Anyone looking for the new BI X digital lab on the Boehringer Ingelheim campus in Ingelheim, Germany, stands a good chance of getting lost. It is a 15-minute walk from the main gate. The building is located on the edge of a little wood and is rather unassuming, almost old-fashioned from the outside. Only inside does it look like a start-up. Although there are also desks, people work wherever it suits them at the time: in the foyer, in the lounge corner or at the large wooden table in the kitchen. Anyone who has a spontaneous idea can instantly jot it down with a marker pen on the writable walls. Even the large windows with their views of greenery have bright post-it notes stuck on them so that no ideas are lost. The technology is impressive too. In almost every room there is a giant touchscreen. In addition there are unconventional tools such as small building blocks in case quick, tangible models are called for.
BI X is a whole new world for Boehringer Ingelheim. While elsewhere on the Ingelheim site, people predominantly dress in traditional businesswear, lab coats and overalls, Dr Daniel Hach opens the doors to BI X in trainers and a T-shirt. The 32-year-old was one of the first people employed by the digital lab and is responsible as part of a four-man management team for day-to-day operations. At our visit in October 2017, we meet Michael Schmelmer1, who was then head of BI X as well as Boehringer Ingelheim’s Chief Information Officer (CIO).
The company, founded in summer 2017, is still comparably small with a staff of around 30. However, new faces join the team every month. By mid- 2018, around 50 talented tech specialists should be working at the digital lab. The company seeks out experienced experts who bring with them in-depth knowledge of the industry and of methodical digitisation, as well as pioneers with the necessary passion for implementing initiatives and visions with conviction.
Formally, BI X is a subsidiary of Boehringer Ingelheim, but the digital lab is de facto a start-up. The synergies with the parent company create benefits and make everyday work easier: “As an independent company, BI X benefits greatly from the freedom of a start-up, but also from the tried-and-tested processes of a globally leading pharmaceutical company – for example, when it comes to contracts or approval processes,” says Schmelmer. “This gives our people more time for what they are meant to be doing.” And it is specifically this way of working that distinguishes BI X so clearly from the rest of the company. The tech experts work in accordance with the latest agile planning methods.
BI X developments go through three cycles, Michael Schmelmer1 explains. The first phase is all about ideas that are very closely aligned with the business of the parent company. For example, the BI X team has developed software for researchers to make it easier to analyse data and the latest scientific insights from the whole world and to identify possible relationships. For example, certain protein concentrations could be recognised as a possible therapeutic approach and medication development speeded up. The team is currently in the second wave of generating ideas. They are developing new approaches that are still connected to BoehringerIngelheim’s business but are disruptive and thereby capable of opening up new business areas. The BI X team has, for instance, developed an app for the digital early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.
The aim is to determine by only analysing speech whether a person is showing early signs of the disease. “Alzheimer’s research is linked to the traditional businesses at Boehringer Ingelheim, but the app offers a service that does not yet exist in this form. What’s more, nobody else has done anything like it before,” Michael Schmelmer says. In the third wave, the team wants to go still further and take on assignments with the potential to shake up the market, as Schmelmer puts it. “But that will come with time, once BI X is more mature. We will start with topics that we can gauge, and once the processes are in place, when the team knows how BI X works, then we can address more high-risk matters.” However, what kind these might be is not something that Schmelmer wants to reveal yet.
The fact that this does not always lead to instant success is all part of the plan. “Failure is allowed at BI X,” states Schmelmer. “At BI X, we consciously work on high-risk projects that are hard to implement. On average, only half of our projects are successful.” Set-backs are all part of the learning process: “Successful implementation is not the only thing that counts. Even projects that fail can indirectly lead to success later, if we learn something from them.”
Learning from mistakes is part of BI X’s DNA. The mission statement is literally writ large in the foyer. “We take on challenges every day. We take risks and make mistakes with pride. We play by our own rules. We are BI X,” the manifesto states. The members of staff developed the mission statement together, which is a new approach for Boehringer Ingelheim: “I like the fact that the team decides for itself what it wants to achieve and how it wants to work, who its members are and what their plans are,” says Schmelmer. In large corporations in particular, it is not usual that staff from all levels in the organisation make strategy decisions together. It is also not always easy for Schmelmer to accept the decision-making freedom of the staff at BI X: “It’s a learning process for me to be hands-off. But I try not to intervene in the day-today running of BI X.”
Digitisation is of strategic importance to Boehringer Ingelheim. With BI X, the company hopes to offer even better treatment options to its patients in future. The goal is to combine the expertise of a global research-driven pharmaceutical company with technological know-how and to integrate this newly acquired knowledge into the classic pharma business on a lasting basis. Boehringer Ingelheim sees powerful development potential here for the whole organisation, with the customers in mind. “Without the support of the top management and the whole company’s combined aspiration, however, that would not be possible,” says Schmelmer.
