10.01.2023 - ICT, Innovation

Next stage: biotechnologies

While we are still living in the age of information technology (IT), it is already being replaced by the biotechnology era. Latvia has great potential in the field, which is why Eurofins Genomics recently established an information technology hub in Riga.

Eurofins Genomics is an international genomics company with several laboratories in Europe and more than 600 employees. The company is part of Eurofins Scientific, a provider of testing and laboratory services, which in turn has around 1,000 laboratories in 60 countries and more than 60,000 employees.

Outsourcing and business service centres of large foreign companies are often stereotypically associated with call centres in Latvia. Gaitis Kasims, member of the board of Eurofins Genomics IT Solutions Latvia and IT Director of Genomic Services, points out that this is far from the case. Although their Latvian employees are not directly involved in genomics and gene sequencing, IT processes are closely linked to these activities. Kasims manages an IT team of 150 people, 30 of whom now work at the Latvian hub. In an interview with Labs of Latvia, he shares more about creating an IT hub in Latvia.

How did Eurofins Genomics decide to set up an IT hub in Latvia?

I have been working at Eurofins Genomics for 10 years and I am responsible for IT, so the idea came from me. The company is growing rapidly, the role of IT is increasing every year, and capacity needs to be built. A few years ago, we were able to tackle this challenge by setting up an IT hub in India. Seeing how well the company was doing there, the hub was expanded and transformed into the parent company’s IT hub. As Eurofins Genomics continued to grow, we needed more and more highly skilled staff, but finding them was becoming increasingly difficult. I had the choice of investing even more resources and looking for colleagues in India, which makes us dependent on one market and its economic and geopolitical fluctuations or creating another IT hub in another country.

When I was considering which country to choose, I decided to set it up in Latvia.

There are three reasons for this: Latvia has always had talented and motivated people, the mindset is in line with the Eurofins Genomics culture and also with my mindset, and Latvia is in the European Union, very close to Germany. I appreciate being able to fly to Latvia in the morning and be back home in Munich in the evening. I must admit that it was important for me to give Latvia the opportunity to develop in areas other than fast loans or gambling. This is truly an opportunity to work for the future.

What did your management say about steering the company towards your homeland?

We have a very strong culture of trust. I am responsible for the IT direction of the company, and the management trusts my decisions. Of course, they always have to be justified, within budget. I try to pass on this culture of trust – Aleksandra Rubena runs the Latvian division; I don’t have to do everything myself. She is further building the team, decides how to work together, how to implement this idealistic idea of creating the perfect IT hub together with the team. It may be unattainable, but the journey alone is worth it. If I had to decide again whether to set up a hub in Latvia, I would do it anyway, despite the overwhelming bureaucracy.

What were the biggest obstacles in the way of establishing the Eurofins Genomics IT hub in Latvia?

The Enterprise Register of Latvia wanted proof that Eurofins is a serious company. Even though the company is a public, listed company with a turnover of billions of euros, I had to dig out information and proof from various registers about Eurofins and that the company is not involved in money laundering and so on. I found that strange. I also needed proof to register the company as a VAT payer.

Another interesting thing was that there are regulations on how Latvian residents and foreigners can open a business. My case was special and did not meet any of these regulations because, although I am a Latvian citizen, I do not have a declared address here, which is necessary to register a company. As a result, the process dragged on unnecessarily and we lost three months shoving paperwork back and forth.

Did you have to travel to Latvia each time or could you do everything electronically?

That’s the bright side: I finally had a reason to activate my electronic signature, which was issued with my ID card. This allowed me to submit all documents electronically.

What will the Eurofins Genomics IT hub in Latvia do? Genomics or “just” IT support?

We are starting to work in two areas. One is related to good manufacturing practices. That’s the standard by which products are manufactured for everything that is then used in the production of medicines. These ingredients have higher requirements for traceability, use of chemicals, etc. So, the Latvian hub will specialise in managing these high-quality processes and production.

The second area involves working with clients in Europe: it will be easier to work from a site in Latvia than from India. Together with the clients, the Latvian team will work on implementing their solutions. These will be high added value products with a strong link to genomics.

The line between “pure” genetics and IT was already indistinct, but now it is blurring even more. Yes, the Latvian hub does not do genetic research or drug development, but we do provide genetics services to clients who sequence and produce genes.

