Innovating Sustainable Practices in Pharma with Peter Soelkner of Vetter

January 17, 2024

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Peter Soelkner has been a Managing Director of Vetter Pharma-Fertigung GmbH & Co. KG since June 2008. In 2009, he was also appointed Managing Director of Vetter Pharma International GmbH, the company’s marketing and sales organization.

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John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian and I’m so honored to have with us today, Peter Soelkner, he’s the managing director of Vetter Pharma. Hello Peter.

Peter Soelkner: Hi John. Good morning. So it’s great to be on the show. Thanks for the invitation opportunity to talk about Vetter Pharma and the impact of our business and what’s going on around the company, sustainability and so forth.

John: Thank you, Peter, and it is so kind of you. It’s morning here in California. It’s evening in Germany where you are right now. So thank you for staying a little later and agreeing to come on our podcast. Peter, before we get talking about all the important work you’re doing at Vetter Pharma with your colleagues, can you please share a little bit about your background? Where were you born? Where’d you grow up? Where’d you go to get your education and how’d you get on this journey to even start with,

Peter: Even though I do not look a day over 30, I’m 57 in the meantime, so I had been around the block quite a bit in this industry. So I started my career early 1992 with Sartorius, so I worked two times in my life for two companies, so two times for Sartorius and two times for Vetter. But before I joined the workforce, I studied chemical engineering, I have a masters in chemical engineering from the University of Dortmund, and later on I had the opportunity to get my MBA from Columbia University in New York, which was a fantastic experience to do that in the United States. So collectively, I used to live in the States for almost 19 years. Flying crisscross the ocean all the time.

Working for German headquarters with Sartorius the same thing as for Vetter. Both have a commonality, they’re both family run businesses, even though Sartorius in the meantime became relatively sizable publicly traded company. But Vetter, it’s really a great story as well. We’ll get to that in a second. So I was born and raised in Germany, was born in a town of Essen, which is in the rural area, pretty industrial area there. So specifically in the late sixties going into the seventies, it was a completely different environment. So the hometown where I grew up had at that point in time, more than 30 coal mines. So none of that is in existence anymore. It was a complete transformation at that point in time.

Everything what we discuss right now, transformation of industries as well, going away from certain things, changing the automotive industry, pharma biotech, definitely being at the forefront, which is a great industry to work in. Yeah, so that change was consistent and as I indicated before, I used to live for five and a half years at the east coast, relocated to Germany for four years before I lived almost certain and a half years in California and had a lifestyle to really fly every single month back and forth. And I was really wondering how that story will end. At a certain point, the pandemic gave me a relatively quick answer. There was time for us to pack our things and relocate back to Germany and really to help to manage the company here at our corporate headquarters together with my colleague Tom Otto is a pet, family and entire management team.

John: So you’re back in Germany with Vetter Pharma. And for our listeners and viewers who want to find Peter and his colleagues at Vetter Pharma, please go to Explain Peter, before we get talking about all the important things you’re doing in sustainability at Vetter Pharma, who is Vetter pharma, how old is the company and how big is it and how wide reaching is it? So our listeners and viewers could hear from your perspective the history of Vetter pharma.

Peter: Yeah, Vetter pharma was founded in 1950, so we have a 73-year-old track record and Vetter pharma developed out of a smaller pharmacy during the historic downtown area of Ravens Burg, Germany, which is really in deep part of southern Germany where Austria, Switzerland and Germany gets together in the Lake Constance region. And so Helmut Vetter as the founder of our company, was a pharmacist at that point in time after World War II, he had certainly that idea of very young pharmacist how to package certain pills.

He had his own little innovations and some pills which could help you when you had an upset stomach and how to package it. He used aluminum foil and created his own little machines and since he did a wonderful job as a pharmacist, asked him if he could package some of their products for them. And that was kind of the initiating idea to go into the packaging business. At that point in time, the company did everything except something which was sterile. So that later on took place in first time in the mid seventies that we tried to really fill first sterile products.

