MFG Austin Ep 14: Beth San Segundo, CEO of Origen Biomedical
Beth San Segundo is the CEO of OriGen Biomedical, a leading producer of cryopreservation, cell culture, and respiratory products that support the treatment of respiratory distress, cancer, genetic conditions, and other life-threatening diseases. Under Beth’s leadership, the company has thrived and sustained rapid growth. In this episode we get her thoughts on what it’s like to make products that are critical to healthcare, the current operating conditions impacting her business locally and globally, as well as what the future might hold for Origen and the regional medical device ecosystem, which in conjunction with the biopharmaceutical industry currently makes over a billion dollars in products every year.
Give us an overview of OriGen. What do you guys do?
Origin manufacturers single use disposables for cell and gene therapy. That’s our primary target market. In non-scientific terms, we make plastic bags used for collection, storage, culture and cryo preservation of immune system cells. So bone marrow or selected cell groups.
Who are your customers?
We’re a global company. We sell directly to the cell therapy labs within major medical hospitals that typically do cancer therapy. Additionally, we have some larger pharmaceutical and clinical trial style customers who also are doing a technology that’s called CAR T therapy. And what that is—they will take the patient’s cells, genetically modify them to identify their cancer, replicate them and store them, cryopreserve them, and then condition the patient to receive their cells and then give them their own immune system back that can now eradicate their cancer. That’s the technology that’s really fueling the growth around my company at this time.
How, how does it feel for you and your team to be playing such a critical role in cancer therapies?
I think it’s powerful, honestly. I mean, when you look at my product, you’re like, “woo, it’s a plastic bag.” But at the end of the day, there’s a real human at the end of that product and their life has changed for the better, and that is really powerful.
I’ve seen that in other companies that are making critical products in healthcare. You know, really tying the culture of the business to that customer success gives meaning to showing up to work every day. I get that. We’re in an interesting economy right now. A lot of people predicting a slowdown. I’m seeing some pretty good resilience and strength in Central Texas. What’s your outlook for the next six months?
We’re growing, we are stable. And really, I guess unfortunately, healthcare doesn’t go away. I mean, even in the midst of a recession, people still get devastating news with the doctors. And so, our products remain consistent and moving forward. So really, we’re looking at some growth. We’ve got a couple of customers that are expecting to be on market in the coming year or two, and as a result we will see additional growth to our production capacity as a result.
So what are the big things that you’re focused on?
Sustainability. Also, one of the things about OriGen is we started out very small. I was the third employee back in the day and have really grown with the company and now we have 170 employees. I take their role within the company and the fact that they have lives and they’re real people— I take all of that to heart and make sure that I create a place where they can stay if they want to. They know that they have product they can stand behind, and that we are doing everything we can as an employer to create a product that actually improves people’s lives and really makes a difference.
Let’s go back to sustainability for a second. So how do you define that term? Are we talking about environmental sustainability or sustainability of the business?
I make plastic bags, so environmental sustainability actually matters because they’re going to throw away the biological contaminants at the end. And so thinking through what our pipeline looks like, thinking through what’s scrap and waste, and how do we reuse that scrap, and how do we prevent having to throw bad product away, and what does that look like? And being responsible with the controls I have in place and the requirements that I am bound by with regards to all of my regulatory bodies that govern medical device.
And then also sustainability within the company. We have been on the Inc. 5,000 list seven times because we just keep growing by leaps and bounds. Which sounds really lovely, and it actually is really lovely, but it’s also very hard. The growth and the change to the organization and making sure that the next 60% growth makes sense and isn’t going to rebound in some unforeseen way. Just being really responsible with what it looks like to grow the company as quickly as possible, but also as well as possible.
I know several people in the plastics business have had a lot of issues with supply chain. Talk about how that’s impacting you and medical device manufacturers specifically.
We struggle with supply chain just like everybody else. As you know, plastics are mined and they don’t just magically grow in trees, and so really thinking through where your product is sourced from. OriGen cannot just pivot to a new supplier. We have to be strategic as a medical device manufacturer in order to change suppliers. It is a rigorous and uphill battle. We are working with our current partners and suppliers to ensure that we have a robust supply chain. There are gaps, there are weaknesses. We are on weekly regular calls with several different industries to try to increase timelines that we’ve gotten. I mean, we’ve gotten some timelines of 52 weeks…so that’s a really long time. And we don’t have 52 weeks of supply. So it’s going back and being creative with them and making sure that we’re solving for the right problem.
Talk for a second about what COVID did to plastic supply chain.
I think the simplest example is before COVID, there were no COVID tests, and now all the COVID at-home tests have a Tyvek packaging. That packaging that you peel apart is called Tyvek. It’s a Tyvek poly mixture, and that didn’t exist four years ago. All that material had to come from somewhere. And we are impacted by that, as is every other medical device that uses that type of packaging. So, it’s really just making sure that there is enough of that to go around. And, you know, with all the shutdowns in China and all the transitions that have happened within their economy for the last few years as they’ve been open and closed, and open and closed, that’s really affected the suppliers that are outside of that geography.
