Investing in Innovation with Global Solution Centers

Investing in Innovation with Global Solution Centers

July 10, 2023PAO-07-23-CL-01

Technical leadership and innovation are central to pharmaceutical development and manufacturing and can serve as real differentiators for suppliers looking to partner with drug developers and create effective solutions in bringing new therapeutic benefits to patients and society at large. One company investing in innovation to offer comprehensive pharmaceutical ingredients and formulation solutions — through ongoing investments in global Solutions Centers, in-house expertise, pharma-compliant facilities, and strategic alliances — is Univar Solutions. In this Q&A, Univar Solutions’ Sr. Director of Global Solution Centers, Dr. Andrew Mint, Ph.D., and Technical Services Manager, Pharmaceutical Ingredients, Jessica Zhang, discuss how Univar Solutions continues to evolve from an ingredient supplier to a comprehensive solutions provider, the key role the Solution Centers play, and the company’s vision for further transformation of the pharma industry and beyond, with Pharma’s Almanac Associate Editor, Danielle Alvarez.

Danielle Alvarez (DA): Can you introduce the overall vision behind Univar Solutions’ Solution Centers and explain how the headquarters and other centers around the world were established?

Dr. Andrew Mint (AM): We are very proud of our global Solution Centers and the level of innovation they deliver to our customer and supplier partners. When I started in this role two years ago, our Solution Centers had already been operational for a number of years, but they functioned more as separate entities in their respective regions. Two years ago, we began our program to bring all of our research and development (R&D) laboratories and Solution Centers under one global umbrella to enable stronger collaboration between centers and expand the scope of what we are able to accomplish. We believe it makes us more innovative and have found that it has encouraged cross-fertilization, not just within our pharmaceutical business, but across the other sectors that we touch. For example, developing better chemistry in one of our labs for a product formulation can help us discover applications in other labs, in terms of how we might replicate the process or look at the methodology used, to produce similar products intended for different purposes.

Our global umbrella is important for our business and our distribution, but it is equally important that we have local specificity and regional variety across our facilities, because there are diverse needs in different regions of the world - whether it is in pharmaceuticals or other areas of our business. Pharmaceutical ingredients are very comprehensively regulated ranging from the way the drug is administered down to the color and packaging of the product. Regulations and regulatory bodies vary from region to region globally, so it is crucial that we operate in ways that are mindful of these differences in the successful connectivity between our centers.

Another big advantage of globalization is that it allows us to implement some of our longer-term strategic technological advantages. For example, we are currently in the process of digitizing our processes to increase operational efficiency while also exploring advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and the applications of robotics and automation which would allow us to propel our Solution Centers into the 22nd century. Our vision is to make Univar Solutions a leader in technology, digitization, and innovation.

DA: What drove Univar Solutions’ evolution from acting primarily as a supplier to becoming a true solutions provider? What were the primary drivers of these investments in technology and global connectivity?

AM: It is actually quite simple: it is what our customers are demanding and what the market wants. While we do exceptionally well as a global distributor with the support of our digital systems and our own fleet, all that infrastructure only represents part of what our customers want and need. As part of going beyond, we are highly responsive to the needs of the market and the demands of our customers and suppliers.

We recognize that R&D is changing. Development processes are evolving across the globe and, to stay at the forefront, we view our role far beyond simply supplying chemicals and ingredients — we want to be a partner that can fully meet customers’ changing demands. Within the pharmaceutical space, Univar Solutions aims to be highly integrated into customers’ research and development, serving as a go-to value-added partner deeper in the medicinal value chain. For a growing number of customers, we are one of their primary partners because they trust our infrastructure, our capabilities, and the incredible scientists at our Solution Centers.

Jessica Zhang (JZ): What differentiates Univar Solutions is that we have access to so many different suppliers. Coming from the manufacturing side of the industry, I have experienced the client side of these interactions, their pain points, and what they truly need from large distributors. Customers can usually handle directly acquiring a few ingredients, but they often do not have the bandwidth to source ingredients for a large number of products. To meet this need, Univar Solutions serves as a central hub that has access to nearly everything they might require, from the clinical trial phase all the way to mass commercialization. Beyond that, when customers are buying ingredients from us, we are also able to help them solve challenges or constraints in their product and formulation development. We are far beyond just a supplier or a distributor and are frequently given the opportunity to engage and help solve problems our customers are facing. 

DA: How would you characterize the industry focus of Univar Solutions’ Solution Centers?