In the meantime, Vetter grew to a 1 billion business. This year in the meantime have a little bit over 6,200 employees within the company. And what we do is we do as a contract manufacturing organization, fill and finish services. So drug product services for the who’s who in pharma biotech to go into prefilled containers such as syringes, vials, cartridges, and on the other hand to secondary package some of those goods where it goes into pen applications, auto-injectors or just to put it into blister foil in the cardboard box with the little leaflets and 26 different languages and the artwork and everything, what you have to create to ship it out to patients on a global scale. And when we talk about high value biopharmaceuticals, so we’re definitely not in the over the counter drugs.

So usually if you need a product which is filled by Vetter, we have some serious topics ranging from oncology products such as cancer products. We have products in our portfolio in the often drug arena, so relatively rare diseases, only couple of thousand patients around the globe are suffering from these type of diseases. But that can really range from certain neurological disorders to children’s Alzheimer’s disease. There such thing that even in the age of 1-3 that can be observed and there’s a specific drug on the market which can definitely cure this type of disease.

You find us in rheumatoid and psoriasis, autoimmune diseases, multiple sclerosis applications and so forth. And we work actively with the WHO and pharma biotech with all the big 20 pharma and biotech companies as listed according to their market capitalization as well as small startup companies. Sometimes you have smaller companies, they have a slick molecule idea and they are looking for a partner who understands the regulatory requirements with the FDA, with the other global authorities such as IMA and you name it.

So we definitely have to understand that what we have to do in our business and fill those services, and we have two, I wouldn’t call it necessarily business units since they’re intertwined, there’s a Vetter development service where we really help clients within the clinical phases to get from point A to point B and then to prepare for success in clinical phase three before a product gets approved for the market that we do all the necessary work, have a sterile filling, get even product out there to clinics to test the products and then prepare for the market launch where we definitely do that on a daily basis for launch products.

We have in the meantime roughly a hundred products in our portfolio, what we ship around the globe, and you’ll not find us on any of the packaging formats. We are strictly in the business to business environment. But yeah, the pharmaceutical and biotech industry knows us quite well.

John: That’s wonderful. And I see some of the products, are those some of your products right there by your elbow? This is some of the [crosstalk]

Peter: Maybe our viewers have no idea, so this is one of the status[?] specialties, so-called dual chamber syringe where you have a life part of the drug substance in this piece and the diluent. So basically which solves this lifealize piece prior to the point of use. So you have a little bypass and basically by mixing those two substances before you get it into the patient, you basically dissolve those molecules again or that is basically another syringe format, that’s a 1ml format. You have under this cap here is a temper evident cap what you find over here and you can basically attach a needle with a lock combination. So some of that, I’ve seen that definitely the doctor’s offices.

How you do that then inject it into the patient. This is another format, so-called vial, a little glass flask, which is sealed by a rubber stopper and a crimp cap, which is with some plastic and so forth. So that is usually used in clinics, an oncology product for cancer for example, where a medical professional would apply it to a patient. That would be kind of a typical format. Here you find for example, so-called cartridges. So the cartridge itself goes into an auto-injector, so a device where you can just push a button and inject it into the patient’s belly. For example, in the home care market it’s quite effective.

So it’s probably best known from insulin applications out there for diabetes patients, but that is utilized for infertility as well. So if really families cannot get really a baby and really need a specific hormone treatment over a certain spend of time, that would be kind of a typical application here, including gross hormones as well. If people have, and specifically children have gross disorders, that comes into play and it comes in all kinds of formats here you see that with a little vials and with even bigger ones up to 50 milliliters.

So that is really the smallest format here and everything in between. And veteran entertains one of the most complete portfolios in the market to deal really with the different formats from syringes to wires to cartridges. On the other hand, it’s almost irrespective what type of glass is in the middle or what type of device we usually taking into the whole project as a specialist to handle complexity. In the meantime, we really have to deal with very complicated formulations and really very sensitive molecules as well and how to do that, how to get it sterile into a syringe. There’s another great example, what comes to mind where for example, products in our portfolio for age-related macular disease. So if not treated, the patient will go blind and you have to inject into the glass body of the eye a monoclonal antibody.

