Kicking off Slone Partners’ 2019 PMC Interview Series, we are proud to present an exclusive discussion with Mark P. Stevenson, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Thermo Fisher Scientific.
With approximately 70,000 employees around the globe and more than $24 billion in annual revenues, the company is the world leader in serving science. It enables scientists, laboratories and cutting-edge companies to accelerate life sciences research and deliver medicines faster. Mark’s unique global perspective on the future of precision medicine is illustrated in his thoughtful answers.
This ongoing series of healthcare executive discussions is presented in partnership with the Personalized Medicine Coalition 15th Annual Personalized Medicine Conference November 13-14 at Harvard Medical School, Boston MA. For more information or to register for the conference, visit www.personalizedmedicineconference.org
Slone Partners: You were COO of Applied Biosystems, which after merging with Invitrogen became Life Technologies, later acquired by Thermo Fisher. What’s all this M&A activity in 10 short years taught you about the life sciences industry?
Mr. Stevenson: Advances in life science research, and of course precision medicine, create demand for a breadth of new tools and technologies that accelerate discovery and drug development. Among the larger trends I have seen in new drug development is small and emerging biotechs are now the source of 80% of new drug compounds, but they lack in-house capabilities and need manufacturing infrastructure and expertise. Large pharma companies have manufacturing networks that are geared toward small-molecule drugs, network capacity that is mismatched with the need to produce biologics and need to optimize networks with increased flexibility. Both are under increasing pressure for cost efficiency, operational flexibility and faster time to market that has driven consolidation in our industry.
These trends in the life sciences industry have helped to shape Thermo Fisher’s growth strategy, both in terms of what we do every day, and in our M&A activity. Internally, we invest each year $1B in innovation, in addition to continually seeking opportunities to expand and enhance our portfolio with highly complementary businesses that will enable us to better serve our customers. As you noted, in 2014, we added Life Technologies, which significantly expanded our life sciences offering, including the addition of next-generation sequencing technology that is advancing precision medicine today. In 2016, we acquired FEI, a leader in cryo-electron microscopy. This technology enables high-resolution imaging of large protein complexes, a powerful tool to support structural biology, drug discovery and development. To further expand our pharma services capabilities, two years ago we added Patheon, a contract development and manufacturing organization. We can now support the entire drug lifecycle from early discovery, to clinical trials to commercial manufacturing. As a result, we’ve become the clear industry leader in serving science, with a unique scale and depth of capabilities
Slone Partners: Many outspoken billionaires and investment bankers, in reaction to the student debt crisis in America, are starting to encourage students to reconsider traditional 4-year universities altogether, and embark on vocational tracks to career employment. As a COO, where and how does that advice fit into modern scientific healthcare workforces, and Thermo Fisher specifically?
Mr. Stevenson: I served five years on the board of the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in California, a member of The Claremont Colleges, which takes an entrepreneurial approach and leverages industry connections to provide pathways for students to become leaders in healthcare and the applied life sciences. The ever-increasing cost of higher education and the level of debt that students incur were part of the reason for developing those corporate partnerships.
At Thermo Fisher, we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach in evaluating the value or necessity of a traditional college education. We look first at a given job role, the skills necessary for success and then consider the best path to acquiring those skills. In some cases, a traditional college education might be appropriate. In many other cases, a more narrowly focused curriculum targeting specific skills might be just as effective and far less expensive. Ultimately, the answer depends on the role and depth of training and knowledge required to be successful. There are many roles where vocational or on-the-job training is sufficient – but then others where educational depth is critical. As a company, we value the perspectives, experiences and potential contributions that job candidates bring to the table and make our assessments and hiring decisions accordingly.
Slone Partners: Thermo Fisher supports dreamers, scientists, researchers and lab workers, touching a range of life sciences missions, from gene editing to stem cell research to protein biology. Going all the way down that chain, where do you think the company makes the most material impact in a particular patient’s experience?
Mr. Stevenson: We make an impact by enabling our customers to improve the quality of life for people all over the world. We do this in many ways – from helping our customers diagnose disease, develop new treatments, and ensure the success of an organ transplant, to keeping the food supply safe, protecting the environment and supporting public safety. Here are a few real-life examples in the life sciences and precision medicine realm:
- Our magnetic bead technology contributed to the first FDA-approved cell therapy (CAR-T) for childhood leukemia. This is a game-changer in treatment.
- Our instruments and assays enabled the first next-generation sequencing diagnostic for non-small-cell lung cancer, helping to match patients to the most promising treatments.
- We are also helping one of our customers manufacture a novel drug therapy for cystic fibrosis – a drug that treats the underlying cause of the disease and not just the symptoms. It’s increasing the life expectancy of patients who respond to the therapy into their 60s and beyond.
Our company’s Mission to enable our customers to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer inspires me, and our team members, to bring our best to work each day.
Slone Partners: Being in charge of Thermo Fisher’s digital strategy, how is it redefining the company’s instrumentation, laboratory products and life sciences businesses?
Mr. Stevenson: We are utilizing digital technologies to provide customers with new capabilities and greater productivity while enhancing our own commercial effectiveness and operational efficiency.