AM: We have focused the core expertise of our Solution Centers into key vertical industries: falling in the life and consumer science markets, we have pharmaceuticals, beauty and personal care, nutraceutical ingredients, and food ingredients. On the industrial side of our business, we focus in on CASE (coatings, adhesives, sealants, and elastomers and rubber plastic additives), homecare and industrial cleaning, and lubricants and metalworking fluids, and Co-Pack. Each of these industries are represented by their own unique laboratories within each of our Solutions Centers worldwide. Our Solution Centers have more than 100 lab-based personnel around the world plus an additional 150 technical, field-based personnel, enabling us to provide continuous support with incredible breadth of knowledge and expertise.

As a part of our pharmaceutical ingredients business, we develop innovative ingredient and chemical solutions while supporting clients on their use and, because our experts have broad and deep knowledge on elements such as the customers’ manufacturing process, we are able to help them deliver to market as efficiently as possible. Our role is about understanding the delivery, the performance, and how we can position our product portfolio while providing better solutions for our clients.

JZ: Each of our global Solution Centers hosts laboratories and technical experts with backgrounds specific to the industry focused lab in which they conduct their daily work. While we all collaborate and work together on formulations, ingredient challenges, and customer solutions, it’s our diverse background and experience under “one global roof” that makes us truly powerful. For example, learnings in the beauty and personal care lab on creams and face ointments might be directly relevant to topical studies taking place in the pharmaceutical laboratory. Sharing these insights is where “magic ingredients” often present themselves. We place an equal emphasis on each vertical industry, and each has its own niche but when they intersect, the company, our customers, and society at large are able to realize the benefits.

DA: How do the different centers collaborate on common problems within pharma as well as across vertical industries?

JZ: We have four locations that are specifically tailored for pharmaceutical ingredients including the flagship center in Houston, Texas; two Latin American facilities in São Paulo and Mexico City; and one in Essen, Germany. Each lab has similar equipment and capabilities but different specializations, which demonstrates how we collaborate. For example, when I have a customer that needs help with coated tablets, I lean into my counterparts in the Essen and São Paulo Solution Centers for their expertise. Conversely, their teams reach out to me in the Houston Solution Center with challenges presenting more analytical capabilities so I can generate different sets of data. Our global teams regularly discuss all projects we are working on so that we are holistically aware of other teams’ activities and can share our personal knowledge and expertise.

AM: The specialization at each Solution Center that Jessica mentioned highlights one of the major advantages of our global network. As another example, our Solution Center in Brazil has a niche specialization in coatings. If you are working on a small regional basis, it can be difficult to justify that type of large investment. However, it is much more feasible when you think globally and optimize investments in equipment and technical know-how on a local level and then collaborate extensively across the regions, so each center has expansive access to machinery and expertise from around the globe. We are learning to obtain that perfect balance while connecting every facility under a global umbrella to share ideas and solve problems together while still understanding the local needs that are vital for our business.

JZ: In terms of collaboration across vertical industries, one great example is the development of tablets. While tablets are of course commonly used for drug delivery, the same idea can be applied to detergent tablets used for washing clothes. In both cases, the machinery used and the concepts of creating a tablet are the same, only the ingredients themselves change.

In addition to our regular collaboration, Univar Solutions hosts a global virtual event each year in June — Innovation Day — to showcase the capabilities and knowledge of each of our labs across all six industries. Through a series of technical talks, we are able to demonstrate what a day inside our global Solution Centers looks like, demo the formulation and testing of products, and showcase what each location accomplishes individually and together as we collaborate globally to produce results.

DA: Regarding collaboration across centers, is it common to develop a solution for one challenge and then find wider applicability? Does this occur across industries?

JZ: For the most part, yes. For instance, we have discovered that some solutions designed for topical application have served not only as a different, and often consumer-preferred, dosage form, but in fact have had uses as an application method for a different industry entirely, like in nutraceuticals or beauty and personal care.

AM: It is often about taking some of the individual components of one solution and applying them in a different situation. Opportunities to create a truly global formulation in any business are rare, particularly for pharmaceuticals, owing to different regulations between the United States and Europe. For example, in the United States, UV filters in sunscreen are seen as a pharmaceutical ingredient, but in Europe they are seen as a personal care ingredient, so we have to be very conscious of this and share particular ingredients or methodologies from other regions, rather than simply replicating the entire formulation.

DA: For the pharma application lab specifically, what are some of the main challenges that you are focused on? What can you share about some of the innovations that you have developed?