I know that’s a whole mouthful of what I’m just saying, but it has a viscosity of honey and really every droplet counts you have to have an extremely high dosing accuracy on the other end it has to be sterile. If it’s not sterile, the patient will definitely lose the eye and every little particle, which is in that syringe would swim lifetime long in the glass body of the eye eye. So these are really the type of high quality applications we tried to get to the market and I think it would be fair to say without Vetter, some of those products wouldn’t be on the market. So that’s where we became really a specialist in that field and really try to play there in the Champions League and lack of a better term. So to be among the best in the business out there without really bragging about us saying that’s not an exaggeration, but we’re quite good in what we’re doing.

John: So among other things, you guys are experts in efficacy. Efficacy matters in what you do, precision and efficacy and quality really matter. Which brings me to another topic. I mean Germany is known for quality of everything you manufacture in Germany. Your company is 73 years old now. My experience in my travels is Germany and other parts of Europe have been way ahead of the United States and other parts of North America and other parts of the world. Frankly, on this culturally speaking and socially speaking with sustainability, you’ve been way ahead of us. It’s a generational thing. It’s baked into your society. Talk a little bit about when it became part of the DNA of Vetter pharma during the 73 years that Vetter Pharma has been in existence. When did sustainability become a part and parcel of your offering?

Peter: Well, if you talk about sustainability in the meantime, in the political discussion and everything, what we talk about today in the social media, it gets sometimes confused with just CO2 carbon dioxide footprint. However, sustainability as we see it here at Vetter is really going with the UN global compact, which goes with 17 different disciplines, which really entails ecology, economics, and the social aspects of sustainability. And if you really take certain portions out of those 17 topics, certainly in the 1950s when the company was founded, we were not really discussing carbon dioxide footprints. However, it was always a family run business. It was always this Swivia[?] area, we call it upper Swivia[?] here, that part of Germany where we’re, and those folks, they’re well known that they’re pretty frugal or efficient, however you want to call it. So with that said, so that it’s really in the DNA of the company, it’s in the DNA of the region, it’s really where people still on Saturdays swipes the streets with a broom. And that is definitely pretty good to run a sterile business in this type of environment.

So from that standpoint, it had been really in the DNA of the company. On the other hand, we always try to be at the forefront when it comes to the ecological aspects as well. So we had to really a task at attend where we built almost 13 years ago when we start to break ground for a new warehouse and competence center for visual inspection, which is a massive building. So we talk about a building roughly 22 meters high, so 66 feet and then actually has a depth of approximately 150 feet by a length of approximately over 400 feet. So you can imagine. So that building will be there for quite some decades yet to think about it; what do you do with a building like that where you have to store on the one hand, API drug substance, sometimes at minus 70 degrees you have really filled product two to eight degrees centigrade.

You have huge spaces in terms of warehousing. You have a vast majority where you do visual inspection where you need climate control as well. So what do you do with a building like that when you build it? And that was even prior to the entire movement, what we have experienced five, six years ago with for future and other movements where it became more in central stage to think about CO2 footprint and what type of impact it has on the environment as well. So what we did actually 12 years ago is that we came up even with contracts with local farmers, we do entertain for that building our own biomass power stations. So we installed photo vol on the building. We have geothermal applications there for the heat exchanges where you gain energy.

And on the other hand, we decided with the company, and I’m happy to report that in the meantime, all the electricity we get to the building is actually from hydropower since we have the Austrian AOPs relatively close by. So we’re an ideal situation to entertain that. So with that said, we became in 2021 CO2 neutral within the company. So we were definitely at the forefront of that, but it’s really a journey what you entertain there, and it’s never a complete journey as good as you are. It’s the same as in sports. Yes, you’re great hundred meter dash world record, but that really doesn’t mean that you cannot run faster and you have to at a certain point in time. I think a task we all have to entertain as an industry. So your pharma and biotech industry definitely has a sizable footprint when it comes to carbon dioxide.

