Last March, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic put mobility and social life on hold in most of the world, however in biotech and healthcare, things didn’t stop at all. It was just the opposite, in fact, with activity ramping up. But the pandemic has forced the sector to turn to new ways of working and, in some cases, seem they’re here to stay.
Last March, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic put mobility and social life on hold in most of the world. Public spaces, shopping centers, offices and laboratories were closed and economic activity dropped off sharply in most sectors. In biotech and healthcare, however, things didn’t stop at all. It was just the opposite, in fact, with activity ramping up. But the pandemic has forced the sector to turn to new ways of working and, in some cases, they’re here to stay.
Valerie Vanhooven, CEO of ONA Therapeutics, was right in the middle of negotiating with investors when the pandemic first hit in March. “Fortunately, they had already committed to the funding. Because it’s very hard to get an investor to give you money without having met in person first. Later meetings were online and that went quite well. I think we can all agree that one of the best things to come out of the Covid situation is that we’ve learned to do video meetings and work from home.”
ONA Therapeutics had to stop their lab work in Barcelona and move it to parts of the planet that were Covid-free. “At the end of the first wave, we outsourced some activities to China because the virus was under control there.” Now the company is working at the labs at the Barcelona Science Park, where it is based, and its team has been broken into two bubbles. This way, if anyone has to be quarantined, part of the team can continue working.
Laura Soucek, founder and CEO of Peptomyc, explains that “the Peptomyc and lab staff was extremely good at adapting to the new hours and different work methods, which allowed us to continue advancing our projects.” One positive factor that Soucek highlights is “having learned that the absurd amount of work trips I had could be significantly cut back without affecting productivity or communication. When we can travel again, I hope we’ll only do so when it is essential. It would be better for the environment and for my own health and quality of life.”
The pharmaceutical industry also saw its day-to-day radically transformed. Gemma Estrada, director of Digital Health at Ferrer, explains that they had to adapt “all the clinical trials underway in various areas: making it so patients wouldn’t have to come into hospitals, making sure the treatment for the studies got delivered, etc.” On a positive note, open innovation and working with startups (through the Ferrer4Future and Ferrer Open initiatives) has brought about new digital projects “like platforms to help chronic patients remotely,” explains Estrada.
There were also changes in manufacturing and logistics: “At the beginning of the crisis, when everything was scarce, we converted one of our manufacturing lines to make hand sanitizer,” which was distributed through the Catalan Institute of Health. “We also had to reinforce our production of Gelocatil”, explains Estrada.
Vall d’Hebron Hospital, like other hospitals in the BioRegion, had to greatly scale up resources in record time, from 1,000 to 2,000 hospital beds and increasing ICU capacity x5. The organization’s whole work method was also transformed. Many research projects had to be put on hold and the research teams switched their focus to Covid-19. Laia Arnal, director of Business Development at the Vall d’Hebron Research Institute (VHIR) explains that, in spite of it all, the pandemic has led to positive changes that will continue: “We put together a task force of 150 researchers from different groups to look at Covid transversally. The pandemic has sped up collaboration among the different areas of the hospital, it has pushed us to use resources more efficiently and effectively, and to organize quickly, eliminating internal rivalries. Now let’s do it for other things! There will be more crises and we’ll have to work together again: the climate crisis, cybersecurity, etc.” Arnal believes it is important to promote the new transversal collaboration models that have arisen in the hospital, in business and in civil society: “It has been an extraordinary movement, beautiful.”
At the LEITAT technology center, they’ve also seen an increase in cooperation among organizations. Francesc Mitjans, the center’s director of Health and Biomedicine, explains that “the pandemic has boosted collaborative spirit in companies and other organizations. We’ve experienced it directly at LEITAT, leading initiatives in medical technology, diagnostics and therapies for Covid-19.”
Dr. Montserrat Muñoz, head of the Breast Cancer Unit at Barcelona’s Hospital Clinic, explains that the pandemic has completely transformed how they work: “Our daily work has changed a lot. Before, we were always at the hospital. Now we telecommute three days a week. We do Zoom meetings and there are new professionals on the team that I’ve never met in person. In general, there is a lot less face-to-face: interaction with colleagues, with patients, etc. That’s the worst part of this new situation.” But clinical trials haven’t stopped: “Patients have been very grateful that we’ve continued. For many, it’s a treatment option that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. It is true, though, that participation has dropped 20%.”
Some of the changes implemented will remain, like certain phone appointments: “Patients prefer it because they don’t have to come in or sit in the waiting room.” In terms of telecommuting, Muñoz thinks it’s possible to continue, in part, after the pandemic. “For me, it has been a positive because I live 40 km from Barcelona. I’m not as tired because I don’t have to commute and I can spend more hours working. It’s a win-win situation,” she says.
Investor and entrepreneur Miguel Valls, managing partner of the Alta Life Sciences investment fund, believes that telecommuting is here to stay: “Like with e-commerce, the pandemic has sped up these trends x4 or x5. We’re living in a time when most activities are being digitized, robotized, or both. And if you’re not part of this revolution, you’re in trouble... You’ll disappear quickly. Companies like Twitter have said they’re going to switch to telecommuting permanently.”
Telecommuting isn’t going anywhere at Ferrer, either. The company took advantage of the months everyone had to work from home to renovate its central offices. As Estrada explains, when they go back to the office, the company will implement “a hybrid model, combining on-site and remote working. The new design allows for transversal work with multi-disciplinary teams, encouraging collaboration and innovation, plus agile workflow.”
The same is true at LEITAT: “Telecommuting has been implemented as a new type of work contract in some areas, like management tasks,” explains Francesc Miralles.
There are some things, however, that digitization hasn’t been able to replace, like networking. According to Laia Arnal, “forging new professional relationships is still very complicated online. We haven’t found a good alternative for making contacts. In a digital context, it’s harder to make new contacts and to negotiate... There’s less creativity; you don’t have the context clues.” Even so, Arnal is aware that we’ll have to adapt to this new reality for a while still: “At least until September, everything will take place within my office walls. But I can’t believe that, due to this situation, we won’t make any new international contacts.”
Alexis Roig, CEO of the SciTech DiploHub - Barcelona Science and Technology Diplomacy Hub, believes the pandemic “won’t be the end of an interconnected world. Quite the contrary, in fact, it is proof of just how interdependent we are. It will be key to create the mechanisms to continue attracting talent to the biotech sector in the age of digital education and remote working. We envision virtual organizations and companies with executive teams spread all over the world, but also located in cutting-edge cities in translational medicine and science, like Barcelona. This could be the new normal in the years to come.”