“People, fundamentally, wherever you are in the world, want the same things”: In Conversation with Dr Jacqueline M. Applegate of Bayer pharmaceuticals
Good career advice is hard to come by. Fortunately for all of us, Dr Jacqueline M. Applegate, the subject of a new interview on This Is Africa has it in spades. “In order to excel in your career, my advice is to be 100% committed to figuring out how to make your dreams a reality. Take the cards you’ve been dealt, play your hand well, and enjoy the journey!”
Dr Jacqueline M. Applegate is a member of the Executive Committee of the Crop Science Division and Head of Environmental Science Business Operations Unit at Bayer. She studied in the United States, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Wright State University, a Ph.D. degree in organic chemistry from Iowa State University, and then a Master of Business Administration at Rockhurst University, Executive Fellows Program. She spoke to Kenyan journalist Wycliffe Muga on the sidelines of the Future of Farming Dialog about her life, career choices and what Bayer is up to in Africa.
Muga: My first question would be on your own life history. We want our readers to get some idea of who is talking. The way I would phrase the question is this: Even in the age of globalization it’s unusual to find an American who works for a German multinational corporation, but is based in France. So, what can you tell us about your road from the U.S to Lyon, France?
Applegate: Okay, I was born and raised in Union, Ohio. My family has basically been in that town since the founding of it in 1816. It’s in the Mid-western Ohio – a small town which had about 1,500 people when I was growing up, but today may have about 7,000 people but not much more. I grew up around agriculture. Its corn and soy bean country. My people didn’t actually farm, but we knew a lot of people who did farm. And I was always a kid that liked the sciences.
I grew up around agriculture. Its corn and soy bean country. My people didn’t actually farm, but we knew a lot of people who did farm.
So pretty much I had decided that I was going to be the next Jacques Cousteau. Because Jacques Cousteau played every Sunday night – his show was on just before Disney came on.
So, I wanted to be an oceanographer just like Jacques Cousteau. As a young child, that was what I wanted to do. And my specialisation was actually going to be on sharks – an idea which was set in stone when the movie “Jaws” came out, when I was a teenager. I thought, “That’s it. That’s what I am going to study.
So, I went on to study STEM, the sciences – biology and chemistry – and ended up basically going to college – still intending to be an oceanographer despite living in the landlocked Midwest. I learned to scuba dive and so on. And I began then while I was an undergraduate planning on how I could prepare my CV so that I could go to graduate school. And what basically ended up happening was I started working in an organic chemistry lab. And I was quite good at organic chemistry and was already published as an undergraduate in very substantial chemical journals.
And I can remember at one time when I was probably still a junior and working for two years in this lab, when my father said, “Do you really think you are going to be the next Jacques Cousteau?” And I answered, “Of course I am.” And then he said, “Well that is good, but I just want you to understand that your mother and I won’t be footing those bills your whole life. Because you probably won’t make the money that you need to make, to live the way you need to”.
And I thought, “Oh!”. And it got me thinking. So, I got a scholarship to get a PhD in organic chemistry. And I went on to Iowa State University, and got a PhD in organic chemistry within four years; continued to prove that I was very good in chemistry; and that got me started in the world of Bayer. And I started in Kansas City Missouri, working for Bayer, right out of getting my PhD. I went from basic research to working in process development and full-scale manufacturing. I was in Kansas City for over four years, and while I was there I also got an MBA at Rockhurst which is a Jesuit college.
And then Bayer asked me to go abroad. And so, in 1998 I moved abroad and worked in Monheim Germany – here – for over seven years. And I had numerous roles. I went from production to being a global project manager, had experiences with communications, marketing, and mergers & acquisitions. Then I went to becoming, basically, the global head of project management in the new Crop Science business after the Aventis acquisition. And I did that job for about three and a half years.
Now I had basically said that I wanted to run an operational business. So, in my career development, I wanted to move more to general management. I am very focused on people leadership. I believe that to be successful as a company you need to effectively develop your people and lead your people. And if you get the people part of it right, the entire business part and the execution of the strategy will come.