So we always have to find a compromise here as well since we are bound by regulatory requirements. So we cannot just say, okay, well with the AC we don’t take it that accurately and the air exchange rates in the clean room, we are bound by regulatory requirements. There are clear validations how you have to run the clean room, what type of temperature profile do you need, what do you do there in terms of the entire clean room application. And on the other hand you have to balance that with other topics where, for example, you go into the biomass power stations or you come up with photo pike or you have an idea where you buy your energy. So with that said, yeah, it definitely has an impact on the entire supply chain. So our customers as well there definitely in that outer circle, what we discussed in the meantime, a lot within the industry, it’s always good that we did our homework already and that we are already there with CO2 neutrality. That doesn’t mean we cannot get better, but sometimes little things count. While I’m standing in this building.

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We opened that in the midst of the pandemic in 2020. It accommodates approximately a thousand desk workers. And on the other hand, we had the task to find out what do we do with the daily waste? We created our desks. So what we decided is that every single person is going to a central trash can, which is somewhere in the central part of each floor and brings the trash there him or herself. So with that said, Hey, you have an idea what you create per day. On the other hand, it saves the company some money as well. So you do not need really a whole crew cleaning up after a thousand people. And it’s really kind of a mindset question as well. It’s the same as that you have motion detectors in every room. So if somebody forgot to switch off the light switch there, it’ll not burn all day long. So these are the little things, what do you do with the body you utilize in your bathrooms in the end. So all of those little things pile up as well, and that’s the only chance how you really come up with the sustainability report where you can really claim those type of things as I mentioned it before,

John: If you’ve just joined us, we’ve got Peter Soelkner with us. He’s the managing director of Vetter Pharma. We’re talking today, I’m in California, Peter’s in Germany and he’s at his corporate headquarters in Germany. To find Peter and his colleagues on all the great work they’re doing in the pharmaceutical industry and also in sustainability. Please go to Peter, you mentioned the sustainability report and all the big things you’re doing with regards to energy offsets, all the little things you’re doing in sustainability. How often do you publish your sustainability report and are all the reports cataloged then on your website?

Peter: Yes. So the first time when we came up really was a full-fledged sustainability report that almost 70 plus pages was last year, It’s a 2021 report. So we just published the 2022 report. 2023 will be done in the makings. So there are two reports and they’re on the website. On the other end, we only printed a couple of leaflets, which are six pages strong with a QR code, which really gets you to the 70 and 80 pages. So we had to really save the German forest a little bit talking about sustainability, you cannot just print the second report.

John: Right. Peter, in your industry packaging matters. Nowadays, especially since sustainability has become a bigger thing, not only in Germany, anymore in Europe, but around the world. This whole issue of sustainability and the shift from this linear to circular economy and ESG principles have all really become institutionalized with regards to the investment community, wall Street analysts and also your constituents and clients who get to enjoy your products. Talk a little bit about what your thoughts around sustainability and improving product packaging now and in the years to come.

Peter: Yeah, we definitely see a trend together with our customers in secondary packaging. So for those viewers who just join us, so what we do, we do prefilled containers to get really sterile medication into syringes, into vials and into cartridges here. And so that is primary packaging, so we cannot alter too much what’s going on there because it’s usually a type one glass or a very specific plastic syringe [inaudible] plastic for example. And there’s always interaction between the pharmaceutical solution and the wall of the syringe body, for example. So you definitely cannot just freewheeling choose alternative materials. There are validated, you have a track record there, you have documentation about it, which goes with the Food and Drug Administration in the US or the European Adminis[?] of health here or the iMAR or the [inaudible] in Brazil.

So it’s a highly regulated industry we are in. However, there’s secondary part where you put those type of syringes, usually in former times it was all plastic where you try to put that into blister foils and really put it into a kind of more rigid box. So in the meantime, what you find is yes, there’s still some blistering with alternative materials, sometimes biodegradable materials. And then the good old cardboard box in a more advanced way is now at the forefront. What you see, what companies are asking for, that you really want to go to packaging formats where you can utilize cardboard boxes, how it gets shipped out to the patients. So sometimes with a little coating on top of that, but which is still environmentally friendly and it’s definitely biodegradable instead of the tons of waste we would create just with the outer boxes and all the plastic we would create in that industry. So there’s one way where we can definitely go into that.