Almost anyone can sequence nowadays, and it is IT that gives us the added value that differentiates us from our competitors. For example, our IT specialists developed DNA PathoTracker, a pathogen-tracking software. In other words, the software we developed visualises the spread of micro-organisms and bad bacteria in a manufacturing, commercial or medical facility, how they move from one room to another, what mutations occur, how the pathogen changes, etc. This helps to understand how best to combat it so that fewer antibiotics have to be used, production sites do not have to close, or products do not have to be recalled. All this is possible because we have developed a specific IT solution.

Our IT team has also developed a blockchain-based food traceability system. It allows you to trace a specific plant or animal from where it grows to the finished product. Food fraud is a widespread problem: often high-quality food is replaced by counterfeit or “diluted” with other, lower quality food.

Without IT solutions, genetic information would be limited. IT is working on automating analysis and production processes, controlling robots, artificial intelligence systems, etc.

In addition, the IT team in our company works hand in hand with the production, laboratory, research, and development departments. It’s not that IT just does what other colleagues have come up with – everyone works together.

The press release mentioned that this is the company’s first step in building business in the Baltic region. What does that mean?

Latvia and the Baltics have issues with the health system as it’s expensive to maintain. Investing in new technologies could directly reduce costs. In the UK, for example, we plan to sequence five million people to understand the link between genetic information and disease, reducing the long-term cost of the health system. A similar project is underway in mental health research. We are sequencing to identify links, improve treatments, and reduce costs.

I have high hopes that the Baltic region will develop like Scandinavia and the UK. The Baltic advantage is relatively modern and open laws and regulations, especially compared to, for example, Germany or France. The IT infrastructure is also good. It brings me joy every time I go to Latvia. And, of course, Latvia still has a very strong science scene.

How big is the team at the Latvian hub now?

Less than 30 people, and it is soon expected to grow to 40. Let’s see how quickly we can get there. Eurofins Genomics has big plans for the coming year; we want to develop rapidly. Consequently, the need for IT competences will also grow.

I have also recently started to head the forensics department at Eurofins, which is as big as the genetics team. I can’t say how much IT capacity this will require, but the forensics development will also contribute to the growth of the IT team, certainly in Latvia as well.

A few years ago, the Chinese giant MGI entered Latvia, and now Eurofins Genomics. What does it show?

Latvia has very strong IT competences, and the link between IT and genetics is very strong. The previous era was IT: this sector was growing rapidly, with startups, social networks, Google, etc. Now the next era of biology is upon us.

The future belongs to everything to do with biology, biotechnology, living organisms.

The Covid-19 pandemic showed the world that RNA-based vaccines can be developed. It is now clear that vaccines can be used not only to fight other viral diseases, but also to treat autoimmune and oncological diseases. This is where the world will see incredible progress: incurable diseases will become curable. Of course, it will be very expensive at first.

The second development is in food. For example, through large-scale sequencing, the best cattle for meat or dairy farming are selected. The microbiome of animals is also being analysed to significantly reduce the use of antibiotics. This will have lasting benefits for food security and human wellbeing.

An interesting field, which is partly quasi-scientific, is so-called recreational genetics. That is, people have tests done at home, send them to a laboratory, and receive a tailor-made diet or sports plan in return. Similar tests can be used to measure the metabolism of medicines and reduce their consumption.

The most recent area of Eurofins Genomics is the development of new materials to replace plastics and to produce artificial oil using micro-organisms. Biotechnology is everywhere: it will determine how we live in the future.

How did you end up at Eurofins Genomics?

I was already working in the IT industry when I lived in Latvia; I owned a hotel software company. When the 2008 crisis hit, I moved to Germany. If I was on my own, I would have given it more thought, but I already had a family and I wanted to give them some security.

But it was a coincidence that I started working for Eurofins Genomics. 10 years ago, I was looking for employees for my previous employer and I was checking what was happening in the neighbourhood where I lived. It turned out that there was a genetics company just 10 kilometres from my home looking for a development manager in Germany. I went through nine rounds of interviews and now manage a team of 150 people.

Author: Anda Asere (labsoflatvia.com). Publicity photo: Gaitis Kasims, member of the board of Eurofins Genomics IT Solutions Latvia and IT Director of Genomic Services

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