JZ: One of the biggest challenges that we are seeing now is the very dynamic market. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is now focused on innovation, because for the past two or three years the pharma industry’s focus narrowed to prioritize developing a vaccine and manufacturing it as fast as possible to get it out onto the market. The mRNA vaccines were themselves innovative, but many other types of innovative projects were paused or deprioritized. Now, the time has come to shift focus back to all of those projects. Many customers are realizing that they do not necessarily have the lab space, technical personnel, or capabilities to work on all those projects simultaneously. To that end, this is one of the areas we are now targeting. Within our large customer base, we are continuously raising awareness that we can use our lab and our resources to serve as an extension of their team. Ultimately, if we can help them develop a new, innovative product, that product will get out to market, and to patients or consumers, faster.

DA: What kinds of expertise and experience underlie the solutions that Univar Solutions is able to provide?

JZ: Nearly everyone on Univar Solutions’ pharmaceutical team has come from within the industry. Since we all served in roles that our current customers are in — we have been in the trenches ourselves, so to speak. We know exactly the kinds of timelines they face and the pressures that they experience, both externally from the market and internally from leadership. We understand the challenges and everything that could go wrong during the manufacturing process, all the issues associated with tech transfer and the transfer of knowledge from the R&D team to the manufacturing team, and the frequent need to adjust processes and even formulations to facilitate scaling-up and commercialization. We can easily speak our customers’ language and understand the challenges that they are facing.

Sometimes a client might need to switch ingredients but may not be aware of a good offset or how to obtain it. Univar Solutions has much greater access to facilities and ingredients and, because we have such a huge portfolio of products and suppliers, we can often find a suitable, and sometimes better, alternative for them.

AM: Our organization has a breadth of expertise, and not just within our Solution Centers. We recently appointed a new head of global regulatory, we have a fantastic marketing team, and we have an incredible team of technical specialists out in the field helping our customers with business development. Ultimately, our goal is to be able to help our customers’ end-to-end and, as a part of bringing their product to market, we need to be able to tap into all that experience, not just in the laboratory. Over the last two years, we have been able to bridge the gaps between the commercial, technical, and marketing elements of our customers’ projects. We work seamlessly and are very proud of what we have achieved as a company by collaborating across functional areas of expertise on a global level.

I have strategic discussions with marketing all the time about how we present Univar Solutions to the world as an innovative company. There was an era or time when distributors were not considered to be highly technical but now the whole dynamic has changed. In order to be competitive with not just other distributors, but with suppliers and manufacturers, we must make these advances and communicate to the world that we have evolved.

We frequently invite our customers and suppliers into our laboratories and the consistent feedback that we receive is amazement at the extent of our investments in both facilities and people. For example, our facility in Houston, as well as several others, represent multi-million-dollar investments. We continue to make further investments in each as we digitize our processes and explore incorporating AI into our workflows.

DA: Speaking of AI, there is now considerable interest in applications for AI and other automated solutions in pharma. Do you think this is where the future of the industry is headed, and what investments is Univar Solutions making in this regard?

AM: I do believe this is the future. Recently, I have been exploring the potential of robotics and automation to make our lab processes more efficient — not to replace our people with robots, but rather to free them from having to perform mundane labor elements of their roles so they can focus on innovating and solving problems faster. I have also recently analyzed the amount of money we are investing in our people and the amount of time they are spending performing relatively routine operations. This may be the norm for large parts of the industry now, but we have a strategic vision for the future. I believe that in five to 10 years’ time, Univar Solutions will look like a very different business because of the seeds of innovation we are planting right now.

In fact, we already have what we call our digital vision where we’re looking to capture everything digitally from the moment we start an experiment in our laboratory for the purpose of both data security and speed of data accessibility. As we digitize more of what we do, that makes us faster and more effective. 

DA: How does a more typical client become one that needs more complex solutions, and how do customer interactions with the pharma application lab typically evolve?  

JZ: We have two primary ways of introducing customers to the innovative services that we provide. One is by offering our development services to existing customers and the other is by working with new clients who sought us out specifically for our laboratory solutions and capabilities. When our customers order chemical samples, our sales team asks them what they are trying to accomplish and whether they would benefit from further technical support. When customers indicate interest, our sales team filters requests to our Solution Center and pharmaceutical lab. Sometimes, we also get customers that may not necessarily be buying ingredients from us, but they know about our laboratory services and want our help developing a product.

When their request reaches our Solution Center, we evaluate the customer’s needs and speak directly with their R&D team to better understand their timeline, goals, struggles, and the progress thus far. With that information, we tailor our solutions to their needs. From there, it is a true partnership. We work on developing the product and recipe along with keeping the conversation going until we have an end product that satisfies the needs of the customer and the market.

