As a multinational life sciences company with a history spanning more than 150 years, it might be easy to misconstrue Bayer as an MNC routinely working in a traditional industry. This, however, could not be further from the truth. With the motto, “Science for a Better Life”, the very essence of Bayer is based in experimentation and innovation.
Since 2014, Bayer Group Greater China President Celina Chew has been leading the charge for the adoption of innovative technologies, and pursuit of moonshot projects aimed to help people in China and around the globe. To explore these innovative efforts, Chew recently spoke with AmCham China to explain how and why Bayer Greater China has so passionately taken to tech.
Over the 21 years you’ve been with Bayer, has the approach to the “Science for a Better Life” motto changed with advent of new technologies?
I think indeed it has. Our “Science for a Better Life” mission is really about innovation through scientific discoveries to find solutions that deliver a better life for people. And we do this with our own expertise and experience in the pharmaceutical area, in consumer health, as well as in crop protection and animal health. We are primarily looking at health care and nutrition – two extremely fundamental needs for people everywhere.
And, we have been very well prepared in China, because that portfolio is very much aligned with the Chinese government's policies. Every year, two of the biggest focuses of the Chinese government are the modernization of agriculture – food security, food safety, etc – and health care.
As a 155-year-old company, you can imagine there was a lot of innovation required over the decades to maintain such long standing success. And our innovation has very much been focused on science on a molecular-level. But, we also know that the world is changing, and it is not sufficient to have expertise only in molecular science, but we also need the data science to support our work and ensure we can best deliver innovative solutions. So, we have been looking to accrue expertise in the data field. Particularly in China, because the trajectory is a little bit different, and the pace of adoption is so fast that we really see huge opportunities here.
You've stated that Bayer's innovative solutions can help achieve a more sustainable, cleaner, and safer environment here in China. What are the technologies, innovations, or solutions that Bayer is implementing towards that goal?
Our vision of sustainability is a balance of that triple bottom line concept of people, profit, and the environment. For example, the government wants to modernize agriculture in China. So, we are working with the government and with the farmers to help realize this goal.
We have digital farming initiatives, for example, using drones for more targeted and more efficient crop spraying. This will reduce the use of pesticides or herbicides, and presents a more sustainable way of growing food. We also focus on developing our more traditional integrated crop management systems, where farmers can use less products with higher efficacy to grow and protect their crops.
In the healthcare space, we are looking at how we can address chronic diseases that affect the ageing population. We do this in a number of therapeutic areas like cardiovascular, hypertension, oncology, opthamology and our other areas of expertise. This is also how we contribute to sustainability, because we want people to live well later on in life, and have better access to health care.
Is collaboration important for Bayer in terms of sustainability and innovation?
We are a very innovative company and that is a big reason for our long history. But we also recognize that we don't have the answers to everything and we strongly believe in collaborating with others, e.g. other companies, institutes, universities, governments, NGOs, academics, start-ups etc. We have a very comprehensive open innovation platform, and this is something we also do in China to try and access the advancements and expertise here. This goes toward sustainability as well, because it’s about finding the best innovative solutions to address these fundamental issues, no matter where the innovation comes from.
We have programs like G4A (Grants4Apps), our digital health incubator, where we invite three to four companies a year – Chinese startups or China-based startups – to come into our office for 88 days. Over that time, we give them funding, mentoring, and coaching type of support. We also open our network of business partners and expertise to them to help take them to the next level so they can then go to market. For us, this works well as we believe innovation is a collaborative effort, and we want to empower others to address issues in the same fields in which we're working.
What is the process that Bayer goes through when looking to adopt a new technology?
We look at adopting technology throughout the value chains of each of our businesses to really see where and how we can deliver solutions. That is the starting point of how we approach this topic. We think that the value in disruptive technologies mostly lies in our ability to use them to capitalize on our core competencies, and further our aims and our objectives to help to heal and feed the world. We also look to see if there are better solutions coming from emerging technologies that might actually disrupt our business so that we stay ahead of the curve.