On the other hand, sometimes when it comes to order injectors, it’s sometimes hard to justify to go to applications where you can use the same injector again and again. Sometimes you have that for patients who get the same consistent medication every single day, but for some of them it is just a couple of shots they do need. And yes, it goes into plastic. So the industry really tried to go into plastic, which would be recyclable. On the other hand, you deal sometimes with residuals of medication, which is within there, for example, a cancer and so forth. So that even has to be put into special waste bins at the pharmacy or where you bring back your goodies and not just throw it into your domestic waste disposal.

So that is something which is quite, quite special. On the other hand, it starts with smaller topics as well, how you get all your good, you bring to the clean rooms and so forth. There are the packaging there. Do you have a waste disposal concept? Do you recycle your materials? Do you collect all of that on onsite? What do you utilize around the clean rooms? And we have a full fledged program running around that. So that’s where it really starts at the local manufacturing level. But when it comes to shipping it out, we’re somewhat limited with the exception that there’s definitely clear trend towards cardboard boxes and secondary packaging.

John: I’m stepping away from sustainability for a second because it’s become such big news in the United States, this new trend of the diabetes drugs now being used for weight loss and weight management, which then can make other great effects in a person’s body. Blood pressure improvements, of course heart improvements is Vetter Pharma part of that ecosystem of Wegovy and Ozempic and this whole new huge trend of these medicines being used for weight management

Peter: Out of confidentiality, I cannot tell you the exact company and products. However, so it’s so-called GLP one analogs, so going like proteins. So yes, we are a part of that. So I have some knowledge about those type of drugs. I think for a diabetes patient, it has a tremendous benefit. So after every piece of cake you were eating, before you prick your finger to draw some blood and to figure out what type of insulin you need at that day. And here you basically just inject yourself into your belly with an injector, for example, once a week and your body is or has the ability to regulate the insulin itself.

So for a diabetes two patient, it’s a massive benefit instead of almost every single day, once or twice you prick yourself to draw some blood or you get some insulin injections and you get now on a GLP one, on a log basis where you have that application once a week is huge. So now as a side effect and benefit, what came out of the clinical programs, it showed that people have a weight loss, 10-15% of their body weight, which can be certainly a huge benefit for really obese people.

So have for whatever reason, has some psychological effects or the metabolism doesn’t allow them really to completely reduce the weight in a meaningful way. There certainly has a benefit when it comes to cardiovascular diseases or other side effects which come really with massive overweight. On the other hand, I’m not so sure with a body mass index of 30, I think certain athletes would qualify for that because their muscles are that heavy now. So I’m not too sure if we’re really pointing in the right direction for every person who’s taking that at this point in time as a lifestyle drug. It’s just Peter talking my personal belief. So I wouldn’t utilize it. I rather go street three times per week to the gym and try to keep some more fit.

John: Right, but Vetter Pharma is benefiting from this whole new trend because you get to make more to support those industries.

Peter: Yes.

John: In theory?

Peter: In theory, yes. It’s certainly a pharmaceutical and biotech business is a business. Absolutely. On the other hand, we certainly take some ethical pride as well of what we manufacture that is really meaningful, that it really makes a difference in people’s lives. That can be really life-changing or lifesaving even with some of the medications we manufacture. But on the other hand, I definitely have to say that the advancements the industry made in the last decade is tremendous, including those GLP one on the low drugs. Were just explained what difference it makes to somebody who’s suffering from diabetes two huge patient benefits there.

John: Right. Well, back to sustainability, Peter, you’ve done and made a great case for everything important that Vetter Pharma is working on. You’re working on big things such as energy offsets and becoming carbon neutral. You’re doing small things like in the beautiful new office tower that you launched a couple years ago in terms of waste management and the shift to the circular economy. You’re working on packaging. What are some of the initiatives that you’re allowed to talk about that are most exciting about you, that are coming in the future? As you well said, and our listeners and viewers have come to know, sustainability is truly just a journey. There’s no finish line. We can all be better, we can all be better as individuals and as corporations and as organizations. So what are you excited about in terms of the future sustainability initiatives that you’re working on, Peter, with your colleagues at Vetter Pharma?

