A Conversation with QPS Holdings LLC Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Ben Chien, PhD
As QPS Holdings LLC Chairman President, and CEO, Ben Chien, PhD, leads a large global organization with locations across the US, Europe, and Asia. Since its inception in 1995, the company has grown from a three-employee molecular bioanalysis lab headquartered in Delaware to 11 locations with 1,200 employees around the globe. QPS has also completed seven corporate acquisitions and conducted nearly 10,000 pre-clinical and clinical research studies. QPS has assembled best-in-class instrumentations, platforms, and processes required to conduct studies supporting client drug discovery and development strategies. The QPS service offering has grown to include neuropharmacology, toxicology, drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics (DMPK), dermal and transdermal research laboratory, bioanalysis, translational medicine, and all phases of clinical research (Phase I-IV).
A mass spectrometrist by training, Dr. Chien specialized in the development of a novel Ion-Trap Time-of-Flight mass spectrometer and its applications, before transitioning to become an entrepreneurial leader, building a start-up Contract Research Organization (CRO). He founded QPS LLC in 1995 after starting his career at DuPont Merck Pharmaceuticals and working there for two and a half years. Dr. Chien recently reflected on the progress of the company’s growth from a small, three-person start-up to a mid-sized CRO, the impact COVID-19 has had on drug development and clinical trials, and the way forward for CROs in the midst of a pandemic.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has surely made 2020 one of the most eventful years since you formed QPS. Looking back, what really stands out?
2020 has indeed been a year to remember. In February, we were starting to really understand that we would have to make significant changes to the way we do business. I am still amazed at how the teams rallied to find solutions. Across the world, our leadership teams devoured the daily stream of content from their local governments, reviewed and updated business continuity planning documents, and set in place discussions to plan how we could keep our business open and fully operational.
QPS is such a diverse organization; we had to be ready to create plans for laboratory business units, clinical business units, and places that have both laboratory and clinical services in one location. We gave each site the latitude they needed to develop solutions that worked with their local, ever-changing government regulations and diverse work forces. However, the global teams worked closely together to build a solid strategy and proactively shared best practices to ensure the best possible outcome. I am incredibly grateful to have these exceptional people working at QPS, and they have done a fantastic job in keeping the company growing in the face of the uncertainty caused by this pandemic.
Drug development and clinical trials have been hit hard by the pandemic. How has QPS managed to remain operational?
We had to take a long, hard look at our business and be honest about our vulnerabilities. In that way, we could be proactive in developing the business continuity plans that we needed to be able to maintain and even grow our business. A few QPS clinic locations were shut down for a short period of time, as required by local governments, but other clinic facilities were deemed essential and not required to close. Those locations chose to “pause” operations to ensure everyone’s safety.
Either way, we used that time to develop protocols and start-up guides, and train employees, to ensure that we would be ready the moment we were able to start conducting trials again. These protocols covered PPE and social distancing guidelines for study subjects and staff, as well as study subject screening, testing, and enrollment best practices. In this respect, we managed to stay ahead of our competition in the clinical trials space, keeping our clinics safely open for a maximum number of days in 2020.
It has been a huge challenge, but the QPS teams on the ground have all rallied together to ensure that we can continue the critical work of supporting the development of new drug therapies and vaccines.
Can you share some of the ways that you pivoted the company to continue to serve your customers in the best way possible?
So many facets of our everyday work have evolved, and continue to evolve, with the ebb and flow of the pandemic that it’s hard to pick just a few. One key decision that we made early on in our headquarters buildings in Newark, Delaware, USA, was to divide the teams (those who were critical on-site) into two shifts with a 30-minute gap between shifts. The objective of this was to have half the number of people in the building at any one time, thereby reducing the risk of having to shut down due to a cluster of infections. This change was really difficult for our employees, disrupting schedules, work/life balance, and other activities, but we felt that it was the best way to protect them and keep the labs open. It was truly amazing to see how our employees embraced the change and rallied with QPS to make it work. We did see a decline in productivity, even though we had the same number of work hours at the bench, but it was well worth it to keep everyone as safe as possible. QPS Delaware returned to normal working hours on July 1st, with daily temperature screenings, mask-wearing policies, and social distancing.
Another key decision that we made was to be very transparent with our customers, communicating what changes we were making, how we were implementing those changes, and how it might affect the work we were doing together in the laboratory and the clinic. We developed presentations, webinars, brochures, infographics, and webpages to share the communications as broadly as possible. Many of our clients have commented that they appreciated the open dialogue and that it provided them with some peace of mind that QPS was doing everything possible to maintain business continuity.
Out of all the new practices and lessons learned, are there any that you feel will remain with QPS for the long term, even after there is a vaccine and an effective treatment?
This question deserves careful consideration. With a new microorganism like the novel coronavirus, there will be many different approaches to developing safe, effective drug therapies and vaccines. We are already seeing this with more than 150 coronavirus vaccines in development across multiple modalities and a myriad of different types of drug therapies in clinical trials.
Despite the massive government funding that is being poured into these development projects (and manufacturing), the development of safe and effective vaccines is still time-bound and the failure rate has historically been very, very high. These new approaches are being pushed through the development process as quickly as possible, significantly faster than ever before, which means that we will have limited data to rely on. Once these new therapies and vaccines do get approved for public use, there will be long period of post-marketing tracking and learning required to determine which subsets of patients respond best to which modality and tailor the options accordingly. In addition to that, vaccines are rarely 100% effective and are typically only accessed by a subset of the population, so we will need to remain vigilant for the foreseeable future. I say this to infer that many of the best practices that we have put in place to work effectively through the pandemic are most likely here to stay for quite a long time.
Since your schedule has changed so dramatically, can you share what you have learned from the experience and what you might do differently going forward?
My biggest “aha” moment has been when I stopped travelling in late February. I never realized how much time I spend on the road, in the airport, in the air, and recovering from jetlag! I now see that I have so much more time on my hands. Time that I can spend with my family, learning a new language, and really thinking through some of the more challenging questions that our business faces today. Even when it is safe to resume business travel, I will not go back to the travel schedule that I had in years past. It now seems so inefficient and does not feel like the best use of my time. Of course, we are a global company and some business travel is necessary, but I will assess each trip in a new light.
The second big change has been having everyone who can work from home (many support functions and myself), work from home. This too has been an interesting experience, as it has been about 8 months since we instituted this practice and it seems to be going well. There were some support functions that the business decided really were better suited to being office-based, like Quality Assurance, but others, like Finance, Marketing, and Clinical Research Services, have been as effective working from home as they were in the office. Before COVID-19, QPS had very few employees working remotely, so it was a huge effort by our IT department to support this new way of working, and they have done a great job.
Finally, I would like to mention virtual video conferencing. I changed our Global Senior Leadership Team (SLT) meetings from three full days in person, three times a year (requiring many members to be out of the office for a full week), into three half days done virtually via video conference. This has been surprisingly effective now that we have figured out how to best use the technology, although sometimes we do find that it is just not enough time. Also, at the start of the pandemic, I started holding one-hour-long virtual SLT meetings weekly for a few months, then every other week for a few months, and now more like monthly. I have found that this virtual video communication can really be effective and, while we miss seeing each other and the opportunity to have a good chat over a meal, I will be continuing this format for the near future.
In summary, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, QPS is in a great place, thanks to the dedication, commitment, and resiliency of our employees. Everyone has focused his or her energy to contribute to keeping our workplace safe and fully operational. I am so proud to have each one of them on my team.