In terms of moonshots and disruptive technology, we have our global program called “Leaps”. The program is named as such because it's like a leap of faith, or a quantum leap. In this program we pick 10 things, which we refer to as moonshots, that are very longstanding issues in society. For example, congenital blindness, bleeding disorders in children, restoring brain tissue, regenerating damaged hearts, rejuvenating soil, and preserving root health etc. We work with companies with cutting-edge technology to see whether we can address these topics. We understand that in this sort of context, because these are such intractable issues, that there may be a high risk of failure. But, we're willing to put our resources behind these projects to see if we can find breakthrough technologies that address these important topics.
Through a joint venture called Casebia Therapeutics with CRISPR, with an investment of US $335 million, we are looking to tackle congenital blindness and life-threatening bleeding disorders in children through gene-editing. Coincidentally, one of our G4Astartups this year is also using CRISPR gene-editing technology to see whether they can bring down the cost and increase the speed of drug discovery. In addition, Bayer is collaborating with Ginkgo Bioworks to find synthetic biology solutions for soil rejuvenation and root health. We also set up a company called Versant Ventures with BlueRock Therapeutics to use stem cell technology to restore the body’s native functions (e.g. regenerate damaged hearts, restore brain tissue). So, we have several things going on in terms of looking at disruptive technologies in order to address some major health and nutrition issues.
You recently formed a strategic partnership with AliHealth. What is the goal of that partnership and how do you see it helping to fulfill Bayer's mission?
The core of our agreement with AliHealth is really to tap into the digitalization that is impacting healthcare and, in particular, self-care. AliHealth is driving a new marketing, or the new retail concept, that leverages big data to gain consumer insights as well as using multiple channels in their online-offline eco-system to give consumers more choices in terms of the ways in which they can buy products and have access to content. We believe this is helps us to hone our understanding of consumers – what they are looking to buy, what are their unmet needs – and to then tailor our offerings accordingly to meet the needs of the Chinese market.
Ali has the data analysis capabilities across a wide range of categories in which we are interested, and we work with them to use that knowledge to sharpen our focus and provide customers with access to self-care products and solutions from Bayer. Bayer also brings our healthcare expertise to this collaboration with AliHealth, through upgrades in content and consumer education regarding self-care and wellness.
Are there any other technologies that you personally might be interested in exploring, whether it be implementing artificial intelligence, or somehow applying blockchain?
With blockchain, I am interested to understand what are the practical use-cases. You hear a lot about blockchain and it seems like there's a lot of promise, but finding use cases seems very difficult, as does being able to be proliferate this technology in the company. We have talked about smart contracts, but I don’t see so many practical use cases for our company.
AI is also something that we are genuinely interested in learning more about, and in deploying more comprehensively. Now, we're just taking baby steps compared to some of the other companies. We look at AI for recruitment, and in other isolated cases, but it's not something very comprehensive yet. So, that will be something else we would be looking at for the future.
If you had to imagine in 20, even 50 years, what would the marriage of Bayer and advanced technologies look like in the transformation of people's lives in China and throughout the world?
For me it would be that Bayer not only remains relevant, but is thriving and helping to shape the industries we are in – nutrition and health care. I think Jack Ma famously predicted that by 2030 there would be no more doctors. But, for sure there will still be health topics. Whether there will be doctors acting as they do today, or in different roles, given the rise of technology, remains to be seen. But, I think health and food will always be very close to people's hearts and to their lives. Food and healthcare may be managed through different and technologically transformed formats in the future but they will always need strong expertise and innovative solutions. Bayer has such expertise and we want to contribute to these solutions.
This article was originally published in the pilot of the upcoming AmCham China Quarterly, an executive-targeted periodical focused on policy, business, and technology, driven by C-suite perspectives and insights. The AmCham China Quarterly is set to launch early 2019 – to subscribe or contribute to the Quarterly, contact our editor: email@example.com
For More T&I insights, information, news, and events, click here to follow the T&I Initiative on LinkedIn.