In conversation with Cytiva's Emmanuel Ligner on closing a $21.4B deal in a time of coronavirus

As GE Healthcare's biopharma division becomes Danaher's Cytiva, President Emmanuel Ligner talks about juggling multiple balls at once across countries, time zones and amid a global pandemic. (Pixabay)

Last February, as the General Electric conglomerate looked to slim down its myriad operations, it announced plans to trade its busy biopharma manufacturing business to Danaher in return for $21.4 billion. Now, the deal is done, with GE Healthcare Life Sciences officially becoming Cytiva.

Under Danaher, Cytiva said it will maintain its portfolio of instrument and consumable brands as well as its digital and enterprise solutions. The standalone company also plans to continue its ongoing research collaborations and partnerships, such as its recent work with Harvard and MIT on cell and gene therapies. 

To pass regulatory muster, Danaher agreed in March to divest certain assets required by the Federal Trade Commission, which the agency said would otherwise harm competition. It offloaded $750 million worth of products—such as its cell culture beads, liquid chromatography hardware and resins, all also supplied by GE—to German lab equipment maker Sartorius.

FierceMedTech had the chance to chat with President Emmanuel Ligner about the steps taken to finalize the multibillion-dollar deal while not only adjusting but responding to the global COVID-19 crisis. 

Conor Hale: This has been in the works for over a year. So how does it feel now, personally, as you're just getting underway?

Emmanuel Ligner: Personally, I love what we're doing. I've been working in this industry for over 15 years now, and I've had various roles at various places around the world, and this is really something that I love.

We have a fantastic team, of close to 7,000 employees, who are totally dedicated. Every morning you wake up and know that your products are used by the pharma and biotech researchers around the world to take care of patients’ health.

President Emmanuel Ligner (Cytiva)

Our products are used in about 75% of the monoclonal antibodies approved—recombinant proteins such as insulin are made with our products, as well as anti-cancer drugs, vaccines and plasma-derived products. It's unbelievable what we’re helping our industry achieve.

And especially right now in the COVID-19 outbreak, you have a sense of purpose which is just brilliant. It feels extremely good to have the privilege to lead a team like this and to take this to the next chapter—the Cytiva chapter, under Danaher’s leadership.

CH: Are there any unique aspects about being under the Danaher banner, so to speak, that you're most excited about?

EL: Absolutely, there's a few. The first that comes to mind is the fact that we are joining a team of companies. We will be a standalone company, but we will be a part of what they call their life science platform. We are excited to be colleagues and work with companies like Sciex on mass spectrometers—or with Phenomenex, Beckman Coulter Life Sciences and Pall Corporation—people in the same space as we are, with common customers, that understand the pace of the industry.

The second thing is joining a company which really drives success, and has really infused kaizen [the Japanese business philosophy] and its continuous improvement tools to make sure that they get better. So the Danaher Business System is something we're excited to learn and see how we can apply in our day-to-day work.

CH: If we went back in time—say to two or three years ago at GE Healthcare Life Sciences—were there things at Sciex or Pall where you would say, “Oh, I wish I could get my hands on that. I wish I could work with those people.” But that you possibly couldn't before?

EL: Yeah, I think there’s always something. And we have been working with some of the Danaher companies and supplying our track-etched membranes for their molecular assays. Also, when we think about filtration, Pall has a great portfolio with a lot of complementarity throughout, and so how we can eventually collaborate is something we will see in the future.

Of course, Cytiva will be a standalone company, but yes, there's absolutely things that we could do together. It's tempting in molecular devices or with Beckman Coulter Life Sciences. I don't remember having thought, “OK, it would be good if we buy this company”—but working together? Absolutely.

CH: Can you give me a sense of your timeline going forward, and what you hope Cytiva will achieve over the next year or year and a half?

EL: We closed on the 31 of March, and on April 1 we become Cytiva. This is a very exciting time, and we will continue our timelines for product launches.

