The president of pharmaceutical company Cantabria Labs, Juan Matji, explains how his industry and company are being transformed by new innovations, and he predicts greater societal consideration of where manufacturing takes place after suffering from its " dependence" on foreign supply chains during lockdown.

The president of pharmaceutical company Cantabria Labs, Juan Matji

Photo: The president of pharmaceutical company Cantabria Labs, Juan Matji. Credit: Cortesía del entrevistado

By José Manuel Blanco

At a time of telecommuting and a flight from the big cities, the pharmaceutical company Cantabria Labs (Spain) is witnessing how more and more of the country's workers are expressing their interest in moving to regions dominated by the sea, the mountains and the countryside. Therefore, as it advances in its own digital transformation, it is trying to attract talent willing to settle in the northern part of Spain or to work remotely for one of the group's offices worldwide.

Its president, Juan Matji, describes the dermatology sector's experience of the pandemic (in which telemedicine has played a key role in patient follow-up) and the innovations it is implementing in order to adapt to the demands of the new business normal.

Which are the main technological advances that are helping the cosmetic dermatology sector to continue offering wellness to society?

There are more and more apps to remind you to apply your cream every night or sunscreen because you have been out in the sun for three hours. Right now, with a smartphone and a special monitor, dermatologists can diagnose or ask for a second opinion on a diagnosis. This has been particularly important during the pandemic: many practices have closed but continued to treat their patients using telemedicine.

Trichology, which is the science that studies hair, is a field of dermatology that has developed tremendously: dermatologists were instructing their patients to scan their scalp with a camera [on a smartphone] and an iPhone app to determine the density of their hair.

In Cantabria Labs' case, technology has allowed us to connect homes with the factory and offices, and to continue with our day-to-day activity. In addition, many clinical trials are in electronic format. In the past, participants used to review trials using a very simple questionnaire, which sometimes only required the physician to write a cross next to the answer provided by the participants. Today, many questionnaires can be completed electronically.

The pandemic has also put the spotlight on remote laboratories: scientists continue to research molecules from home while robots, the cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) are in charge of synthesizing and sending back the results. At Cantabria Labs, how have you continued with scientific and product research during these months of lockdown?

We have had an open innovation model for years. We reached agreements with both private and public centers of excellence, which use databases to develop effective molecules for the skin. We have an agreement with MIT under which we have access to their medical and health projects, a kind of privileged vantage point from which to see where innovation is going at a global level. This provides us with access to what advanced research groups are doing. We even received an award for the best health and skin-related project. Before, you had to travel to these centers to see the research progress in situ; now, we have electronic project monitoring formats.

The former president of the International Teledermatology Society and professor of Dermatology at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Seville (Spain), David Moreno Ramirez, said in an interview last year that AI will mark the future of dermatology, with algorithms that help the dermatologist in decision making, a point on which other experts agree. How do you see this technology being applied in the sector?

There are algorithms that can predict the chances of developing skin cancer, which are based on the Fitzpatrick phototype scale of skin type and sun exposure. Also, there are wonderful devices that work as a kind of scanner and are based on algorithms: based on your pigmentation, they can check if the cancer is progressing. I don't think they should be substitute tools, but complementary to the diagnosis. Doctors feel more reassured by them.

And what about Cantabria Labs?

We use technology for keyword research. For example, if you search for results for "pollution" and "skin" from five years ago, you will start seeing compounds that are working to alleviate the harmful effects of pollution on the skin. If you add "natural products", you are closing the circle much more.

We also have electronic analytical equipment. The machines in our factories have processors which can measure production efficiency almost to the minute. In the end, we obtain a lot of data, but we also require intelligence, artificial and human, to analyze it.

What is the most useful data for cosmetic dermatology?

It's always the trends, which consumer information provides you with almost instantly. For example, whether they prefer to buy environmentally friendly products or not.

