By any measure, it has been a busy 12 months for GE Healthcare – first, it separated from its parent business, General Electric, to a create a ‘pure-play’ healthcare company. Just over a half a year later, it was announced that GE would sell the BioPharma section of the GE Healthcare business for $21bn (€18.85bn) to Danaher.
The unit was responsible for $3bn of revenue in 2018 and, in full-year financials, the company stated that “underlying demand for biopharmaceuticals is expected to support the underlying growth of our Life Sciences franchise.”
With the biopharma industry offering growth to the overall business, GE Healthcare has been actively strengthening its position in the area pre- and post-acquisition announcement.
The company has made several announcements regarding its expansion of operations in China and traditional geographic areas. Even after the acquisition had been announced, the company continued to make deals to strengthen its processing abilities, looking to the future of biopharma 4.0.
BioPharma-Reporter sat down with Emmanuel Ligner (EL), CEO of GE Healthcare Life Sciences, to discuss whether the company would remain as active in regard to acquisitions and partnering, as well as retaining its focus with the Danaher deal in the background.
BPR: With Danaher set to acquire the BioPharma business, how are you ensuring day-to-day business is unaffected?
EL: As you can imagine, there's a lot of things to do. However, the first and most important thing is that it is business as usual. It doesn't impact our production schedule and it doesn't impact our commercial activities.
When I say business as usual, a few people come to see me and say, “Well, the reality is not really business as usual because you have much more activity to do.” Of course, first we have to answer the regulator's questions and, as you can imagine, there are a lot of questions, as a normal part of the process. So, it's always additional work for the team to answer.
We know the way that we operate today and we don't want to change anything about the way that we work because there's no reason to.
BPR: The BioPharma unit has been active in making acquisitions to bolster the business, do you expect this to continue up until the deal completes?
EL: We always plan acquisitions and we always plan our investments. So, nothing will change. We are constantly looking at what is available. From an acquisition standpoint, you always need a mechanism because GE is not going to buy something that doesn't work. There is just a mechanism to make sure that, if there is an acquisition to happen during that interim period, it's considered by both parties.
BPR: How has GE Healthcare positioned itself on the market?
EL: Today, we are in the position to offer a total solution to customers. In disposable manufacturing, as we evolved and invested in making our chromatography columns pre-packed and ready to use, which you can plug and play, and walk away. So, we developed that disposable manufacturing and that complete solution. We are then able to package that into the KUBio and into the Flex Factory, which have seen tremendous success.
BPR: What are the plans moving into the future?
EL: Well, the future from there is around Industry 4.0 technology. Okay, so we know that today there's not much data science used in bioprocessing. The question is: “How do you connect the operating unit? How can you apply artificial intelligence to have prediction output of your processes?”
We started a couple of years ago leveraging what our GE colleagues did in aviation and started to think about how we could bring this into our manufacturing. First of all, we started to develop digital twins of our bioreactors and this is where we are today – hopefully we can move on to design a digital twin of our entire facilities. However, we are in the position today to be able to predict what is happening in our bioreactors three or four days in advance. The real holy grail would be, is it a good or bad batch? If it's bad, what do I do to make it good? If it is bad and I cannot fix it, let's start again – let's ditch the batch now and start again, because I don't want to go on with something that will not give me the outcome that I want. So, productivity of the outcome is very important and this will centre around digital technology in the future.
BPR: How could these initiatives change operations?
EL: If you have ever seen cloud technology utilised then you have to ask, “Why do you have quite a few people sitting in every plant, when you could have it centrally managed?” And, so we are collaborating with customers to create these solutions. We are collaborating with the ERP platform – Rockwell was one of the announcements that we did recently. In addition, Amgen is one of the customers that we are collaborating with because they are one of the most advanced in their data collection – this is the future of bioprocessing.
BPR: What are the current challenges posed by the industry?
EL: There's the complexity of the different products that customers are looking at, right? We call it from mAbs (monoclonal antibodies) to zoo. It's an expression used by Sanofi, actually, that talks about the 'zoo' of molecules being explored as therapeutics. The molecules in development are very complex molecules and those molecules are not necessarily blockbusters. For our part, we have to meet the needs of the industry - to look at our technology and adapt the technology for their needs or their molecules.
This is very important for how we work with customers to make sure that some of our chromatography products are adjusted for a viral vector, for example, for a gene therapy or for CAR-T? How do you take your existing technology for the mAbs and apply it to CAR-T?
BPR: Previously, a colleague of yours told me that the company must work years in advance to anticipate changes in the industry. As leader of the Life Sciences business, do you have the same view?
EL: My favourite quote is from Henry Kissinger who, when asked the question, “What is a leader for you?”, answered, “Someone who looks beyond the horizon.” And, that's what we constantly have to do. We can't see it but we constantly have to put the goal out there to stretch ourselves to make sure that the organisation is thinking ahead. You challenge your own organisation based on what the customer is saying to you. You have to think, “How are we going to be treated in 20 years?”
BPR: How will healthcare change in the coming years?
EL: With portable information and with the genotyping information, we will be much more predictive in treating patients. For instance, you go to the restroom, and you have a lot of fluid and that provides a tonne of information. So, if you add this, with the non-invasive tests on urine or faecal materials, plus information on your lifestyle, then you have so much information to predict what might happen to you. If we add to this that you give a drop of blood and you can do your own genome sequence, and have much more information, those three or four bunches of information will be giving health predictions.
So, what will happen? It will move increase our life expectancy. However, at one point of time, we will have to die but we will condense ill-health to the very end of life. This is an issue we will have to solve. So, it's a bit far away from what we're doing currently but it's a question for society.
Emmanuel Ligner is the president and CEO of GE Healthcare Life Sciences. Ligner joined GE Healthcare in 2008, through the acquisition of Whatman International Plc. Previously, he headed up the North America BioProcess business, as well as the commercial part of Life Sciences across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and as GM of Core Imaging (now Pharmaceutical Diagnostics).