The birth of BI X came in spring 2016. Out of the idea of structuring digital initiatives for Boehringer Ingelheim, the desire to do more grew rapidly. For this, a small team of digital-thinking colleagues and external strategists was formed to jointly develop the BI X concept. Hach, still an external consultant then, was on board. “We discussed a lot about what Boehringer Ingelheim needed in terms of its digital transformation,” he recalls. “For the first few weeks, we just collected ideas. It quickly became clear that we wanted action.”
It was all about basics in the beginning: what was needed in terms of office space, technologies and staff? How should the company look like? And was Ingelheim really the right place for this? It quickly became clear that BI X would need to be near the parent company’s headquarters. The BI X team found a suitable building in the former guest restaurant, which was at the time only being used occasionally for internal training sessions. Modification took four months, with the BI X team moving in in June 2017.
The team includes Maria Apsolon from Estonia, who joined BI X as a software specialist in October 2017. As a front-end developer, she digitally implements the design of developed ideas. She is currently working on a platform with which pharmaceutical researchers can collect, structure and exchange data. When she started at BI X she was the only front-end developer. Serious pressure, she says, looking back: “We work hard and a lot. But it’s worth it, as we’re developing products that make a difference.” What in her opinion makes BI X stand out above all is the special way of working.
The tech experts work flexibly, using the scrum method. “At the start of a project phase, which generally lasts two weeks, there is only one clearly defined, measurable goal. The individual project steps are flexible, however, and only emerge in the course of the I process,” Apsolon says. For each project, the staff are divided up into new teams comprising data scientists, scrum masters, front-end and back-end developers and user experience designers. They all get together for a daily stand-up at which each member of staff briefly explains their priorities for that day. At the end of the project phase, the team looks back together at the results and decides whether or not the direction of the project needs adjusting. Progress can be seen by all members of staff in the foyer, where the status of the project is displayed on three large screens. “Each team sets its own goals for the respective week,” Schmelmer says. “There’s an immense performance culture here – everyone wants to make a difference and you can really feel it.”
As a counter balance to their hard work, the team enjoys regular timeouts. Once a week, the team goes out for dinner together, trying out the various restaurants in the area. If something is not going quite right with a project, that is when the table football in the foyer comes in: “If we have different ideas of how something should be done, we just go with whatever the winner decides,” jokes Apsolon.
The front-end developer is the only Estonian on the team. Her colleagues come from countries like the USA, Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, Hungary and Bulgaria. The BI X office language is English. And it is no accident that so many different nationalities come together to work here. Boehringer Ingelheim has focused on diversity and inclusion for years. The company is certain that diversity is a major driver for innovation and growth.
International talent, however, is in international demand. Undoubtedly, only very few people would off the top of their heads name Ingelheim as their preferred job location. “That’s one of the greatest challenges facing BI X because we need the right people in order to be successful,” says Schmelmer. He wants to draw talented staff to the location with the exciting content of the work: “With us, people can actually bring about change. They will be working on solutions that could potentially save lives.”
The BI X team’s plans are almost limitless: “In the current year, we want to implement as many projects as possible, and Boehringer Ingelheim will help us to build up these ideas,” Hach says. But this initial support also has impact in the other direction too, with BI X spreading the entrepreneurial spirit and innovative working techniques from the digital lab throughout the entire company. After all, one thing is clear: the qualities associated with a startup – agile, flexible and result-driven work – will also be factors for success in the future for a traditional company like Boehringer Ingelheim.
Boehringer Ingelheim aims to fully exhaust the digital potential and thereby build on multiple initiatives. Here is a selection.
As an independent subsidiary, BI X promotes smart healthcare solutions in the business areas Human Pharmaceuticals, Animal Health and Biopharmaceuticals. In order to develop a digital business idea, the business areas can turn to BI X. The digital lab helps them to clearly define the idea and delivers prototypes for new products. Failure is expressly allowed here. What is decisive is trying out new technologies and thereby possibly also reaching the goal indirectly.
Business Model & Healthcare Innovation
The innovation team located in the One Human Pharma business unit works closely with experts from the various therapeutic areas.
The experts can thus recognise needs early and work jointly with partners on targeted solutions. Here they concentrate intensively on digital healthcare solutions based on modern information and communication technology (see interview with Dr Oliver Reuß).
With its IT initiative Accelerate, Boehringer Ingelheim employs the innovative potential of all its employees worldwide. On it everyone can submit proposals for digital innovations. An interdisciplinary jury decides on these. The submitters must then implement their proposals within the desired timeframe, which is mainly about three months. Subsequently, they report on their experiences, even if projects have in the meantime failed, for it is important that everybody learns from each other (see text on the Hololens project).