Peter: Yeah, I’m just looking to the other side here, outside of the window of our little foyer here to a brand new manufacturing building which will accommodate four additional filling lines, what we’re under construction and by just thinking about how you construct such a building, how do you have your energy streams there, what is the layout, how do you do that, what type of materials do you utilize? And so forth has a massive impact already in the building phase. And certainly you cannot really ask for great results after you didn’t really do the work from the design phase on when you come up with the growth of the company. And it’s definitely fair to say that we are massively investing into additional buildings, we’re expanding our business.

We have to prepare for success. We have over 200 projects in the pipeline together with our customers in the different clinical phases. As you know, not every clinical phase material will be a commercial success and will make it to the market, but there will be a vast majority of products which will be launched at a certain point in time and we have to prepare for that success. So it’s an expanding company. We have to think about really how we create our factories, what do we do in terms of the building layout. On the other hand, what we have launched as well, and it doesn’t stop, there are really initiatives that we have that kind of bike to work initiative. And in the meantime, over two and a half thousand of our colleagues got to lease on a really economical basis bikes, they ride to work. We have charging stations here. We basically have a whole stable of where you can really put your bike underneath a roof, which is highly modern and so forth. So specifically in this environment where we do not have really great public transportation that is different in the bigger German cities, but it doesn’t hold true here in the more rural areas.

But it’s still remarkable that a vast majority of our staff shows that route and that they’re biking to work, that they do these type of things. On the other hand, sometimes when we talk about sustainability, as I mentioned it before, we do not take really social aspects too much into consideration. So now for the 10th year, so we just had a little anniversary there, we have the so-called Vetter Kids Initiative. So what do we do? So kids here in Germany is the same as in the US but this is a little bit different spread out here, have 13 weeks of vacation while their parents look on five to six weeks of vacation. So there is a misfit, what do you do with your children when sometimes schools have closed their doors and so forth? Always a little ones.

And we run every single vacation a great program where we have kids camps where you can really go for the teenagers into IT classes, English courses, or for the smaller ones really where they’re more playful. We have a soccer camp, we have a tennis camp. You can go to Lake Constance and learn how to sail a boat and so forth. And we sponsor that big time from our company, take care of the community. We encourage even with gym passes here, where people can get that for relatively small dollar to utilize all kinds of gym facilities and the environment and so forth to keep themselves healthy and fit. And we have all kinds of programs supporting our staff. So last year we had actually the opportunity that we got an award, the Sustainable Impact Award here in Germany was an impact on employees, which was another aspect of sustainability. To be CO2 neutral is one thing, but to see more all encompassing according to the UN global compact. That is really the name of the game because without a sound understanding, with a change of behavior within your staff, you will achieve those type of things.

John: That’s true. As you said, it’s ecology, economics and social. Like you said, it’s not just about decarbonizing our companies and our society is so much more. There’s a holistic approach to sustainability that obviously Vetter Pharma has adopted and is accelerating.

Peter: Absolutely.

John: Well, Peter, thank you so much for staying late. I know we’re nearing 7:00 PM in Germany. It’s just the morning here in California and because sustainability is a journey, we want you to continue to come back on the Impact podcast and share the journey of in sustainability at Vetter Pharma. For our listeners and viewers to find Peter and his colleagues and all the important things that they’re doing at Vetter Pharma in terms of making products that not only change lives, but potentially making products also that save lives and also all the great work they’re doing in sustainability and read their sustainability reports, they’re on their website. You could go to Peter Soelkner, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for all the great work you’re doing in the pharmaceutical industry and making us healthier people around the world. And also thank you for the work you’re doing in sustainability and making the world just a better place.

Peter: John, thank you so much for that opportunity that we could present a couple of things what is happening here in the central part of Europe at Vetter Pharma. It was really fun to be on your show and hope I have the opportunity to talk to you soon and to report about our progress. Thank you so much.

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