Cognizant and Merck Discuss Technology’s Role in Pharma Manufacturing

Gaurav Marya: Hi everyone. My name is Gaurav Marya. I am the Strategic Business Unit Head and Global Head of Mergers and Acquisitions for Life Sciences at Cognizant. I'm here today with Besufekad Alemayehu. Besu is the Senior Vice President and Chief Digital and Technology Officer for Merck's Manufacturing division. It's really a pleasure and privilege to have you here, Besu. Welcome, Besu. I am really excited about our conversation today. So Besu, I know you as an industry veteran. But for the audience, can you share a little bit about your current role, your background, and how did you get started in life sciences manufacturing?

Besufekad Alemayehu: Thank you, Gaurav, for having me, and thank you for the time. I appreciate it very much. My name is Besufekad Alemayehu. I'm currently the Digital Technology Leader for the Merck Manufacturing division. I have been with the company for the last two years. Actually, it will be exactly two years in about two weeks with Merck. An industry veteran of 22-plus years in multiple places. Currently, I am leading the manufacturing transformation for the division and for Merck at large, which is really very much focused on adding value through technology and really connecting the different segments of our operation into one continuum through digital data and analytics.

Marya: Besu, that's a very big role. So Besu, you have been in the industry, as you said, for over two decades, and a lot has changed during that time. What do you think are the most consequential changes that has shaped life sciences industry over the last couple of decades?

Alemayehu: Gaurav, as you know, pharma, and biopharma at large, has been very reluctant when it comes to adopting technology. So we are always lagging behind. And the confidence in technology and using technology to advance our development, manufacturing, and supply in one interconnected continuum has been very, very slow. That adoption has been very slow. And what has changed since my first days in life sciences to today is the recognition of the value of technology and digital to advance medicine and how quickly can we get our molecules from benchside to bedside, as we call it. So I think that mindset shift, that openness to adoption of technology and data has come a long way, which is enabling us to advance our transformation utilizing digital capabilities. Another thing is also not only the industry but the regulatory agencies’ openness to adopt technology and to encourage technology and the usage of data as an important component of the development of medicine and through delivery. So those are big changes I have seen which is driving the traditional pharma and biotech industry from those islands of automation to fully integrated, end-to-end digital capabilities. So that's a huge jump, I would say, in the last 20 years, particularly the last 10 years.

Marya: So Besu, as you rightly said, all companies are moving from islands of automation into what you would describe as digital manufacturing. So as companies are moving that path, what are the major trends which you see that are shaping this change?

Alemayehu: First and foremost is a truly integrated automation. You can start to see from skidded equipment to fully integrated automation, from vertically integrated control layers into horizontally integrated and matured data-driven operations. It's very much a trend. And more importantly, also, the regulatory requirements. If you look at serialization, if you look at the eLeaflet space, if you look at even the filing, from filing to post-market monitoring capabilities, those are really the big changes you will see in the industry. And the adoption of not only automation, also, certain spaces, artificial intelligence. If you look at where we are going with personalized medicine, like cell and gene therapy, the dependency on data and the dependency on understanding the individual patient needs and what needs to be delivered has changed tremendously the way we work. The way we think about manufacturing at large is also a huge shift. And also the shift from stainless steel into disposables. The tools are also changing the dependencies on technology and how technology can enable those processes in a much more efficient way and a much better and compliant manner. The other thing you will see is the regulatory requirements also driving serialization. And that connected supply chain is also tremendously driving the change in the space, along with the requirements to understand your third-party suppliers as well, and how do you test and make sure that the products and the materials you use are kosher and fit for purpose in a compliant and safe manner. So a lot is changing in that space.

Marya: So Besu, as companies are riding these trends and trying to make the most out of this changing landscape, what's your advice? What would it take for those to be successful and differentiate themselves from the laggards and avoid those pitfalls and failures? 

Alemayehu: So my personal view on that is pharma has been – or our industry has been very inward-looking for a long, long time. But there are others in the adjacent industries who have done this and who have been through this journey for a long time. And a great deal of learning could be gained from their experiences. So I think what will differentiate the next generation of technologically enabled biopharma companies is how they adapt to these new technologies and how they learn – not reinvent the wheel, but how they learn from the adjacent industries and technologies to drive their lessons learned and incorporate into our journey. That's one. And then two is, really, the companies who will consider technology as part of their core business – not a support function, not a nice-to-have, but it's really a way of doing business – and adapt their strategy to be digitally enabled will be the drivers of the change and the leaders in the pack. I think those will be very differentiating factors.

Marya: So Besu, just switching topics, tell me a little bit about our long-term relationship, the relationship between Cognizant and Merck, and what do you think makes our partnership so successful.

Alemayehu: Look, Cognizant is an established leader in the industry. We have had a long strategic partnership with Merck, as you know. But I think, in the manufacturing space, what makes Cognizant very different to others is the recent acquisitions of domain expertise and domain knowledge. It's a niche space, as you know, the biopharma manufacturing space. There are only very few players with the battle scars and longevity of experience to support our industry. And you acquired, I think, a couple of them which are making a significant difference in our strategic partnership. I think that's one differentiating factor. That allows us to have a one-stop thought leader, one-stop shopping for our partnerships and capabilities, especially when it comes to shop floor. As you know that shop floor in the lab space is the most important focus of our digital transformation as we drive towards Expedition 2025. So having that all-encompassing capability in a partner where we can do one-stop shopping is, I think, what makes our relationship different and much more value-add to us.

Marya: Oh, thank you for those very kind words, Besu. Besu, what would be your advice for the next generation of professionals who are considering a career in life sciences manufacturing? It's a very interesting time to get into life sciences manufacturing with all the changes that you described.

Alemayehu: Very interesting question. I think about that all the time. As you know, all of us are competing for that next-generation talent, the right talent, the right skill set, and that digitally savvy, creative generation of leaders and technologies. The one thing I realized, especially driving transformation through my couple of past roles and this one, is that what differentiates the two leaders in that space is the experts who know their business like there is no tomorrow, as I like to call it. The advantage of digital and technology is – in biomanufacturing particularly, we bring science, process, technology, equipment, and people together. We converge all of that on those bioreactors, on the front lines, on the scale-up labs, and so forth. So knowing your business end to end, understanding your business end to end and how technology is intertwined into that business process and in that ecosystem, and having that clear understanding of that horizontal is really, really key for any young professional entering into our space. Because the notion of the past where you need to have that narrow and deep expertise to one segment of the ecosystem is starting to diminish because of this digital, interconnected, horizontally wired operation, as we call it. And I think having that advantage of being in the digital space to see the raw materials to finished goods and beyond is really, really an advantageous and just a novel place to be in, to be quite frank. So those young generations who spend the time to understand and learn the business and the ecosystem of digital capabilities which run the business from molecules to finished goods is probably who will be the most successful in our industry.

Marya: That's excellent advice, and it's a great place to wrap up this conversation. Thank you very much for joining me today, and I really enjoyed this discussion.

Alemayehu: Thank you for having me. Thank you.

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