It is widely assumed that the life science industry performed well off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the demand for assays and molecular tools driving unprecedented sales to support global research. This may be true in the short term, but a broader vision must be applied to business models to ensure that appropriate measures are in place for future success.
In this issue of BioScience Today, we talk to Dr Tillmann Ziegert, Managing Director at Biorbyt Ltd, about how the company weathered the initial storm of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of business agility to grasp the opportunities that arise during such turbulent times, and the subsequent economic and political landscapes.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented many challenges for business operations, especially for companies like Biorbyt that supply essential consumables and reagents – including antibodies, proteins and molecular tools – to life sciences labs around the world. Throw in the mix the Brexit debacle and, if you weren’t prepared or ready to rapidly evolve, then the train was leaving the station without you.
Tillmann explained: “We’re a global company based in Cambridge, UK, with offices in Wuhan, China, and St. Louis, USA. Our logistics hub and one of our labs are located in Wuhan, so obviously, we had to re-jig our transportation routes fairly quickly when the pandemic hit. However, as almost all the labs we supply were closed during the first global lockdown, logistics wasn’t really an issue; people literally couldn’t do their scientific research. This obviously resulted in a huge drop in business, and forced us to carefully plan our next move. People were under the illusion that it was a great opportunity for reagent suppliers, but initially, when all the labs were closed, it was the opposite, and many smaller businesses suffered.”
“We endured those months and managed to hold on to all of our employees, which was crucial to be able to hit the ground running when labs reopened. Business is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, but the logistical environment has changed with new – unforeseen – global challenges. Overall, COVID-19 has made customs officials more suspicious of anything life sciences related, which means increased paperwork, greater uncertainty and, ultimately, delays in delivery times.”
“Brexit has obviously not helped the situation, and made shipping into Europe a real challenge, resulting in even more paperwork, changes to certification requirements, and additional tariffs – causing even longer delays. One solution we explored was to invest in a European hub, like we have in the USA and China. But, although we may not entirely agree with what has happened, we are committed to Britain. We have built our lives and careers here, and have many employees we care about and have a certain responsibility for. We therefore didn’t want to do anything radical, and will continue working with our strong partnership network inside the EU.”
“For small companies, it’s a balancing act, and these issues need to be integrated into long-term business planning. It’s not going to get easier, which means you need the resources in IT, logistics and operations to deal with the problems in a more efficient way. And this is where business agility truly comes into play. One of the major initiatives we have implemented during this time is in our stock management. Our portfolio includes over 500,000 research reagents, which obviously can’t all be stocked, but we are continuously analysing our top sellers and increasing their baseline stock levels. This strategy adds to our overheads and risk, but in a time where the customer expectation is at ‘Amazon’ levels – ‘I ordered it yesterday, why hasn’t it arrived today?’ – we will be well positioned to meet their needs.”
Opportunities amid a crisis
In 2021, Biorbyt celebrated its 10th year as a trusted member of the scientific community. The company could have never forecast the recent events but, because of the entrepreneurial blood running through its veins, it was able to sniff out the opportunities and pave a clear path for the future ahead. Tillmann continued: “There have been many business positives to arise from these otherwise difficult times. We have expanded our portfolio to include various SARS-CoV-2 related reagents – including spike proteins, variant proteins, antibodies and ELISA kits – to support researchers working on COVID-19 vaccines. We are also looking to develop a more accurate and robust research diagnostic tool for COVID-19. Currently, most tests are based on a lateral flow assay, where you have one antibody with a colourimetric output. This method is acceptable, but prone to returning false-negative results, meaning it needs a follow-up PCR test. A more accurate technique is no doubt required, so we are engaging in some early R&D into building a more robust kit, with the goal of making it ‘future proof’.”
“We are also collaborating with a fellow British company to develop an assay that includes the trimeric spike protein for the alpha variant. This company has managed to successfully express the complete viral protein, which is quite a scientific achievement, because of its immense size. This could be a great product for the current market, and early results show good specificity and sensitivity. But, as we have learned, SARS-CoV-2 is rapidly evolving, so there are a lot of additional reagents that customers will need, which is why we are forming additional partnerships to develop more of these proteins and continue our support of research worldwide.”
The wider implications
“Scientific and technological advancements have been pivotal to vaccine development and tracking SARS-CoV-2 during the pandemic, improving the profile of science to not only the general population, but also to governments and political parties. Scientific R&D has proven, once again, it is a crucial part of our society. This has already resulted in more funding and support for companies looking to innovate technologies to improve research so that, next time, we will have a more rapid response to improve health outcomes, and to minimise the economic and social fallout.”
“COVID-19 united the scientific community with a common cause, rallying resources and personnel to propel research in this field years in advance. The virus had a spotlight, and a lot of superb technology has been developed as a result. It doesn’t necessarily mean you get a perfect diagnostic kit or a cure, but gradual – sometimes giant – improvements. mRNA vaccines are a prime example. We have never had anything like this before, but we can now sequence a virus, copy the relevant genetic material, and stimulate an immune response by mimicking certain characteristics. Previously, this would have taken years to get through clinical trials, because the focus and, therefore, the funding just wouldn’t have been there. But now we have a new tool in our armamentarium, with efficacy and safety data available for future vaccines or treatments.”
“This fast-tracked emergency response was accepted – and necessary – because of the acute health, social and economic impacts that the virus was having on all of us. Looking further afield, where does the next priority lay? One could easily argue cancer research: surely cancer could be cured if we focus our funding and attention there? But the nature of that challenge is a different beast; cancer isn’t an infectious disease caused by a single pathogen. The plurality of the disease, and its genetic and environmental links – combined with the many different stages – make it a complicated challenge. And who’s to say that cancer is the priority? Do absolute poverty and preventable diseases kill and impact more people in developing nations? Or should we focus more on environmental issues or depression? These questions run deep into the ethical and political spectrum, which is why – in a democratic society – funding is divided, and not normally bundled into one area.”
Biorbyt and beyond
“Qun Yang, Biorbyt’s COO, and I founded this company to provide the best possible service to the scientific community, and with the landscape continually changing, the company must be flexible to fulfil its mission. We are adjusting to the new global geopolitical realities established by the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit, and acknowledged that this is the new norm. The ‘seasonal’ opportunities born out of recent times will fade, which is why we are exploring other innovative ventures to ensure we continue supporting ground-breaking scientific research well into the future,” Tillmann concluded.