There are many technical benefits to BioPhorum membership, such as developing best practice tools, creating leading-edge solutions, and influencing regulators. But there is also the softer side of being in a learning environment and understanding that you’re not alone when tackling common issues.
We spoke to Sonia Schwantes, Director of Product Management at NewAge Industries, about how membership has helped her learn about end users, the value of sharing experiences, and why it is important to have the courage to ask questions.
What’s your history with BioPhorum?
I first became involved with BioPhorum when I started at NewAge a little over two years ago. I took over as the point of contact after the Director of NPD left the position. At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what this entailed as being a supplier means we’re often further away from the end user, so it’s sometimes unclear how we can participate.
However, I soon caught up and it’s been a great experience as I love hearing the perspectives of end users. This can be quite humbling as it’s easy to assume you know what’s going on, only to find that you don’t. Many things can differ in how an end user approaches things, so hearing those different perspectives is important and can help us improve too.
How has BioPhorum helped your learning?
It’s been great to further understand the layer between us and the end user through BioPhorum discussions because I can see that everyone is also learning like us. Again, it’s easy to assume that the big players have all the answers because of their size and experience. But BioPhorum has shown me that we all wrestle with the same questions and dilemmas and have something to teach one another.
Once you realize this, you can bring value simply by having the courage to ask questions. You can help each other by talking about your experiences and they can do the same Eventually, everyone improves.
There’s only so much we can pick up from courses and webinars or, if you’re lucky, visits to customers, which can be incredibly helpful in understanding the complexity of our industry. But if you can’t do those things, it can be difficult to learn as you may only see small pieces of the bigger picture.
The great thing about BioPhorum is that we’re all in the same room. Everyone brings their expertise, so asking questions and listening to discussions gives you a good perspective on a process. Everyone shares their experience of what’s worked for them and what hasn’t. Or they give pointers for things to look into or recommend things to try. This is one of the things I enjoy most about the collaborative process.
How are you doing things differently as a result of what you’ve learned?
We now see risk very differently than before COVID-19. What was often seen only as a localized, single risk is now being routinely viewed and assessed for its potential to become a global risk with lasting ripple effects.
For example, we have tried hard to improve our indirect communication. Before COVID-19, we used emails, and it was all ‘push’ communication. Now, we have a much better two-way communication process and use online tools such as a Smartsheet hub, which has become our team channel. If there’s an event that may impact us, we post a message on the channel and people can ask questions if they don’t see an answer.
Originally, there was a lot of focus on the sub-tier visibility of our suppliers, but COVID-19 showed us what’s more valuable is our relationships with our main suppliers and their relationships with their suppliers. While it is helpful to understand some sub-tier information, it is important to ensure the effort is focused on the high-risk materials. For materials that are easily procured the investment in subtier is not needed.
We also found that the reality for pharma is that we will always have a lot of single-source materials as it’s just not financially viable to have second sources because our volumes aren’t big enough.
Have you used AskBioPhorum?
Yes. I like that everyone can submit questions, which means I can see what issues people are grappling with and how others have tried to make things work. I always learn a lot from reading through questions and responses. It’s just really fascinating.
Occasionally, if an issue impacts us, I’ll put together a summary for internal circulation based on AskBioPhorum conversations because they’re things my colleagues should understand, such as end-user perspectives of what they need, want, or are looking for. So, let’s take advantage of that insight. AskBioPhorum gives us more awareness of current issues, especially regulatory ones.
We can see the issues concerning others and pointers to resources that we may not have ourselves. It’s been helpful to make sure we understand where industry is going so we can address issues before they become something major. Usually, we’ve asked ourselves the questions but have never been able to answer them because we don’t know a solution or don’t have the connections to find one.
It’s nice to feel you’re part of a joint team trying to address industry issues. It makes you feel that you’re not alone out there.
Have you adopted any BioPhorum best practices or new approaches?
We’re doing more of this now. We’re taking the supply change notification best practice guidance and template and adapting it for our processes to ensure we cover more of the things BioPhorum addresses. And we’re definitely looking at the business continuity best practice guide, which we’re starting to address in much more detail than before.
We’re also looking at some of the BioPhorum tools available, such as the single-use user requirements or user specification toolkit, and seeing how we can apply them from a supplier perspective.
And in terms of giving back, we’ve been able to get more people involved with BioPhorum and have them be part of some workstreams. This is really helpful for senior management as the upward feedback lets them understand the potential issues that our sales or quality people might see every day.
The other advantage of having staff involved in workstreams is that the facilitators do a great job of taking high-quality notes or recordings. So, if I can’t make a meeting because my schedule gets crazy sometimes, I know I can still stay up-to-date on discussions and progress by reading the meeting notes. These also help our international peers who may find time differences hard to always attend meetings or calls. They can access the recordings or notes, so they can still have a good idea of what’s going on in the industry, even if they can’t always participate as much as they’d like.