News Stories · Decision Making

‘There will be no COVID-19 vaccine without the right packaging’

One company has pivoted in the space of a month from supplying vials for sophisticated treatments to using a special compound for the high-speed production of vials for a mass COVID vaccine.
October 2020

 - IMD Business School

Last year, the global pharmaceutical industry purchased some 12 billion vials. Then along came COVID, not only triggering the need for even more, but for the right type.

SiO2 Material Science didn’t miss a beat. In 30 days, the advanced materials science company had refocused its energies on using its technology platform; a fusion of glass and plastic, eliminating the drawbacks from using either of them. There is an extreme shortage of glass and many of the biological based vaccines and therapies, such as the mRNA and DNA derived ones, need to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius — and glass breaks.

“Ours is a plastic polymer with a nanolayer of glass on the inside,” Lawrence Ganti, SiO2’s President & Chief Business Officer as well as IMD MBA 2003 explains. “We have over 300 patents with more than 8,000 patent claims, and have invested half a billion dollars in R&D. At the same time as the hybrid vials, we are working with pharma companies to make specialized hybrid syringes for biologics.”

While they are ambitious, the firm won’t go so far as to diversifying into freezer farms for the vaccine. Ganti explains, “We are vertically integrated, but the freeze farms are a bit too far. For those, we have partners such as UPS Healthcare”.

A government-funded opportunity that had to be won

It was during Lawrence Ganti’s first year at SiO2 that he landed a huge US government contract worth 143 million USD thanks to the company’s track record. The company was selected to be part of the US’ Operation Warp Speed initiative.

SiO2 scaled up its manufacturing to 14 times its capacity in 4 months. It hired 250 new employees, built two new factories and surpassed its initial pre-COVID business plan by 20% with a product mix which was 90% different to what it was pre-COVID.

“Previously we focused on working with clients to provide syringes for their biotech drugs. When COVID came, we weren’t considered an essential priority, and I anticipated that business would slow down drastically. We asked, ‘Is there a way we can pivot the business and move into a more COVID-relevant space?’”

He describes the change as “just like trying to manufacture and sell e-bikes in China,” in reference to an IMD case.

“If you remember the case, we had to pivot. You can stick to something and die or pivot and change. If your business model isn’t working, adapt and change and go forward with that and be OK with it.”

The vials required for a COVID vaccine isn’t as hot a talking point as the race for the vaccine itself, but shouldn’t be underestimated in either importance or monetary value.

“Investment in vaccines has many stages,” Ganti explains. “First, coming up with an idea for a vaccine, then working out how to manufacture it, then how you’re going to fill the containers with the vaccines, not to mention how you’re going to store it.”

He sees a vaccine coming out by the end of the year for frontline workers. “The threshold right now that it has to be is to be 50 percent effective to be approved. For you and me to receive it, we are talking middle of next year,” he says.

“We are working with several companies who are developing a vaccine and investing hundreds of millions of dollars in clinical trials. Of course, we would like them all to hit the market.”

Most of the vaccine manufacturers are also the manufacturers of biological drugs and Ganti sees his SiO2’s efforts as both building its own credibility and helping the former sell “something very difficult in a short period of time”.

It was following a period at McKinsey and a then at a string of internet start-ups that Ganti decided to pursue an MBA at IMD, graduating back in 2003. He wanted to expand his functional business knowledge and to help frame his leadership.

“The leadership development personal journey has been very useful to me,” he says. “The network has proven very helpful too — I reach out to people still via the WhatsApp group of my IMD MBA class. All 90 students and spouses are on it!”

Over the years, work needs have also led him to dig out manufacturing-related case studies from his parents’ basements, always keen to learn.

Indeed, he possesses a humbleness, despite all his careers successes, which perhaps drives him forward to the next challenge.

“I keep a notebook called the “I don’t know” notebook,” he says. “It’s a basic white book. My wife suggested it! I know more what I don’t know now than before, for sure, and I am more and more accepting. The book is getting quite full, so it helps me stay humble just looking at it.

“For instance, on the manufacturing side, there are lots of things I didn’t know-And yet I am responsible for all the manufacturing! I manage experts who clearly know more than me, but I know enough to challenge and guide the team. IMD really prepared me from a general management perspective. What I didn’t realize is just how much until I got into those roles, on the job.”