Did your data reveal any pandemic-related changes in customer behavior? For example, the products most in demand, purchase and payment patterns and channels, shopper profile, or inquiries made?

When the pandemic struck, we automatically assumed that people would become far more concerned with their health. First it was defensive health (washing hands with hydroalcoholic gel) to avoid external aggressions (masks). Then, once protected on the outside, how should we protect ourselves on the inside? That's where we saw a major change in consumer behavior. People said, "I must find products that will boost my immune system and my health". They were looking for products to sleep better or immunomodulators. They were scared of going to the doctor, so we adopted a preventive role.

The consumer pattern is changing. People are much more aware of, firstly, health, and secondly, what is manufactured at home: we have witnessed our dependence on China. Governments have realized that deindustrialization has backfired on us. We are returning to reindustrialization in Europe. Consumers have started to look at the back of products to see where they are made.

Chatbots are currently becoming more popular. Cantabria Labs has its own,  Happy Man, which interacts with journalists on WhatsApp to provide them with information about the company and its products. What motivated you to opt for a chatbot to communicate with the media?

As a company, we are looking for technological solutions that facilitate our stakeholders' work. We viewed the chatbot as a great opportunity to inform them about our products and news. The chatbot is a dynamic and efficient tool, convenient to use and in the palm of your hand 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The important thing about it is that the chatbot is fast, that you get information quickly and that it is easy [to use]. We will be using it to interact with other stakeholders and, in the future, why not, with consumers.

Which other technologies would you like to start developing at your facilities?

Two years ago we launched the eco-sustainable manufacturing plant in Santander [Spain]. We are now working on the next project, digitalizing production: we have bought machinery with software to analyze the data we capture and check the efficiency of the factory. We are designing a more efficient factory not only at an ecological level, but also at a productive level.

We are also working hard within the marketing intelligence field. We are now implementing Salesforce, which I believe to be a very comprehensive tool that will allow us to interact with our stakeholders, analyze data better, budget better...

What advice would you give to other colleagues in the industry who want to apply technologies to their daily processes or who are reluctant to do so?

Companies may be successful, but they cannot be successful for life if they fail to renew their vows of restlessness. I think we are a restless company: we have to constantly improve what we do, and not become complacent.

The advice I would give to people in the industry is that the technology revolution is here to stay and you have to start taking solid steps towards it. The first thing you have to do is hire capable people, who know about this field. For this digital transformation, you have to hire industry professionals. And then, pursue agility and intelligence. If you are agile, you have a more resilient ability to survive. And as for intelligence, the more upfront analysis you have, the less trial-and-error you will be doing; error is a waste of time.

COVID-19 has brought with it the widespread use of teleworking, which has resulted in many countries and cities attracting people who are able to work offshore. In Spain, cities and towns such as Malaga and Riba-roja d'Ebre are striving to do so. What can Cantabria offer to attract technological and innovative talent?

It has the sea and the mountains, it's a wonderful place. In the past, it was difficult for us to attract talent. We could only find people from the north [of Spain]. Now, after lockdown, there are people who are interested in living in a smaller province and enjoying nature more. We have workers from Madrid who, after visiting our facilities, say that they would relocate to live here with their families, because of the quality of life and the cost of living. I can tell you that there are many people from all over Spain who are already applying for jobs for which we used to only ever receive resumes from the area.

Also, you don't have to live in Spain to work at Cantabria Labs Spain. We are telling people that, if they want to join the family, they can work from Santander, Madrid or Lisbon [Portugal], in the Iberian Peninsula; if you are moving to Europe, we have work hubs in Milan [Italy], Paris [France], Los Angeles [United States], Mexico City, Singapore and Canton [China].

The digital tools allow us to do this as a multicultural experience within the company. Our subsidiaries are open to host employees from the various Cantabria Labs group businesses. We recently created a hub in Casablanca [Morocco], because we think that Africa is going to be one of the most important continents in the future.

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