19 April 2017 | Influencers | By BioSpectrum Bureau
Everybody wants a good pay. But it is most important to do good science
For Shannon Hall, being a part of Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc (Bio-Rad), the 65-year-old organisation that is engaged in the development and production of specialty chemicals used in biochemical, pharmaceutical, and other life science research applications, is both exciting and challenging. Speaking to BioSpectrum, Hall, the company's President of Life Science Group, shares her career lattice and career development as the company's President of Life Science Group.
How do you analyse your journey in Bio-Rad?
I took my professional stint in Bio-Rad with 2-year and 4-year achievable objectives. I joined the company thinking that I will work here while I prepare for graduate school. It is a good place to work and I was drawn to it as they encouraged me to use the technical support, saying that you can learn so many things and come to know of all the operations. When we were part of the technical support group, we were talking to customers every day. Most of the day goes by helping people and it feels good. And it kept me going. We had lots of new technologies coming up then such as HPLC, capillary electrophoresis, confocal microscopy.
So, my experience for those four years was like - We have a new technology, are you interested in this? It felt really fulfilling and I loved helping people all day long. I got a chance to do some teaching as well as I had to explain to customers how our product works. It took some talking for me to get into the product development group but my friends who had been a part of the technical support group thought this was a good thing to go ahead with. I was assigned the quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) project in the late 90s and at that time it was a completely new technology. So I was very excited about that. I miss that routine of making people happy day to day but these projects take time and you can see where things are going.
We used to hover over the instrument for each and every data point initially. That was a very good experience. It went for 10 years with different products and projects. I had a chance to then join the protein group and worked with them for 4-5 years. Now it has been almost 25 years in Bio-Rad.
People you are working with are totally immersed in this stuff. And when you get enough customer feedback, it is all worth it.
Now I don't do product development myself anymore, there is a team dedicated to it. My most satisfying moments are talking to customers.
Are you missing your days in the technical support group?
I still get to visit customers. But yes, I do miss those days. I went back to a friend recently who is running the technical support group in North America. I asked her to put me on the phone with customers and she asked me whether I am well trained, and I was like OK, maybe I am not. So it was fun. Yes, I do miss that but I keep getting a taste of it.
How long has it been in your current role?
It has been 2.5 years in the present responsibility, and at Bio-Rad that is just the beginning. We are a company of people with really long commitments and our average tenure is 10-15 years. So when I came in, we were looking into an environment of what we can do here in the next 5 years. We are already half way there and still have lots more to do. I am all excited about that. It is important in business to make money, we need to do better all the time but you need to do your mission well. We are a very science oriented company, with diagnostics and medical healthcare. I work with the R&D team and their work helps science. Everybody wants a good pay. But it is most important to do good science. My job is to bring back evidence to the team that science is doing well out there.
How much of your revenue is dedicated to R&D?
It is a little more than 10 per cent, which is good. We just need a good vision and we keep going. We invest in the challenges we see.
What is currently cooking in R&D?
We look into all the upstream and downstream aspects of the research that is going on. We have been busy with the launch of ZE5, a new flow cytometer. We have spent more than a year for the training part. We have been working 40 to 60 hours for the past one year for testing and checking the software features. We have been building the antibody portfolio. Time and money has been invested in the validation. We have also been investing in the next gen di-conjugates to go with the flow cytometer system. We have also been working in lines of non-coding RNA and developing content for that. We all are very curious to find out what is in there. This can provide valuable insights for medicines. We found at our alpha trials that people are finding stuff to make them go back and do RNA sequencing. So we want to add content in this area like adding the right enzyme, so that people can be more positive about the right discovery.
Droplet technology is also very exciting for science in the future. Thousands of things can be done with droplets.
How long does it take to bring out a new product?
It depends on the kind of product we are working on but typically it takes 18 to 36 months. We have a high standard to prove that the product really works. We should be able to test it with 20 to 30 customers. Sometimes the feedback is not that great. So we need to be in a position to hear that.
Bio-Rad has a dedicated research area to cancer. What about other global health concerns such as malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, diabetes?