So, then I went into environmental science. I was asked if I was interested in leaving crop protection and going into Environmental Science (ES), and that’s how I ended up in Lyon France in 2005. So, I picked up and went from Germany to France. I was there for basically two and a half years. As I mentioned, I wanted to run an operational business. And at that time in France I built an integrated consumer and professional portfolio management: I had communications, market research, and so on under me. And so, I was asked if I was interested in running an operational business.
So, I went back to the US and ran our ES consumer-based Bayer Advanced Lawn and Garden Business. And after two years I was put in charge of the entire North American ES business. And after that I was asked to come back into crop science, and to become the Senior Bayer Representative for Australia and New Zealand.
I then went to Australia and New Zealand, and I was the Bayer representative for the corporation for almost three years. And at the same time, I ran the crop protection business – plant health solutions, biologics, vegetable seeds and our integrated seed business.
And then after that I was asked if I would be interested in sitting on the Bayer Executive Committee and running the global Environmental Science business in Lyon, France. And that is where I am today.
Muga: Quite a story indeed.
Applegate: And I must say that I have been very blessed to work throughout the world. I have seen the world. I personally like to travel, but I have also got to see it professionally. And I often say this – and believe it – “People, fundamentally, wherever you are in the world, want the same things.” They may approach these things from a different view, and a different lens, because of their experiences in life, but they really want the same things in life.
People, fundamentally, wherever you are in the world, want the same things.
They want security for their families; they want to be able to live their dreams and fulfil the dreams of their own families. They want to live in a country where they are safe. And in my job, I have really been exposed to many views of the world, so probably going back today, what I can say is that the richness of the experiences that I have had over the last 25 years is what has made me who I am as an individual; it broadened my perspective on life; and it allows me to see the strengths of the country where I am from – the US; but at the same time, it allows me to see also its weaknesses.
And I think as you travel internationally it always gives you that perspective of whatever your home is. But I always say, “I may be an American but my home is where I am living; where my heart is at that time. So, I always make the most and the best of where I am at the time. No matter where I am at in the world.
Muga: This I must ask: any regrets about not having been able to own a large boat and sailing around the world making all these fantastic documentaries like your hero Jacques Cousteau?
Applegate: It’s interesting that my passion for scuba diving has remained. So, what I have done is that in travelling and seeing the world, I have continued to scuba dive. And I have dived in some very unique places because I travelled so much. So, I have not lost that passion. And I have no regrets in that sense in my life. I made a decision. I seized the moment. And I always made the best of the situation.
I am a very positive person: I am very forward-looking. It’s easy to regret. But I always say that either fate intervened or I have made clear decisions which have allowed me to live my life, and I have had a very blessed life.
Muga: That is so true. Very blessed indeed. But now coming to your work, the thing most likely to interest my readers back in Africa is “vector control”. Malaria is still a major killer especially of children under the age of five. So, what have you been able to do in the field of vector control? Or what are you planning to do? Could you just tell us a little about that?
Applegate: Well, I feel very blessed to work for a company like Bayer. And I will tell you why. Bayer has a history of over 60 years in vector control. And in those 60 years, Bayer has continued to be an innovation leader and we have continued to apply R&D and innovation in this space, where many companies have chosen to walk away. And it makes me very proud to work in a company that has committed for over 60 years, its expertise.
We have been able to bring products to the market. And we have been very focused in Africa with indoor residual spraying – and we have had a lot of success with that.
We will be coming to the market next year (2018) and 2019 with unique, differentiated product that will help manage resistance development. And that’s really essential because if you have resistance issues, governments and communities can spray all they want, and it’s not going to be effective against mosquitos.
So, what I would say is that – now going into this issue of the tender business – is that one thing is about the power of innovation and what you can bring to the market. But it is also about the power of how you can get the product into the market space.
So, you definitely have the public tender perspective. But one of the things we see is that governments – and this isn’t the fault of governments – they only have so much money. And if you look at the economy, sometimes they have the money and sometimes they don’t.
