Lean and Client-Focused: The Future of Life Sciences Engineering and Architecture

Since its founding in Ireland in 1974, architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firm DPS has grown significantly. The company is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in the United States and most recently opened an office to service the Midwest. Aidan O’Dwyer, President, U.S.A. Operations, explains the keys to the company’s success, including partnering with local universities, grooming talent, remaining lean, and maintaining an unshakable focus on clients at all times.

DAVID ALVARO (DA): Can you share the history of DPS, including the circumstances that led to the founding, the original vision for the company, and how that has evolved? 

Aidan O’Dwyer (AO): DPS was founded in Dublin, Ireland, in 1974 to service the country’s burgeoning pharmaceutical sector. Bristol Myers Squibb (Squibb at the time) was the first U.S. multinational to move to Ireland for manufacturing purposes, followed shortly by Pfizer. This jump-started direct foreign investment into the country, especially by U.S. multinational pharmaceutical companies.

In spite of sustained growth, we’ve remained true to our roots throughout the last half-century — we continue to serve the pharmaceutical industry, which is 80–85% of our business, and most of our projects have process engineering at their core. We still service our original clients, Pfizer and BMS, which speaks volumes about our ability to deliver and our focus on establishing long-term relationships.  

DA: This year marks the tenth anniversary of DPS in the United States. What has the past decade has been like, both in terms of changes at the company and the evolution of the pharma industry?

AO: The last 10 years have been a whirlwind. In January 2011, we acquired Biometics, a process engineering consultancy in the greater Boston area, with fewer than 10 people on the team — we’re now approaching 800 people across all of our locations in the United States. We’ve evolved from the starting point of process engineering and now deliver services for clients across the complete engineering and construction value chain, including feasibility studies, concepts, consulting, architecture, engineering, procurement, construction management, commissioning, qualification, and validation; as well as contingent staffing solutions.

We’ve done that in Boston and in the other locations where we’ve opened offices, including Albany, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Cary, North Carolina; and Wall, New Jersey. In addition, we have offices in Portland, Oregon, and Phoenix, Arizona, and of course our newest office in Kansas City, Kansas. Aside from an expanding geographic footprint, we’ve grown to accommodate our clients on the technology side. There has been a significant focus on novel therapies, including mRNA, cell and gene therapy, oligonucleotide, microbiome, and exosomes. Modalities that either didn’t exist or were in the very early stages of development a decade ago are now significant. We’ve had to respond to novel processes in terms of facility design, construction, regulatory compliance, and licensing requirements.

Additionally, getting products to market as quickly as possible has become especially crucial, as was starkly demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a company, we’ve supported 16 COVID-related projects ranging from vaccines and therapeutics to diagnostic test kits, all of which were time-sensitive. Delivering the projects that led the vaccines to be manufactured, designed, constructed, commissioned, qualified, licensed, and distributed to patients has been beyond fast-track.            

DA: What do you see as some of the key differentiators of DPS compared with other firms in the market?

AO: We devote a huge amount of time and effort into finding and recruiting the best people to our team and developing them further. We take pride in our expertise and doing everything we can to service our clients. Ultimately, we help our clients deliver products that will make people’s lives better — and we take that responsibility extremely seriously. The driver is not winning an architecture or engineering award but delivering that critically important project for that client.  

Our history and track record demonstrate how successful we’ve been on a global scale. There’s innate know-how within DPS because of our focus in the life sciences space. Other companies may do some work in life sciences, but it represents a fraction of their total business, whereas it’s our core specialty.

DA: How challenging it is to assemble a team with the right architecture and engineering training overall, the specific skills needed in pharma, and the creativity needed to develop novel solutions for unique customers?

AO: It’s challenging to find the best people, especially because we’re so discerning and our standards are exceptionally high. However, we have been very successful in attracting, retaining, and developing an extraordinary team.

The labor market is particularly constrained now, and employers are finding it hard to fill roles across the entire economy. However, one of the reasons that we’ve been so effective is because of the locations we’ve established. Boston is well regarded for a pool of incredibly smart and talented people. It’s a similar scenario in all our other U.S. and European locations. We’re strategically located in places that are known for talent, which is key to bringing the right people in.

Another way we maintain our advantage is by partnering closely with the schools and universities in our locations to ensure that we’re plugged in. We keep these educational institutions abreast of what we need and thus ensure that we have access to top young talent.

Once people join DPS, they’re able to excel and grow in an environment that encourages career development and advancement. I firmly believe that the best architects in the world were trained by the best architects in the world; the best engineers in the world served their apprenticeship with the best engineers in the world. We are fortunate because there are so many skilled people in our company that, when we bring in new talent, they’re mentored and developed by some of the very best professionals in the world. Nurturing these individuals has been key to broadening and retaining our staff and encouraging growth.  

