INTERVIEW: ‘We were built for times like this’, Johnson & Johnson exec Marzena Kulis says of company’s role in fighting pandemics

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Updated 20 September 2020

INTERVIEW: ‘We were built for times like this’, Johnson & Johnson exec Marzena Kulis says of company’s role in fighting pandemics

  • 134-year firm searches for a vaccine while tackling other regional medical issues

Being a senior executive at a medical company during the most serious health care crisis for a century puts you at the sharp end of events, as Marzena Kulis, managing director of the medical products business of Johnson & Johnson in the Middle East, is well aware.

“We were built for the times like this. We are a company with a 134-year legacy.

“We lived through the previous pandemics of smallpox and Spanish flu, and through the financial crises, through world wars, and our business has expanded and grown,” she told Arab News.

“But it would be wrong to say that what happened in the past few months had no impact on the local, regional and global businesses,” she added.

J&J, a multibillion-dollar giant of the global health care industry, has been in the region for more than 40 years, operating via the three pillars of its business — medical devices, pharmaceuticals and consumer products.

But there is no doubt that the company’s profile has been lifted during the pandemic through its work on a potential vaccine. J&J is one of several international companies working flat out to develop a treatment since virtually the first outbreak earlier this year. 

Kulis, an economist by training who has spent almost her entire career in the health care sector, has seen that at first hand in recent months.

“I think our teams globally have been working tirelessly, without a break really, on finding the solutions and, as of now, we are saying that large quantities of the vaccine will be available in the first quarter of 2021,” she said.

“In September, we are planning to begin phase three trials on humans, which will be on a large number of the populations chosen for the trials, but we still believe that it will be early 2021 when we will be able to deliver the vaccine,” she added. Some health experts have criticized the tendency toward “vaccine nationalism” by some countries, eager to be first with a treatment in an international race, or to keep supplies of the medicine for their own people, rather than spreading it equably around the world.

“We are open to discussion with everyone,” Kulis said, pointing to agreements J&J has signed with the US and European authorities on vaccine collaboration, as well as with international organizations such as the GAVI immunization agency supported by many countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.

J&J also signed up for the “We Stand with Science” campaign to uphold the integrity of the medical scientific process in vaccine development and global regulatory standards.

Kulis is aware of the pressure to produce a vaccine “cure,” but believes safety is paramount. “Although we all would like it to be available tomorrow, the process has to take its time to ensure there are high ethical standards and scientific principles,” she said.

Meanwhile, while the world waits for a vaccine, Kulis has a business to run in the Middle East. The medical devices business in the region includes surgical equipment, and orthopedics and cardiovascular procedures — all affected by the heightened focus on COVID-19 treatments during the pandemic.

In particular, some elective surgeries have been pushed to the back of the queue by patients understandably anxious to protect their health during the pandemic. Lockdowns and economic pressure have also had an effect.

BIO

Born: Krakow, Poland

Education

  • Master’s, Krakow Economic Academy
  • MBA, Stockholm University

Career

  • HD operations officer, World Bank 
  • Executive for Pfizer, Poland and Balkan countries
  • Managing director, Johnson & Johnson, Middle East

“The UAE has restored or reopened some surgeries, but Saudi Arabia is still taking a bit more time reopening for elective surgeries, with the exception of some parts of the country. So, obviously, that has an impact,” Kulis said.

The financials of the business were better than expected in the second quarter, although still some way off what they would have been without the virus. One real positive is that the J&J global supply chain has remained intact, she said.

Kulis’ job gives her a unique insight into the medical problems of the region, and one issue stands out, she says — obesity and its associated complications. J&J sees the extent of the problem in its bariatrics specialism, which deals with the causes, prevention and treatment of obesity.

“This region is leading the obesity prevalence in the world and we provide medical solution for that as well,” she said, pointing out that three of the top five most obese countries in the world in terms of obesity incidence as a proportion of the population are from the Middle East.

Oncological and gynecological surgery is also a growing part of her division in Saudi Arabia. 

In orthopedics, Kulis said with a hint of humor, “the world has been walking on our knees and our hips for decades.” But there is also an important link to obesity, too, she said, because overweight people are likely to face greater mobility challenges.

“Sooner or later, as a consequence of obesity, people require joint replacement or some other orthopedic intervention,” she said.

The third segment of the medical devices unit is also affected by obesity problems. The cardiovascular and stroke speciality focuses on remedies for heart arrythmia and stroke management.

“We’re still raising the awareness of availability of the surgical treatment for those two. It’s especially important to show that stroke is not a death or disability sentence but can be treated. People can be brought to mobility and quality of life,” Kulis said.

J&J sees as another increasing problem for Saudi Arabia — the treatment of traumatic injuries from traffic accidents.