So, one of the things that we have also looked at is about how to do educational public self-awareness. So, you have a solid balance of public treatment of tenders but you also have people that are able to basically develop private business. And we have done some really fascinating things in the area of vector control.
For instance, we are doing a pilot programme in Dakar, Senegal. And I actually went and kicked it off. And it is working with the “Badianou Koh” that is women, the great aunties of the communities, to basically help them develop their own private business. So, working with a distributor, we have trained these women – because they are respected within the community – to set up their own businesses. We are helping them to be business owners and to raise their socio-economic status. And at the same time, we are helping set up a private business that serves that market in need. Because often people cannot pay for everything. So, they go out every Friday or Wednesday; and they put a bit of money aside towards their house getting treated. And in time they will have collected enough to ensure that their house gets treated.
And what we have seen by expanding into this private area of business, is that we are helping fundamentally, and we are getting insights also – and this is something we are studying – into the epidemiology. Because one of the things we saw when we did the study with the community health centre was the fact that not only did they have less malaria cases but there was even more potential because other insects were being killed.
So what I would say is that Bayer looks at our vector control programme in a holistic way. It’s about innovating, educating, advocacy and partnerships in addition to our expertise to understand the markets that we serve and how we can bring different business models that fulfil the needs of that society.
Muga: And if I may say so, it seems sustainable because the nature of the model is that there is a motive for each of those women to go out and make sales.
Applegate: Well, when we spoke with the Badianou Koh women and said, “What are you going to do when you are earning money? Do you know what they said? They said, “I will put money away to send my children to school. If my children are better educated – if all our children are better educated – it can raise the entire socio-economic standards of our community for the better.” And that is really powerful.
“I will put money away to send my children to school. If my children are better educated – if all our children are better educated – it can raise the entire socio-economic standards of our community for the better.”
Muga: Are you primarily doing this as a form of corporate social responsibility? Bayer is such a big company I cannot imagine that this is a market worthy of your attention on purely business grounds.
Applegate: We are working and partnering with our distributors and partners on the ground. But its really not about the money. It’s about having a social impact on this issue. I will also share with you an issue we need to explore. It is this issue of malaria being predominantly more a rural disease. But as we have urbanization in Africa, you see it on the periphery. When you are in Senegal, for example, in the outer parts of Dakar, you think you are in a city or a suburb of a city and they have malaria issues.
And a lot of time when you are working with donors and others who are working in the area, they will talk to you about how malaria is just a rural issue. And yet it is not just a rural issue. So that is another thing that we are trying to look at and understand as with urbanization; as people move closer to cities. Societal growth is building that bridge and that understanding.
Muga: Then there is something I heard in a meeting in one of the sessions about a problem relating to the wheat crop in Australia, and there was a levy which all the wheat growers pay and some of that money was made available to Bayer to conduct research.
Applegate: It was my team who made that deal a reality with our colleagues in Monheim. I was the head of Australia collaborating with our partners and brought that idea to Bayer.
Muga: Is that so? Well what I am getting at is that you have expertise here, which in the short term – and maybe even in the mid-to-long term, would be impossible to replicate in Africa. So, there are many problems where it would make sense for African governments together – possibly supported by donor agencies or donor nations – to say to Bayer, “we have got this problem. You are the experts at this kind of thing. May we give you the money for research so that you can get some of your people focused on finding us a solution to this problem. In this context could you tell us the Australia story: what happened, how it all started, and so on.
Applegate: Absolutely. What happened is that my team was working with the industry. The GRDC – the Grains Research and Development Corporation – which has a levy on the overall wheat harvest. And they pay so much cents per bushel. And that money goes into a fund, and it is set aside to do research for grains.
So when I was in Australia working with my team, when our top weed expert comes to Australia for a visit. Around 30,000 weed species worldwide are threatening the quality and volume of farmers’ yields. What is more, weeds are becoming more and more complex to manage. Weeds are highly competitive towards crops as they compete for water, light and nutrients. Chemical solutions, which help farmers manage weeds, are becoming more and more limited, and new ones are urgently needed. Finally, there is an increasing demand for more sustainable practices.
