Udit Batra, CEO of Waters, is known as a listener, learner and gatherer of facts. He talks to Lu Rahman about Waters’ collaboration with pharma and biopharma companies to accelerate vaccine and therapy development as well as the company’s new data analysis technology.
LR: We know that the last year has been all about Covid-19, and of course, it is not over yet. How has Waters responded to the pandemic as a business? Where have you experienced the biggest challenges and opportunities?
UB: Keeping our employees safe continues to be our top priority. We implemented numerous safety measures, including air flow monitoring, sanitation procedures, on-site testing and distancing sensors. Early on, we activated a Covid-19 Innovation Response Team, consisting of our top research scientists and engineers to lend our technology and expertise.
We are engaged in numerous collaborations with researchers in commercial, government and academic circles. For example, we have been working directly with professors at Columbia University and Boston University to better understand the virus and develop solutions that will ultimately benefit millions of people. At Columbia, specifically, we are leveraging chromatography and mass spectrometry techniques to understand and develop small molecule inhibitors that target the main protease of SARS-CoV-2. This research could influence the development of therapeutics to block viral replication in the body that would otherwise worsen Covid-19 symptoms.
One of our biggest challenges – common with so many other companies – is adjusting to new ways of working. For many of us, it has meant that we are unable to engage with our colleagues face-to-face; however, it has allowed me to travel the world ‘virtually’ and engage with colleagues and customers over a short period of time. After seeing what our teams can do from anywhere in the world, I am exhilarated at the thought of where we can go in the future in terms of research capabilities and collaboration.
LR: How has the Waters workforce risen to the Covid-19 challenge? What advice can you give the drug discovery sector on how to overcome severe obstacles like the one this pandemic has created?
UB: When it comes to advice for the drug discovery sector, three things are clear:
First, science still matters. This has played out in the public eye with the vaccine development. It is the basic research and development programmes over many years that have enabled the rapid development of the Covid-19 vaccines in record time.
Second, collaboration is the only way to get science to people. There is no guidebook for what we have all been through, but a key success factor is global collaboration. It has been remarkable how multiple stakeholders have united, bringing together topic experts from different fields to inspire each other to look at and solve the problem differently.
Third, compassion is critical as we collaborate, so we can meet people within the spaces in which they are most confident and comfortable to be themselves, so they can be free to create without barriers. It is the element of human compassion – that is within us all – to create the spark of connection that truly encourages people to thrive. In that environment, collaboration and innovation will flourish.
LR: We know that the company has been working with national governments and leading life science brands on treatment research and vaccine development for Covid-19 – can you tell us more about this?
UB: Waters has had a multi-faceted approach in our collaborations on Covid-19 to address different needs and opportunities.
We ensured dynamic collaboration with scientific organisations that needed help early in the pandemic with our Covid-19 Innovation Response Team, which reached out to 200+ organisations around the world including non-profits, academics, start-ups and corporations. Our work spanned everything from running samples, to methods development, to longer-term research engagements.
Waters has been working with pharma and biopharma companies to accelerate vaccines and therapies development with our precision chromatography, mass spectrometry and chemistries. Waters columns and instruments are used to characterise the very mRNA molecules that have become vaccines. In fact, BioNtech recognised Waters for our support of its Covid-19 vaccine development and release efforts. The generics industry also called upon us with a critical need to rapidly scale up production of anti-viral drugs.
Waters is also actively involved in multiple government and academic research projects that are designed to bring new technologies to public health testing for Covid-19. For example, Waters has been working with the UK’s National Health Service to develop LC-MS as a highly accurate alternative testing option to RT-PCR.
LR: It seems to be an exciting time for the business – you recently launched the ACQUITY Premier system which you believe is the most significant technical advance in liquid chromatography in more than a decade. Can you tell us more about the expertise in the business that has led to this launch and why it is such a significant product for the company and the market?
UD: It is absolutely an exciting time at Waters. We have continued to build on our heritage as an LC innovator by setting a new standard for performance in chromatographic analyses with the ACQUITY Premier System.
Taking full advantage of breakthrough column chemistries and high-performance surface technology, the ACQUITY Premier system eliminates the unpredictability of analyte losses due to metal interactions. This has been a decades-long problem for scientists; traditionally, when analysing certain metal-sensitive compounds, labs are forced to expend hours and waste precious amounts of sample material to pre-condition their instruments and columns, only to end up unsure of their results. We know of one customer who takes several days and uses thousands of dollars in sample material to passivate their UPLC system just so they can get a reliable analysis.
Scientists are tired of these frustrating and costly workarounds, and we are removing them from the equation with the ACQUITY Premier, so customers can get higher quality data in less time and with less headache and expense.
LR: You took over the role of CEO last September. You have become known as a listener, learner and gatherer of facts to gain a common understanding about the state of the business. How important are these attributes in leadership and how have they helped you shape the company?
UD: My philosophy is that one has to listen and learn before making any decisions with colleagues about the company. This includes reading a lot of documents, ingesting facts about the business, listening to customers, colleagues, investors, and other stakeholders. Then based on this, determining on which key principles we want to build our plan for the future. Then, and only then, are we ready to start the execution.
Since joining Waters last September, I have applied this approach. Together with my executive team, we critically examined every aspect of our business and this revealed both good news and hard truths. So, with these facts in hand and with a common understanding amongst our top leaders in the company, we have set out to make 2021 our year to win with a renewed energy to regain our commercial momentum.
LR: What has your journey with the company been like so far – the ups and the downs – and how have they helped you shape the business for future success and what are the company’s strategic priorities for 2021?
UD: It has been a tremendous journey so far. During an extraordinarily difficult year that brought significant change and sacrifice, I have witnessed the Waters team respond with drive, determination and an indomitable spirit. The work that Waters employees do every day to support each other and our customers through these unprecedented times is a testament to who we are at our core.
As mentioned earlier, we went through a rigorous and intensive process with the top leaders in the company to unearth both the good news and hard truths. After we gathered the facts, we came to a common understanding and committed to a three-phase transformation plan to regain our commercial momentum, strengthen our performance management and align our portfolio with growth areas.
As we closed out 2020, we have already seen incredible progress. For example, our instrument replacement initiative delivered high-single-digit sales growth, better than any other quarter in recent years. We also made important progress on our contract lab expansion initiative and have strengthened our value proposition with expanded alternative revenue and service offerings, which have been well-received by this segment. Our website and e-commerce traffic are up double-digits and the fourth quarter marked our best yet quarter for BioAccord, our flagship LC-MS instruments for biopharma. It is still early days, but we are pleased with the initial progress.
While working to regain our commercial momentum, we are also putting more focus, urgency and investment in our performance management process. As we execute and return to sustained growth, we will be well-positioned to make additional strategic investments in the business.
LR: You clearly have business and sector insight – what advice can you give to the drug discovery and development sector to help them remain robust while spotting and working towards new opportunities?
UD: I began my career in pharma R&D and there are three things that I continue to believe in to this day. First, agree on the problem. Getting alignment on the precise problem statement is essential, especially when you are part of an organisation that can go in many directions or opportunities. Do not rush headlong into a project without understanding the boundaries, the approach and the context. Second, get comfortable with nuances. Innovation, particularly in drug discovery and development, is so often a bumpy and challenging process. That is why the best researchers and innovators recognise some subtle nuances. For example, innovation requires some freedom to act, but not freedom from everything – we still must focus on the problem and our goals, and work within the frame that we started with. Third, engage colleagues and leaders who know the space where innovation happens. Ensure that you have a diversity of backgrounds and expertise in the room – chemistry, biology, engineering, automation – who can and will contribute to possible solutions.