“It’s really prevalent and a strong focus in Saudi Arabia. The treatment of road accident trauma is part of our orthopedic business. Road accidents are an important part of our work in the Kingdom,” she said.

Overall, the health benefits of Saudi Arabia’s young demographic is, to some extent, outweighed by obesity and other lifestyle issues, she said.

The Kingdom is a focus for expansion for J&J. It opened a headquarters office in Riyadh in 2017, and also has bases in Jeddah and Dammam, serving as a base not only for the medical devices business but also the consumer and pharmaceuticals units. There are about 180 employees in the Kingdom, of whom roughly 40 percent are citizens.

“We have made a conscious effort to ensure we can build up local capacity and help the local population to work with us,” she said. J&J has a local Saudi partner, takes part in official programs to promote health and lifestyle issues within the Kingdom, and has a joint flagship program with the Prince Sultan Humanitarian City Hospital. 

The health sector has been earmarked for greater private sector participation in the Vision 2030 plans to diversify the Kingdom away from the government-dominated energy sector, and J&J is keen to take advantage of any opportunities in that respect.

“We are always exploring the option for enhancement of the business and definitely Saudi is our priority market. 

We haven’t been in any discussions regarding takeover or merger activity so far, but if there are opportunities, we will put it forward to our senior management. We are looking at any opportunity to strengthen our footprint in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

Including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Kulis’s responsibilities at J&J cover the medial needs of 500 million people in 16 countries stretching from Pakistan to Egypt. But she is keen not to lose sight of the importance of individual cases within the many thousands of patients that benefit from J&J products and procedures every year.

“What keeps me up at night is this question — how can we grow the scale of the business so that we can help more patients get treatment at the right time?

“We all know the stories of people and the families who don’t get care on time, or who wait too long for treatment. I want to shape my organization so that we can share the same dream of preventing that,” she said.


INTERVIEW: Hummingbird Technologies and Saudi Arabia team up on food security

Updated 25 October 2020

INTERVIEW: Hummingbird Technologies and Saudi Arabia team up on food security

  • UK agri-tech entrepreneur explains how SALIC has invested in sustainable farming

Will Wells, CEO of Hummingbird Technologies, is scrutinizing our food, right down to the lettuce on a supermarket shelf.

“Every time somebody buys lettuce in Europe, the chances are that Hummingbird has analyzed that lettuce,” he told Arab News. Since last year, the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company (SALIC) has probably had a good look at it too.

Last year SALIC — owned by the Public Investment Fund with a mandate to optimize investment in food and farming in the Kingdom and around the world — became a big investor in Hummingbird with a £7 million ($9.1 million) financial injection into Wells’ company.

It was an investment with big implications for agri-tech — the fast-growing sector that applies advanced digital technology to farming and food production — but also for global food security and Saudi Arabia’s plans to become more self-sufficient in sustainable foodstuffs.

Hummingbird, which Wells described as “my baby” after he set it up four years ago, develops the software used by drones and satellites to produce high-resolution maps that farmers can use to forecast crop stress, identify diseases, pests and weeds, and optimize food yields.

“If you’re an agricultural company and you say to me ‘I want you to show me every single soya bean in Brazil, or every single sugarcane plant in India,’ we could do it in a millisecond,” he said.

“Think of us like an MRI scan for plants. We use satellite data, robots, and drones to help farmers see problems in their crops. The result is immunotherapy, not chemotherapy. By analyzing millions and billions of pixels of crops from space, we can help people use fewer chemicals, improve supply, and monitor the entire digital food supply chain,” Wells said.

With a team of 65 people — mainly scientists — in his London office, Wells uses artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to analyze billions of pixels to prevent such problems. The technology he has developed can also assist in making food production more sustainable by measuring and evaluating agricultural techniques that minimize carbon-intensive practices.

“We can make the difference between sustainable and unsustainable agriculture. Technology like this can connect the dots,” Wells said.

“I want to emphasize the sheer quantity of software and hardware solutions in agri-food — weather stations, soil sensors, driverless tractors, robotic harvesting, spot-spraying weed devices. Hummingbird’s role — rather like the MRI scan — is to talk to all of that technology. We link up and integrate with everything else on the ground,” he added.

Hummingbird grew out of work done by scientists at London’s Imperial College and other technology organizations, and was backed by some prestigious investors in early-stage funding, including the European Space Agency and James Dyson, the British inventor and entrepreneur.

It has operations and clients across the world, from Latin and North America, throughout Europe and Russia, and down to Australia.

The Saudi connection came when SALIC opted to use Hummingbird technology for agricultural projects at farming land it owns and manages outside the Kingdom, including big investments in the Ukraine and Australia.