For example, we’re improving the servicing of equipment through our “smart instruments” and virtual reality technology. This provides our customers with information to enable proactive servicing and maintenance, saving them money and preventing downtime. We are leveraging this type of technology internally as well. For example, we recently launched a training center for manufacturing employees at our pharma services facility in Greenville, N.C. The center is equipped with virtual reality and augmented reality capabilities that mimic a real-world operating environment and equipment, reducing training time and increasing efficiency so we can better serve our customers. In addition, with our mobile applications, we enable our customers to schedule and conduct their experiments from anywhere, giving them the flexibility to work from wherever they want. We are also developing digital capabilities that help our customers better manage the enormous amounts of data generated by our high-end analytical instruments and using machine learning to pre-process data and guide selection of experiments most likely to yield good data. Importantly, digital science is fueling greater collaboration in science, improving the way people work and advancing innovation and breakthroughs.
Slone Partners: Precision medicine and precision healthcare is arguably the most exciting advance in therapeutic and preventive care in the last quarter century. What’s Thermo Fisher’s role today, and what will its role be tomorrow, to harness the wave of these advances?
Mr. Stevenson: Thermo Fisher supports the shift from one-size-fits-all medicine to precision medicine by developing enabling technologies and services for molecular diagnostics, targeted therapeutics, population health and translational research.
We play an integral role within the healthcare ecosystem by partnering with academics, pharmaceutical and biotech companies, clinicians and governments to exchange ideas, understand the challenges, and collaborate in the development and adoption of precision medicine solutions. Advancing precision medicine is a global challenge, and one in which we are taking a leading position in bringing the right partners together to make progress.
We support programs by engaging all stakeholders – within or across organizations – to assist in delivering real-world evidence and economic value models to policy makers, regulatory agencies and payers. These infrastructure components are needed to make precision medicine a part of routine care at academic medical centers and community hospitals.
We are particularly interested in the continued exploration of integrating multi-omic data sets, developing molecular and companion diagnostics, innovating gene and cell-therapy solutions, and providing cost-effective manufacturing capabilities for targeted, individualized therapies.
Slone Partners: When you look into a crystal ball – from initial R&D all the way down to a citizen in a neighborhood drugstore in any small town – with respect to automation, robotics and AI potentially replacing human interaction, what does the future look like for precision medicine’s impact?
Mr. Stevenson: We see automation and AI enhancing the doctor-patient relationship, to help with diagnosis, treatment and management of an individual’s health.
Innovation and creative partnerships will be necessary to bring these solutions to routine care. We need to automate simple, time-consuming, or inefficient processes in healthcare, drug development and clinical research. We also need to establish that these approaches are rigorous enough to be used for assisting in life-saving decisions, and transparent enough so that medical practitioners don’t feel they are working with a black box decision tool.
In addition, we need to better leverage electronic health records (EHRs) to support precision medicine, and, in some cases, build out the functionality. Recently, we have been working with the Personalized Medicine Coalition on a landscape analysis project looking at adoption of precision medicine in the U.S. healthcare system. The data suggests ~60% of organizations who have implemented precision medicine still have manual processes around test protocols and results for their EHRs.
We need to use AI and deep learning to bring together all of the rich data sets across the different ‘omics, whether the data comes from genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, lipomics, etc. analysis. To best diagnose and treat an individual, this multi-omic data needs to be considered alongside patient history, lifestyle and environmental factors. Deciding which data is important for different health conditions, and how to weigh the individual data sets over time, will likely be guided by AI and deep learning and other considerations yet to be discovered.
Slone Partners: You’re a chemist and an MBA. This ability to balance rigor and scientific processes with creativity and communications must be wondrous in your daily responsibilities. Take us through your day.
Mr. Stevenson: I am inquisitive by nature, and science and creativity are intertwined. To be a good scientist, you have to think outside the box, be brave and bold and optimistic that problems can be solved – some just take longer than others. There is no typical day for me. One week I can be in the office in meetings, and then the next week I might be traveling and with customers. I enjoy that variety in my work.
Slone Partners: What makes you personally happy?
Mr. Stevenson: Living each day with a positive attitude, trying and doing what I most enjoy in life, and appreciating my family and good health is my recipe for personal happiness. Having a sense of humor also helps! My family keeps me grounded, and it’s really the simple things in life that make me happy outside of work. I’ve been lucky to have always had a supportive family, and this has allowed me to focus on work and keep up with the demanding travel schedule throughout my career. This has absolutely helped me get to the point in my career that I am at today.
I’ve just come back from a trip to San Diego and had a lot of fun spending time with my oldest two children, who I don’t get to see so often now that I am based in Boston. My 19-year-old son and I played quite a few rounds of golf together, where we had quality time catching up after his first year at college. My daughter, who is a science major in her senior year at UCLA, is like me and loves to run to keep fit, so we enjoyed early morning runs by the beach. It is fun to see them growing into young adults. Our youngest child is eight years old and I have fun during weekends biking to the park with him, and he helps me stay fit!
My entire career has been in the healthcare industry and staying healthy is really important to me. I run or go to the gym every day, and when I’m back in California, either for work or visiting my two oldest children, I love to bike as much as possible, especially by the ocean. Before I moved to Boston, I biked to work twice a week along a stunning coastal route, which is about a 20-mile ride, and enjoyed that uninterrupted time when I often came up with ideas and solutions for work. It helps that I’m blessed to have a job I love in an industry I am passionate about. I’m always inquisitive to learn about science and innovation, so I read a lot in my spare time to keep up with the many advances that are being made. I love learning about new technologies and seeing the impact that new life science technologies are having on medicine. Sydney Brenner’s (Nobel Prize in Medicine 2002) quote that “Progress in science depends on new techniques, new discoveries and new ideas, probably in that order” summed up well the belief in the impact new technologies can have on how medicine is practiced.