COVID-19 pandemic has been a nightmare for many businesses around the world. However, some have, against all odds, managed to rise to the challenge and grow. An example of this are biotechnology companies – in fighting the epidemic crisis we are still facing today, the need for their services has constantly increased.
The sudden, rapid growth of demand naturally brings the need of scaling up production. While gaining exponential recognition around the world and higher revenue sounds appealing, finding ways to increase production 10 times in less than a year is complex to say the least. However, just because something is difficult, does not make it impossible – biotech companies are a great example of how to thrive in spite of the surrounding chaos.
This very example comes from Solis BioDyne, a small and privately held company, which designs and manufactures PCR/qPCR reagents that are stable at room temperature. The reagents are necessary for analysing RNA and DNA of any living organism. One of their products — a ribonuclease inhibitor — is extensively used in an RT-qPCR test for detecting COVID-19. Previously, the company manufactured this product at bench scale. The growing need for the tests made Solis BioDyne take the production not just to another level, rather to another universe. Prior to the crisis, the company manufactured ribonuclease inhibitor in the production scale of 20 L – now it has risen to 200 L.
On to the important part – what can we learn from this massive scale up during the pandemic? There are multiple different aspects that one should consider while increasing production, some which may not even come to mind at first.
Here are a few of them:
- Team spirit. Nothing is impossible with a great team. It is not just about being competent, but loving what you do and the people you work with. When the staff is motivated and there is a feeling of belonging to a family, people are willing to do whatever it takes, so that the company can flourish. Some real life examples include using unusual transportation methods to go on a safe educational trip to another country during the pandemic or figuring out solutions extremely fast to problems that nobody foresee.
- Cooperation. It is hard to do big things alone, especially when you do not have the space or the expertise for a large scale up. Working together with some other company or a test centre can really make life easier. In the case of Solis BioDyne, a team went to Sweden’s Testa Centre to practice working on a larger scale. They tested 50L and 200L bioreactors and compared them to the 20L bioreactors they had in Estonia. In addition, Testa Centre was happy to work with the Solis BioDyne’s team, give advice and lend their experts, so that together they could come up with great solutions to find ways for combating the virus.
3.Preparations. What most companies want, in order to keep up with the competition, is to increase sales and invest more in product development. It is also very important to think about production development. Developing production without preparing for it is so much more demanding – especially under time pressure with the plan to go from 20L to 200L in less than a year. Preparations are the key – ideally, done in advance, starting from finding a larger space to putting together reliable protocols. Strong foundation makes new developments much easier.
- Quality. Going from small to big very fast often means making compromises in the quality of the product – but that should never happen. In biotech, the need to increase production 10 times cannot always be solved by just increasing the amount of each particular ingredient by 10 times. To achieve the same level of quality, a lot of optimisation is needed, like when deciding to do 100 cupcakes instead of 10. While scaling up, it is important to be able to adapt the product so that the quality of it does not suffer
- Newer is not always better. It is never a bad thing to listen to external experts to get some advice or a new perspective. Scaling up can only happen by learning and developing new things. Still, sometimes even experts get it wrong and new ideas don’t always result in a better outcome. It is important to know your own product well enough to understand when the advice is helpful and when it is not.
- It is not just the production that needs scaling up. With larger production everything has to increase. You will need more employees, more raw materials. Also – when a small company goes from lab size to industrial, things change a lot. Even ordering raw materials and the way of preparing those changes and this may create some interesting situations.
- Adding extra value to the product. There is no point in scaling up, if that does not create extra value. In the COVID-19 pandemic, scaling up means being able to help more people to fight the virus while staying safe.
- Courage and persistence. There is a famous quote by George Add air: “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear”. No growth and development comes without taking a few risks, experimenting and getting out of your comfort zone. To scale up quickly you need to have courage. But sometimes things do not work out the way you wanted. In that case – be persistent, learn from your mistakes and try again until you get it right.
This kind of a large scale up during the pandemic does more than just allowing the company to grow. It also brings out the strengths and values that the company has.It is important to remember to always be brave, dare to try new things and just keep going. To quote Angela Vaasa, the COO of Solis BioDyne: “You have to work hard to stay in the competition.”