioprocessing. It’s been a year since Thermo Fisher Scientific’s acquisition of the Advanced Bioprocessing business from Becton Dickinson (BD).

Why did Thermo Fisher see the Advanced Bioprocessing (AB) business as a good fit with its life-science offerings? AB has a significant portfolio in premium supplements for cell culture and microbial fermentation. The AB business was seen as a good fit for several reasons: It goes hand-in-glove with Gibco media, for which Thermo had used many AB supplements in those formulations. AB also offered analytical capabilities and a depth of material characterization and media analysis for understanding key drivers of cellular metabolism.

The AB business also brought manufacturing assets, including an animal-origin–free facility in Miami that had been the site of a large-capacity pharmaceutical company. That facility was appealing because it could help support future growth in the cell culture business. AB also had an animal-origin peptone facility in Detroit, MI, and a Singapore laboratory with R&D capabilities to support the Asia–Pacific region.

But the people were most important. The AB business brought trained and knowledgeable employees including a commercial sales team. All of these assets were important to the current and future growth of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

What specific services and equipment did the AB business bring? Most of the analytical equipment that came with the acquisition was widely available. However, one physical asset brought process capabilities in pin milling, a technology used to process powdered media. Thermo Fisher Scientific typically uses FitzMill technology. Now can offer both types of technologies to serve all media clients. If we want to make customers’ existing media formulations through manufacturing services, we can offer that through the additional processing capability. So milling was an interesting and differentiating feature.

In the year since the acquisition, how has Thermo integrated AB into its life-sciences offerings? We have done considerable work this year on integration, and it’s been more seamless than some other integrations. BD is a high-quality company operating with similar values to Thermo Fisher Scientific’s.

All the financial systems have been integrated. We moved the AB business from the BD campus to a brand new, purpose-built facility in Hunt Valley, MD. We’ve switched inventory management systems to the Thermo Fisher Scientific platform. We also have harmonized many processes to give the customer experience a similar look and feel from both the Gibco and AB businesses. At the start of 2020, we’ll integrate our sales teams and cross-train them to cover the entire cell culture media and supplementation portfolio.

Are there operational synergies in those services, and if so, how did you manage the crossover? We did have some overlaps. Wherever it didn’t make sense for both Gibco and Advanced Bioprocessing to be developing similar products, those were eliminated. Mainly they were smaller R&D projects. We have been conducting “bake-offs” to choose the best of both worlds because both Gibco and AB were developing interesting projects. We have combined some. With media screening panels, for example, we have found some synergies.

We had some sales overlap where we were calling on the same client base. In combining forces, we can enable customers to buy from our company seamlessly. And from an operational standpoint, we have leveraged the broader cell culture and life-science group within Thermo Fisher Scientific for back-office support (including procurement) as well as some quality management, planning, and supply chain services.

How does the AB portfolio fit within the overall Thermo Fisher Scientific business? Thermo Fisher Scientific released a market-leading single-use fermentor this past year, with some interesting associated technology. It fits nicely with the microbial media brought over with the AB business. That makes a nice package for customers working with Escherichia coli — a market that’s growing faster than mammalian cell-culture area. So we are excited about the synergies with our colleagues in single-use technology.

Can you tell us about the AB team and your role in it? The AB team came from a big-company culture at BD, so they have a solid understanding of the importance of quality and the value of systems. Because the AB business was a bit of an outlier for BD’s business, it did function somewhat on its own. It’s been refreshing to see the benefits that Thermo Fisher Scientific can offer to the AB team because life science is our main business focus.

This acquisition was structured somewhat differently from some others. Thermo Fisher Scientific has inserted into the team a general manager (GM), which is my role. I am here to help the AB team navigate through the complexities of Thermo Fisher Scientific and keep everything cohesive. I also act as a “cheerleader” for the business, and I think that is important. Typically with acquisitions, people can get uncertain, and you might see high attrition rates. Although we have had some attrition, we have kept it at a minimum with a 94% retention during this whole year, and we are very happy about that.

What makes Thermo Fisher and the AB business better together? Other companies offer end-to-end workflow solutions from bioreactors to purification, and every company offers something different. In addition to end-to-end workflow solutions, Thermo Fisher Scientific offers a best-in-class position in both single-use technology and cell culture. No one can match our portfolio and breadth of capabilities in cell culture systems. From the dual milling processing technologies to several plants offering geographic manufacturing redundancies, our ability to provide complete solutions is unmatched.

Another key competitive difference is in our cell-line engineering and media-development services, which take advantage of front-end support from Life Technologies and a level of molecular biology understanding that our competitors just don’t have.

What’s exciting about what AB and Gibco can bring to the marketplace together? Coming from Thermo Fisher Scientific myself, I have an understanding of its sophisticated analytical instrumentation and advancements that have been made in raw material characterization. We have a portfolio of premium supplements and peptones that, in some respects, the market had tried to turn away from in years past. Over the past several years, you would see promotional campaigns push for chemically defined (CD) media and claim that it is better than supplements and serum. Even Thermo Fisher Scientific also was spreading that same CD messaging.

But with the past decade’s evolution in analytical instrumentation, people can understand that CD does not mean chemically pure. If you are going to add all those elements to try to match the performance of natural substances, maybe it’s just better to improve characterization and control of the natural substances themselves. With such advances in analytical sophistication, now is a great time to educate the market. In fact, Thermo Fisher Scientific would not have purchased the AB business without recognizing that.

Some market dynamics have come up for serum, specifically. Serum is being absorbed completely by the gene therapy industry, which is racing to market with for rare diseases. That is putting pressure on the supply of serum and driving the price up. But peptones serve as a nutrient-rich, natural supplement that makes a wonderful alternative that’s typically the first place people look for a serum replacement. Sure, people can consider CD media and spend time and money to develop those further. But peptones are so nutrient rich that they represent a more near-term alternative for serum.

Those dynamics specifically are helping to put some attention back on peptones. No longer are they just considered to be an “old” technology; they are part of cures that are very much in the news today. The biosimilars market also is growing rapidly. With biosimilar developers concerned about speed to market and cutting costs, peptones can play a key role there as well. Finally, the microbial fermentation market is growing much faster than that of mammalian cell culture. More people in drug development are looking at microbial media because they can outperform CD media.

What is your career background, and how does it help support your current role? This has been a wonderful opportunity at this point in my career and this time of life. I have been able to give it my all because my children have graduated from college — so I’m “all in.” What has been really helpful at this stage of my life is that I have played several distinct roles: I have been in the specialty chemical industry for much of my life and have significant experience with our large biopharmaceutical customers. I previously led the corporate accounts team and was responsible for some of the largest biopharmaceutical accounts.

I have a technical background, and I’m a geek at heart. I love learning and talking over technical problems. It’s been rewarding to get an education on serum alternatives and plotting out our new product development with the AB team and Gibco. So I feel like I’m back in my natural environment in some respects. I was also a general manager many years ago in the chemical industry and love to get into the science. I feel like I’m doing that once again, but with the benefit of hindsight and the exposure to large biopharmaceutical clients that I didn’t have before.

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