Through the journey of Hilleman Laboratories, which develops and delivers affordable vaccines to developing countries, the author shares the six key decisions that every startup should make to build a successful venture
Dr. Davinder GillDr. Davinder Gill
Every organisation is born with a need; a need to be the biggest and best, and a need to make a difference. Ours was the latter. Hilleman Laboratories, a joint venture of Merck & Co (a global pharmaceutical company) and Wellcome Trust (a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health), was born out of need to create a transformational social impact in the healthcare environment in developing countries.
STEP ONE: IDENTIFYING A NICHE
Our first task was to chart out a clear differentiator, one that would have the potential to change the face of the existing landscape. In our case, it was vaccine technology. We (a group of scientists) came together to design a technology that would make the vaccines’ heat stable even in radically diverse environments. This meant, vaccines could be accessed anywhere in the world, and because expensive warehousing would not be required, vaccines would be within means of those who need them most. So, our guiding principle was to make vaccines affordable and accessible through technology innovation.
Let me explain this better. Because most vaccines are not formulated appropriately, up to 50 per cent of shipments to rural areas can go waste; a huge burden on an already overwhelmed system. Thus, by developing heat stable formulations, we knew we could significantly impact the need to store vaccines under cold chain conditions, thereby improving access in impoverished areas with poor infrastructure.
STEP TWO: RECOGNISING A KEY STRATEGY
As a small organisation, we need to find that one aspect which aligns with our guiding principle the best. For instance, within the vaccine space, there are many first generation vaccines which are not developed keeping in mind the specific needs of the countries with poor infrastructure for vaccine delivery. So, there was a huge opportunity for optimization of these first generation vaccines that would result in tackling one of the greatest public health and logistics challenges in the developing world. We therefore started exploring the existing but underexplored vaccines, and this remains our focus till date. In addition to the poor formulation choices explained earlier, some first generation vaccines also use cumbersome production methods that can add to the cost of manufacturing vaccines. By simplifying these methods, we attempted to make the manufacturing process easier and therefore most cost-effective.
STEP THREE: BUILDING THE RIGHT TEAM
A team plays a crucial role in driving the core principle of the company, and translating a vision into reality. Hence, building the right team at the early stage is crucial to the success of a venture.
As a startup, we could not afford to make mistakes, inaccuracy is unacceptable. That’s because, typically, it takes eight to 10 years or longer for a vaccine to mature from prototype to product stage. Given these long cycles, a mistake made at prototype stage can reveal itself at the product stage, which can be dangerously late for a small company. Therefore, our primary enrolment benchmark was guided by three basic principles – efficiency, expertise and experience. We not only sought professionals who had the right skill and experience but also those who had the passion to achieve what we had set out to accomplish. An important step in our hiring strategy was to conduct a “gut check” before making the final job offer. In the early days of our recruitment, we were seen as a young, relatively unknown and a risky enterprise. We overcame these shortcomings by clearly articulating our vision and by positioning our unique business model to showcase career challenges and growth opportunities.
STEP FOUR: FORMING PARTNERSHIPS
Fourth, and perhaps a strategic emphasis that is vital to our line of operations is partnerships. Unlike in certain businesses where products have a short time-spend from research table to racks, vaccines typically have a longer development cycle (as explained earlier). It therefore becomes difficult for small entities to take it from start to finish. This is where the role of a partner becomes crucial to the success of the research. Our partnerships focus on in-licensing valuable vaccine candidates and technologies. They also include product development and manufacturing partnerships. An important lesson for us was to identify partners with the right chemistry and a shared vision for developing affordable vaccines. Surprisingly, this strategy helped us spawn new partnership opportunities not envisaged in our original discussions. For example, our partnership with a Swedish biotech firm opened the door to new development and manufacturing partnerships on the other side of the globe in Bangladesh. We felt that while all other elements might fall in place, without a like-minded partner, our initiatives were most likely to fail.
STEP FIVE: EXECUTION
The fifth pillar of growth, according to me, is something that is essential for every organisation, more so for small entities like us – Execution. In all of my years as a strategic leader, one thing that has made me conscious and cautious at the same time is the fact that without a proper roadmap and a clear execution model, no ideas can see the light of day. Clear definition, timelines, resources, planning – all need to be detailed out and rigidly followed. Drawing up of specifics and implementing them without deviation is the key to building and sustaining a company. There have been many instances where wonderful ideas could not be scaled up simply because of lack of execution. This is particularly true in the field of drug delivery where several innovative ideas around delivery devices have been doomed due to lack of proper execution.
STEP SIX: BUILDING A BRAND
Along with the differentiator, focus, team, partnership and execution, one element that contributes to the success of a business immensely, is branding. Hilleman is a not-for-profit organisation and our endeavor is more social than commercial. As a result, word of mouth becomes central to the progress of our venture. It is important to be visible to other vaccine developers, global research organizations, policy makers such as WHO and UNICEF, as well as governments to create a greater consensus which will eventually help us garner support towards our initiatives.
Ours was a task no less daunting. We were a first-of-its-kind research company to delve into transformational technology for vaccine development and administration that would create a real impact in resource-limited set ups. But with these five lessons and branding, we are confident of reaching the goal that we have set ourselves – developing vaccines for global health.
About the author : The author is the CEO of Hilleman Laboratories, an equal joint-venture partnership between Merck & Co. and Wellcome Trust. Dr. Gill comes with more than 15 years of experience in bio-therapeutics research and development in leading pharmaceutical and biotech firms. He has been instrumental in setting up and accelerating various biologic programs from early stage research into late stage clinical development in his past assignments.