Right now, it's so important to continue to help researchers on COVID-19 with their rapid immunoassays and immunochromatographic tests. There's also a lot of collaboration on vaccines right now and supporting the monoclonal antibodies starting in clinical trials.

And we are trying to do this while protecting our own employees. But we have a schedule which is not going to change.

CH: With a globally oriented business such as this, how have things been affected over the past two to three months, as this outbreak has spread around the world?

EL: So we started in January in China. It’s very important for us to protect our employees, but also to continue to do manufacturing, because what we do really matters. We have a plant in Tonglu, and we have large R&D and management teams in China, so we had to make sure that they were safe and that we were respecting what the local authorities were telling us.

At the same time, we had to respond to new challenges and new collaborations. So we have a collaboration with Sona Nanotech in rapid chromatography. We are also responding to an initiative in the U.K. on vaccines through the BioIndustry Association. We also have requests in Sweden where we have 3D-printing capability and have started printing face shields for healthcare professionals.

You have to continue to support your customers on a routine basis, and also protect your employees, but at the same time be flexible enough to answer those initiatives and prioritize equipment to make sure we support the activities fighting COVID-19.

CH: That’s a lot of moving parts at once—how much harder has it been trying to transition the entire company into Cytiva, on top of that?

EL: Yes, we are juggling multiple balls at the same time. I think it's going very well because we have a very well-laid-out plan.

So, for example, we took the decision to isolate our CFO, our HR leaders and myself—as the three of us are living in the U.K.—more than a week before the U.K. made the decision to tell people to stay home. We did that with a few other critical employees in the organization who were focused on the transaction. If you have a very well-laid-out plan, and a very capable team that does not panic, It's easier to execute. 

We also set up a team that was dedicated to the transaction, and another team dedicated to the business, if you will. So an A and a B team—not that there's any priority between the different teams—but the team that was dedicated to the business didn’t have to worry too much about the transaction, and the team dedicated to the transaction didn’t have to worry too much about the business.

CH: It’s interesting that there isn’t really a specific headquarters in mind for Cytiva, and that it’s very globally based with leadership and different locations. Do you think that made it easier to work remotely?

EL: I think it is also the sense that we're living in the modern world. We all gather together at the appropriate time—at around lunchtime in the U.K., it’s early in the Americas and late in Asia. And we also took what we learned about COVID-19 in China in January and brought it through the organization as the pandemic moved to Europe and now to the U.S.

The reality is, when you have a global reach and a global business, you need to be a mix of cultures and you need to be a mix of time zones. It's very important for us to not refer to a headquarters.

We have a huge business in Asia, so Shanghai is very important for us. And the U.S. is important as well with the Boston area, but we also have a factory in Logan, Utah, and a large presence in California. 

I don't know if it helped us on the transaction, but when you have different time zones, when one team stops the other one wakes up and takes the ball and keeps it rolling and moving.

CH: So how do you see COVID 19 affecting the company going forward?

EL: For us, COVID 19 is something which makes us just do things slightly differently. We have to make sure that, as I said, our employees are safe, but that we answer medical opportunities very, very quickly.

It should not derail us from our key mission, which is to support the world’s development of new technologies and the manufacturing of existing drugs, which are so much important to the diabetes patient, or the cancer patient, or the young child that needs a vaccine.

If you have that in mind, yes, it's a pain. But at the end of the day, it should not derail you. You have to shuffle, because suddenly you have to prioritize particular initiatives that you didn't have in mind at all two months ago. 

But that's what we do. We did that for Ebola, and we did that for H1N1 in 2009. I don't want to say we're used to it and I don't want to say that we enjoy it—but once you have a very clear mission, and you have a very clear purpose, you try to always bring that to work. 

And we spend a lot of time telling that story to our employees because, you know, some of our employees can work from home like I can, and some of our people cannot—they have to go to the manufacturing plant and they have to produce the resins, bioreactors and other products that are so critical for the world's health.

Editor's note: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.