Our diagnostics have been focused on diabetes. And there is a lot of discussion on tuberculosis as well. But you cannot miss cancer since it is everywhere. And the best part is that you test the blood of a patient and not do biopsy, and are able to offer a medicine for it. To be a part of a team who develops the test and the medicine is so exciting. So we focus more on that aspect with cancer. Digital droplet technology is being used for HIV, but it has not been an area of focus of our life science group. But the company is interested in finding ways to connect the dots on these other diseases.
What are the series of events or stages involved from discovering a new drug target till the manufacturing process?
It is a really long process from drug target discovery to process development. We have been able to be an asset to our partners in our drug discovery group. But very often we deal with different kind of people who are working on different pieces of this process. We might go to a very big drug company, or a small CRO (contract research organisations), and tell them that we have these capabilities. It all depends on the person we are talking to, like someone who is really doing the upstream work in the drug discovery, we will talk about our technologies, how to reduce buyers and so on. But if we are talking to someone from the processing team, then we talk about stability, reproducibility, security supply, audit process. We need to present things accordingly. We believe that Bio-Rad has a standard technology and a commitment to get things done. We come with 50 years of protein experience and 35 years of DNA experience and frankly our biggest request is help.
Does the Life Science Group have a bio-bank facility for conducting more translational research?
We don't have bio-banks since we do not offer that service but we are thinking a lot more about it. It is really coming up these days but, as of now, I don't have anything specific to say about this.
Are any new Life Science products launched this year by Bio-Rad?
We will continue to develop more in cell biology, cellular analysis which has always been upstream of the gene and protein analysis. We believe that we are uniquely positioned to pull the loop together to make closer association between what you see when you do cell analysis and then do sequencing, quantitative PCR, protein analysis. We are looking for Next Gen solutions on all fronts especially protein analysis so that we can help people succeed in multiplex technologies and find better ways to tie up the protein results.
How do you decide upon coming out with a new product in the market?
Sometimes the competitors have a great idea about a particular product, and you have to take a note of it. Is it really good or should we have done something like this in our company? But ideally most of the new product ideas come by talking directly to the customers or from the system integration team, or the applications team who are working with the customers. We came up with a TC cell counter quite some time ago because we were working on gene expression and we were watching people work away with haemocytometers. So we thought of devising a cool way in which things can be done in a simpler way instead. Or the cell imagers offer a great view of the cells and do not require looking into a microscope. When the customers get frustrated with the current situations, it gives us some ideas of coming up with better and simpler products. People these days are working on single cells and want to know more on that. So we need to address questions regarding single cell protein component and so on. We don't have answers for these right now.
Will industries have a clearer path through the current FDA approval process?
I think it is a boom time now. We have a whole new frontier of vaccines and antibiotics now. We can see now how molecules interact and maybe we can offer better solutions to cancer and other problems. Lots more medicines are coming out now which will make things easier now as compared to the earlier times. We could imagine a time when a major disease like cancer is manageable, which was not possible in the early times. We will soon be in an environment where everybody on the street can talk about science. This will push us to a new place. Different people have different opinion on the new FDA approval. In 2016, very few drugs have been approved. People want a chance to try new medicines, so the trial laws are on the forefront. Patients are finding themselves in desperate situations and have started advocating of what should be available.
Do you plan to make any changes at the management level of your company so as to navigate the changing landscape?
Our theory is to take the situation as it is. We can anticipate a big change on the way we are managing the company or the way we are looking at the R&D. We will work with the FDA as we get closer to it. If a technology is at stake, we go and work with the FDA, and explain to them what the technology can do, how they think it might be validated, and FDA is often pretty receptive.
What would be the repercussions of President Trump's budget proposal on the R&D sector of pharmaceutical industries?
It is an open topic. It has been a little unsettling with a cut in the NIH budget. Everyone is interested in healthcare. It might not be a period of rapid growth for research in there but focus would be on translational medicine. I would like to see where we get to with this in the next 6-8 months.
Are you working with WHO?
Well, we have been working with US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We have been mostly looking into South American regions.