THE BACKBONE OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION

Digitalization offers enormous potential for the development of innovative pharmaceuticals. That is why Boehringer Ingelheim, as a research-driven biopharmaceutical company, is driving digital transformation in all areas of its organization – from its state-of-the-art IT infrastructure to its new digital laboratory in Shanghai, China.

With the rapid global spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, millions of people have made the abrupt shift to working from home. For most of Boehringer Ingelheim’s employees, this step came in mid-March 2020: At that time, the company’s Board of Managing Directors decided that employees who could work from home should switch to remote working until further notice. The company thus undertook efforts to ensure that its employees were protected from SARS-CoV-2 as well as possible. Through this measure, the company mitigated the risk to its own business processes, with a focus on R&D, production, and supply.

For a company the size of Boehringer Ingelheim, with more than 51,000 employees across Europe, the Americas, and Asia, this switch to remote working within a very short time and under full steam, posed a major challenge, particularly for the IT infrastructure. “When the decision was made to send everyone home, we immediately knew that this was a business-critical situation for the entire company, but also for us in IT,” Gerhard Kraus, Head of Global IT Infrastructure Services at Boehringer Ingelheim, recalls. “However, thanks to our IT infrastructure, we were prepared. Our entire preparation process took roughly four weeks: two weeks of preparation and two weeks of subsequent adjustments and refinements.”

Switching to remote working posed a major challenge, particularly for the IT infrastructure.

The switch to remote working was comparatively easy because the company had already implemented important changes to its IT in previous years: Boehringer Ingelheim had made significant investments in hardware – particularly notebooks and smartphones that support a remote work environment. Already 90 percent of the employees had the hardware needed for remote working when the COVID-19 pandemic arose. The early introduction of communication via Skype for Business and the removal of telephones, which began several years ago, was another key factor. The introduction of tools such as Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, and OneNote had been another important move in switching to remote working. Employees were already familiar with the tools of digital collaboration. The expansion of the network, remote access capacities, and the upgrading of firewalls were additional measures to ensure a smooth transition to remote working. Since the switch to remote working in March 2020, up to 40,000 users work from outside the company network every day.

“When it comes to digitalization, Shanghai is the place to be.”
Dr. Johannes Floeckner
heads the BI X office in Shanghai.

Some of these employees work in Shanghai, China, where Boehringer Ingelheim opened a second office of its digital laboratory BI X in the spring of 2020. The new team in Shanghai works closely with their colleagues in Ingelheim, where BI X was founded in 2017. At BI X, data scientists, designers, and software engineers work on innovative digital solutions for the healthcare industry, including apps, tools, and big data applications. Within its first three years, BI X had already developed nine digital products together with their colleagues in Human Pharma, Animal Health, and Biopharmaceutical Contract Manufacturing. These include the smart assistant ADAM (Advanced Design Assistant for Molecules), which speeds up the discovery of innovative drug molecules. The PetPro Connect platform (see page 31) is another product that enables veterinarians and pet owners in the United States to communicate via video and text in a secure and user-friendly manner.

BI X has now taken the next step by opening its office in Shanghai. “When it comes to digital transformation, there is hardly a more exciting place in the world,” explains Dr. Johannes Floeckner enthusiastically. “Sure, there is Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, or Tallinn, locations known for setting digital trends. But nowhere has digitalization become as much a part of people’s everyday lives as here.” Floeckner has a PhD in Bioinformatics and manages the new local BI X office in China. Together with around 20 colleagues, he is working on digital healthcare solutions, particularly for the Chinese markets.

As such, the new team of BI X in Shanghai is already working on developing its first product, a new app that supports stroke patients. The app is designed for use in training during rehabilitation. “We are still at a very early stage of development, but we are convinced that the app can deliver real value to both patients and doctors,” says Floeckner. He views the openness to new technological solutions in China as a crucial location advantage. “When it comes to digitalization, Shanghai is the place to be. This is why we are here.”

“IT IS CRUCIAL TO HAVE THE SUPPORT OF THE TEAM”

Janet Maldonado is the new Head of Engineering at BI X. The Mexican used to work as a front-end engineer for tech companies in Silicon Valley for several years. In her new role, she leads teams that are developing digital products to improve human and animal health.

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