I’ve been reading a lot about regionalization and a lot of supply chains coming back domestically. Are you finding regional suppliers, domestic suppliers that are going to be good options?
We’ve never actually purchased from China. We’ve always tried to purchase domestically. So as such, when they shut down, we weren’t affected. And really, most of our suppliers are domestic, so we’ve tried to stick to that.
Good to hear. Well, you know, I mentioned this earlier, Austin’s home to about a billion dollars in medical device production, biopharmaceuticals. You guys started in 1997. You mentioned you’re employee number three, which is incredible. You’ve grown into this really mature business with 170 people. Has Austin been a good place to do this? What are your thoughts about this operating environment here in Central Texas?
I think it is the right place. It’s been challenging in the last few years as lots of new companies have moved in. Tesla, Samsung opening a new plant, Amazon, et cetera, have all moved here. 2021 and 2022 were very challenging years to hire in and very competitive because of all the new industry that came here. However, we have been successful in attracting and retaining talent within Austin. I think it’s the right mix all facets of a business if you will. So, I’ve got my head of each department and they are very skilled and talented in what they do. And then I’ve got clean room technicians who we hire with clean room experience, and we have been able to find people who come to us with quite a bit of valuable clean room experience. And so I think Austin is the right place for us.
Yeah, it’s kind of an irony isn’t it? There’s this great technical workforce, a lot of clean rooms, semiconductor, medical device, but all those people are hiring too, and it’s a little bit of scarcity in that. Have you sensed that that tension and the labor force is easing a little bit?
Oh, absolutely. I think that’s a result, honestly, of all the big guys announcing layoffs or hiring freezes. So, I think people are more inclined to find, truthfully, smaller businesses because they’re just a little bit more, they’re not as heavy, if you will.
So what’s one thing you would want to see from policy makers regionally to make Austin and Central Texas a better place for business?
At this point we rent space, and so one of my big focuses in the coming years is to acquire a building and land. And so I’m just thinking of the parameters around that as it currently stands. You know real estate in Austin is at a premium at this point. So just thinking through kind of the policies of that.
Yeah. You know housing, industrial space, all those things are really at the forefront for us as well. It seems like there’s a lot of new spec space coming online. There’s a lot of businesses already taking those spaces and it’s going to be an interesting dynamic. I think if we want to continue to see the industrial community grow, it’s a place where we need to be sure we’re vocalizing the needs of our members and manufacturers like you. Because we want to see you guys end up in the best place possible and hopefully there’s going to be good options when you’re ready to make that move.
I saw in your bio that you did your undergrad before you got your MBA in nursing or in biology, and that you spent some time in a hospital as a cancer nurse, is that correct?
Well, I didn’t get a nursing degree. In the high school that I went to (back in my day), you could get your certified nursing aide as a high school senior. And so I did that. My goal with my biology degree was to be pre-med, but I took a different path.
Yeah, that’s why I brought it up. I want to hear about it. Looking back now, what do you think about a career in manufacturing versus that decision point—maybe when you’re in that undergrad role, you know, to go pre-med?
Sure. So, when I was in high school, I’d get up at 5:00 AM and I’d go to the hospital and I would work at a shift. And really what that meant was I was on a rotation, shadowing nurses and sometimes doctors, kind of depending on whether they were interested in having an 18-year-old tag along.
So that was kind of my initial introduction and then, once I got my nurse’s aide certification, I ended up working in a couple of hospitals. I grew up in Plano and so I worked in a hospital in Plano in the cancer award for a while, in the summer between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college. And really that was helping people do very human things, like take showers, and find the bathroom, and get dressed, and eat food and you know, all of those things and just be human. And within that, I in a cancer ward and so I made friends with this lovely woman and one morning I walk in and she’s gone. And I was like, where did she go? Because I know she did not go home. And it was just one of those things like, “Oh, right.” This is really hard. This is really like end of life for people. So there was that piece of my empathy and the ways that I see the world.
Do you think that it informs your work today?
Absolutely. One of my direct reports has told me that I definitely lead with empathy. And really I think what that means is I lead with the belief that the person that I’m working with has the best of intentions first. And maybe there’s a communication issue, maybe there’s some other thing, but at the end of the day, like I assume good first and then work backwards from there.
So I did my nurse’s aide. I ended up at UT. UT’s a very large school. I was in classes of 500 people and sitting in giant classrooms. I had an organic chemistry teacher tell me he didn’t care if we all hated him and wanted to hit him with his own cane. And I was like, “Interesting.” I never hit him with his cane. And then I graduated. My senior year I took the MCAT. I was all set, and I could have applied, and I did not. I just realized I didn’t want another eight years of education. OriGen was founded by my dad, so at, I guess 21 or 22 (somewhere in there) with my biology degree, I started working for him. As I said, I was his third employee. At the time, we were a company making heart catheters for procedure called ECMO, and not much else. It was a very small, very niche market. And then from there, expanded OriGen into what it is today.
I’ve heard your dad say that you’re his favorite daughter.
I’m his only daughter.
Well, hey Beth, I think that’s a great place to wrap it up. I really appreciate your time. It’s been fun talking.
Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me.