BIO

BORN: 1983, London.

EDUCATION: MA, Edinburgh University.

CAREER

  • Investment analyst, Highclere International Investment.
  • Founder and CEO, Hummingbird Technologies.

“SALIC was a customer first, but they liked the technology so much they decided to back it,” Wells said. SALIC’s £7 million participation in the last round of financing makes it a major investor in a start-up that is valued at more than £20 million.

But Wells has much bigger ambitions. “Can an AI business for agriculture hit the same unicorn status, like those in health technology and fintech, that we’ve seen in recent years? The potential size of the market we’re going after is absolutely enormous.

“We’re trying to disrupt a multibillion-dollar chemical market, and we’re trying to unlock a multitrillion-dollar carbon market. There are so many ways AI and data science can improve food and farming,” he said.

“We are doubling and tripling every year, and expanding fast. We analyze millions of hectares of farming land every month, and we see billions of dollars of efficiency in each market we look at. You don’t have to be a silver bullet to hit ‘unicorn’ status in those conditions. People who have expertise in AI and crops make up quite a small list,” Wells added.

SALIC has been investing for some time in agricultural assets outside the Kingdom. Two years ago, it made the biggest in a series of investments in the Ukraine’s abundant farming lands with the purchase of Mriya, one of the country’s largest farming landowners in the rich grain and vegetable producing areas in the west of the country, combining it with an agricultural asset purchased earlier.

Last month, SALIC imported and sold its first batch of grain from Ukraine, unloading 60,000 tons of wheat in Jeddah, as part of the Kingdom’s strategy to support foreign investments in agriculture and help to ensure food security in Saudi Arabia.

In 2019, SALIC bought more than 200,000 hectares of land in Western Australia, including its first foreign investment in sheep-raising land, in one of Australia’s largest-ever farming land deals. 

Hummingbird technology can be used at the new acquisitions to enhance productivity and eliminate disease. SALIC also has ambitions in Canada and India.

But Wells also sees “immense” opportunities within the Kingdom itself. Food security has always been a national objective, and is one of the pillars of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify away from oil dependence.

Earlier this year, the National Grain Company was set up, a partnership between SALIC and the National Shipping Company to oversee trade, handling and storage of grains in the Kingdom.

“We are looking to expand and have a local agricultural presence. Saudi Arabia wants to grow more fruit and vegetables in the country, and to do so locally and sustainably. We have expertise in producing foodstuffs efficiently, and that expertise can be put to good use there,” he said.

Wells said that the Vision 2030 strategy “speaks to the needs of consumers everywhere.” He added: “Ordinary people and consumers everywhere, not just in Saudi Arabia, are increasingly asking where their food is coming from, and this is a major factor for a company like ours. We are an enabler of self-sufficiency.”

The Hummingbird business also fits in perfectly with the emphasis on high-technology and the knowledge economy that is central to the Vision strategy, nowhere more so than in the NEOM megacity planned in the Kingdom’s north west.

There are more immediate applications too. Wells is working on an algorithm for date-palm production across the Middle East region that he believes has great potential. “But ultimately we can analyze any plant from space, whether it’s in the middle of the desert or in a field in Brazil, and therefore we’re actively seeking local partners, especially university professors who specialize in plant pathology,” he said.

Hummingbird can also be critical to the Kingdom’s plans to reduce its carbon footprint as part of the Circular Carbon Economy strategy to tackle climate change.

“What we’re able to do from space is measure activities within food and farming that sequester carbon. To put it plainly, if a farmer or a farming business uses the Hummingbird map, and as a result of that uses less nitrogen as fertilizer, or sprays fewer chemicals, they have a lower carbon footprint, or potentially even a positive carbon outcome,” Wells said.

“By measuring things like biodiversity and soil health from space, we are able to distinguish between a farm that is sustainable, and a farm that’s not. At the heart of it is a ‘green’ outcome,” he added.

At some stage, Hummingbird will come back to the investor table for more funds. “We’re a high-growth start-up and in due course we will be seeking new investment. It is part of our journey and we have many more market opportunities too,” he said.

“Some people might call it a ‘land grab’, but we’re expanding into geographies where there are millions of hectares of farmland that have not yet been analyzed like this. It’s still very much a frontier market,” he said.

The link-up with SALIC could just be the connection that takes Hummingbird along the way to being an Arabian unicorn, but there is a broader ambition beyond the financial — to change the way the global food and agriculture business is seen.

“Food and farming has been demonized as a cause of climate change by many people. But there is a way to produce food efficiently and sustainably. It’s our job to sit right in the middle of that. 

“The aim is to take a sector that has been blamed for climate change, and make it carbon positive. That is the goal here,” Wells said.