DA: What types of clients do you seek out, and what kind of partnerships do you seek to establish?

AO: We’re incredibly fortunate in terms of the type of clients that we have. We work with the top 20 pharma biotech companies in the world, whilst also working with a plethora of startup companies, including firms that didn’t exist six months ago and only have a handful of employees. The variety of client and project type is interesting and exciting for our staff, while the cross-pollination of different approaches frequently leads to innovative approaches benefitting all our clients.

Having a comprehensive understanding of what’s driving our clients’ projects informs the way we do business. Going deeper leads to a greater team commitment to the project and is felt by our customers. It’s also part of the reason that, after so many years in business, our client annual repeat business rate is over 85%. Typically, we continue to be hired from project to project per client, which is how we’ve expanded and grown over the years. Our client relationships are very personal — we put our clients’ needs at the center of everything we do.  

DA: Where do you see the appropriate approach for pharma facilities on the spectrum between totally stick-built construction and maximally modular or “podular,” off-site construction?

AO: I’ve had quite a bit of exposure to modular design and podular design going back many years, so these ideas aren’t actually that new — they’ve been around for decades. My view is that they are tools in your tool kit. Every project we do is unique or bespoke to some degree. While methodologies may be replicated, every solution is unique in this industry. For certain projects or challenges, modular is absolutely the way to go; for other projects, it’s not appropriate at all.

Early in the project — generally during conceptual design — we encourage an analysis to confirm the need for modular elements and to assess whether that is a viable solution. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet or a panacea for all projects, but they certainly have their place. The key is to do the analysis early, keep an open mind, and then pick the right tool for your particular project.

DA: What has changed at DPS over the last couple of years?

AO: Given what we do — which is design and construct complex high-tech facilities — we have to remain fluid. It’s a very dynamic space that is constantly evolving.

To address the expanding market, we recently opened an office in Kansas City, KS, to service the Midwest. From a technology perspective, we were certainly early adopters of Building Information Management (BIM) and Virtual Design and Construction (VDC), and we have pushed the envelope in that space. We’ve grown our BIM and VDC capabilities beyond 3D design, and we’ve recently piloted 4D and 5D to allow us to develop project cost estimates and schedules directly from the model. Our 3D laser scanning capability provides us with significant advantages in terms of data verification, both in terms or accuracy and speed, especially for retrofit projects.  

We’re also working to standardize projects across all of our offices. Once the pandemic happened in early March 2020, we needed to be able to operate remotely but as if we were in the office. We adopted BIM 360, which has worked out very well for interoffice collaboration. Enhanced use of interoffice collaboration tools, such as BIM 360, give our clients gained access to our entire pool of people. We’ve got almost 800 professionals in the United States and 2,200 globally.  

DA: Are there any design elements that are presently on the cutting edge but you feel may become much more mainstream soon?

AO: I think the BIM/VDC space will become more mainstream, as well as aspects of lean design. Lean has yet to be a trend in design and construction, but we’re focused on adopting it widely over the next few years. We’ve piloted lean design in three of our offices in the United States with very encouraging results. I think lean is going to be a driver for the industry going forward, as the entire AEC industry will face challenges around resourcing. A solution for this is to be super-efficient with the resources that exist.

DA: Have you seen more movement toward personalized medicine in facility design?

AO: We’ve done a number of projects in the personalized medicine space and expect there will be more in the years to come. The approach to manufacturing and licensing is also quite different to a large-scale commercial product/facility. We’ve already designed a number of facilities that produce personalized medicine for patients, and we’ve found these projects very interesting.

DA: How do you anticipate the industry evolving over the next five years, and how is DPS strategizing to meet the evolving needs?  

AO: Our approach has always been to take care of our clients and serve their needs first, so, in many ways, we’ll follow their lead and tailor our offering to suit them. We’re seeing a huge amount of activity in the novel therapy or ATMP space; so gene therapy, cell therapy,  microbiomes, oligonucleotides, exosomes and, of course, mRNA. I believe we’re going to see a lot of more of these projects in the near future, plus of course newer technologies and platforms that haven’t even yet been discovered.  

Aidan O'Dwyer

Aidan brings more than 25 years of biotech and pharmaceutical industry experience to his role as President of US Operations at DPS, where he provides strategic leadership to guide their expansion in the US. Aidan has held other senior roles with DPS prior to relocating to the US and was responsible for delivery of capital projects ranging from $10 - $100 million across various geographic locations, including Ireland, the UK, Holland, and Belgium. Before joining DPS, Aidan held senior project management positions with several global blue-chip pharmaceutical firms, where he played key roles in the delivery of capital projects ranging from $150 - $350 million.