It does not end there as it is very common that we send out a sample to the customer so they can test the finished product for themselves. While performing scale-up testing in their own lab, Univar Solutions will be on-call in case the client has questions or experiences challenges. We also follow up to ensure that everything went well, and the batch worked out with their testing procedures in addition to our own. If all goes as planned, then the client moves into commercialization, and the next thing you know, they are selling it out on the market.

AM: There are two key things there that Jessica touched on, whether it is our customers or our suppliers. One is communication. Really great communication is the key and core of what we do. Ninety-five percent of most problems I ever see in business comes from communication or lack thereof. We work really hard to keep the dialogue open and keep clients informed, even if some elements are not what they want to hear. If there is a delay, for example, we keep them apprised of the situation every step of the way.

The other key is partnership. We do not just want to be an ingredient provider. We want to be a true R&D partner and that is very much the vision we are moving towards. This corresponds directly with how things in the pharmaceutical industry are changing to become more consolidated and streamlined. Developers have less internal resources now. That is why it is critical that we become that “third arm” of their business. We are the first port of call when they have a problem, or they need a new innovation or solution in the marketplace. 

DA: What can you share about recent and planned investments at the Solution Centers or your long-term vision for these centers?

AM: We have made significant investments such as the four Solutions Centers in the pharmaceutical vertical industry, the new facilities for coatings and general pharma in Brazil and Mexico City, our new R&D headquarters that Jessica manages in the Houston Solution Center, and our newest pharmaceutical lab facility in Essen, Germany, which we just finished building. These represent our significant investments in our laboratories and our people in the last few years.

In terms of our broader investments and our vision for the future, we are also digitizing our files, formulations, and technical support, so that each of our scientists and commercial and marketing teams have instant access to that data. When I took over leading our Solution Centers a few years ago, I realized that if I wanted to view all the formulations in any business unit (for example, every formulation for ibuprofen gels that we have manufactured), it could take several days or, in some cases, weeks to gather all the information. Now that we are digitizing, we will soon be able to view that same information with the push of a button and to filter the search results by supplier, region, or regulations. Over the longer term, as we start to implement AI to analyze our data, we can more easily learn from past successes and setbacks. Ultimately, the goal of every investment is to get to market more quickly. In the short term, digitization will increase our efficiency by granting us quick access to our data, and over the long term, AI will allow us to capture key insights to further improve our speed to market.

To our robust digitized system, we will be able to add on future investments in automation, robotics, and vision systems, allowing our scientists to focus on the innovative and exciting aspects of their work instead of getting weighed down by monotonous, repetitive, and routine processes. As someone who has spent time at the lab bench, I know firsthand how time-consuming routine tasks like mixing, measuring, warming, and cooling substances can be. Our goal is to eliminate as much of this work as possible in the next decade.

DA: Can you expand on Univar Solutions’ Innovation Day and how you are promoting your vision for the future in the present?

AM: We are so thrilled with how our annual Innovation Day went on June 7 of this year. It served as our most successful virtual event yet and truly demonstrated the seamless collaboration between our scientific and our marketing teams. More than 1,200 people attended the event as we streamed 26 virtual tech talks and demonstrations from our laboratories around the world.

I think the reason for the success of the event is because we are delivering the current industry needs and taking our customers and suppliers inside our labs to discover new possibilities for them. The world has changed, and, after COVID-19, there is less desire to bring people together from all around the world in one place. This virtual day of events allows us to bring people back together, learn and explore, all while enjoying the safety and cost benefits of a virtual experience. This year, we didn’t just repeat the success of our inaugural event in 2022, but we were able to make it sharper, more targeted, and more consumer-focused than before.

JZ: This year, the pharmaceutical ingredients team was excited to deliver even more technical discussions and demonstrations to Innovation Day than the year prior and there was true collaboration across marketing, leadership, and technical specialists in our Solution Centers. We had crews come in to professionally shoot and record us developing actual products in four different laboratories and two test kitchens (three of which service the pharmaceutical industry) and got nearly real-time data generated during those recordings. We want our customers and suppliers to really see Univar Solutions for what it is and what we truly do and, because it’s difficult to have every customer fly to one of our Solutions Centers to visit, this is our way of bringing the lab to them.

AM: Innovation Day was on June 7 and is now available on demand at Watching these sessions, you can see first-hand how we partner with our customers and suppliers; how we connect the dots between our digitalization efforts, our industry expertise, our technical expertise, and marketing; and how we really work as an extension of our customers and suppliers. This event really showcases the energy, excitement, and passion we have within our Solution Centers, across the pharmaceutical ingredients space and the other vertical industries. We do it because we absolutely believe in our vision for the future, and we believe it is worth it.

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