Weeds are the single most important reason for crop losses globally, causing high management costs and threatening food security. In Australia, herbicide resistance started around 30 years ago. The rapid evolution of resistant weeds such as ryegrass, wild radish and others is threatening Australian wheat production. Similar problems in European agriculture are being caused by multiresistant grass weeds like black grass and wild oats. New tools such as novel herbicidal molecules with resistance-breaking properties are therefore urgently required. So he was talking to the Australians, and they were asking if Bayer was developing new weed solutions for cereals in Australia. And we said, “of course we are. But when we develop products, we are looking for products which will be useful around the world.”
So, what basically started happening was, that they started talking to us and saying, “How could we also get research focused on Australia?” and we were happy to collaborate. And that is how we started working with the Bayer research centre at Monheim, and ended up with the GRDC collaboration on herbicide innovation. So, they have scientists is Frankfurt who are working on looking at Australia-specific varieties in weeds, and that then also benefits the rest of the world.
Muga: Now in Africa we do have institutions which work beyond the boundaries of any one nation, and which are dedicated to solving regional problems. Like there is the ‘Desert Locust Control Organisation For Eastern Africa’. Then there is what was formerly ‘Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development’, which is not known just as ‘The Intergovernmental Authority on Development’, and which has diplomatic status in all the eight or nine nations in eastern Africa which it serves. These are pan-African institutions which, though not as sophisticated as those of the European Union, do try to address our specific regional problems which know no borders. And they also tend to be run by real professionals, not just the routine political appointees. I think such institutions could really benefit from some of the agriculture technology I have seen being discussed today, here in Monheim.
Applegate: If I understand you correctly, what you are asking is this: We have issues in Africa which desperately need solutions. And from the exposure here today, of some of the topics, it’s all making you think about, “How can we take these applications and bring them to greater Africa, to help Africa today and in the future?” I think this is a really great question. This is something that really needs to be considered. And maybe some of the models for work already done elsewhere could work just as well in Africa.
Take for example what we did in vector control with the Gates Foundation. We brought in ten researchers to work here in Monheim in finding new active ingredients for vector control. We have been doing that since 2008, and now we have – potentially – two new active ingredients in our pipeline that we are working with the International Vector Consortium, and with the Gates Foundation, to decide if we will be further developing them. So, this is something the Gates Foundation did in the area of vector control. Just as the Australian GRDC.
So what I am saying to you is that these types of models work. And we in Bayer have done this. And it’s an opportunity worth investigating further.
Muga: Are you familiar with the phrase, “Into each life, a little rain must fall?’
Applegate: Yes, indeed I am.
Muga: Good. So, I want you to tell me: in your career, blessed as you have been, there must have been some low points. Not too personal, but something which definitely was a low point. And after that, maybe you could tell us about a memorable high point. Something which was maybe really difficult, but all the same you pulled it off, and which you now look back on with satisfaction. It may even have been something relatively small, in and of itself, but all the same had an impact on the lives of others. Just to give you a perspective, there is this Bayer DVD which I got from your people way back, at a world science journalism conference in Helsinki in 2013 – actually it was Diana Scholz who gave it to me. It explains so well the processes as well as the cost of bringing in a new drug to market. And how many of these new drug candidates, just don’t work. You spend all that money. It seems so promising. But when you get to the stage of large clinical trials, it fails and you just have to drop it. Now that to me would be an example of a low point.
Applegate: When I was quite young in my career, I had the opportunity to work on fungicides. On the creation of new fungicides which could then be brought to the market. I was managing the global development of the active ingredients for these fungicides. It involved taking it from Phase Two, all the way to Phase Four trials and global market introduction. And I managed the global project teams what worked on these specific active substances for them to come to market. They were Cereal fungicides. And in every active ingredient, there is always complexity to developing something new, just as your example with pharmaceuticals. Once someone gets a finished product that comes to market, it looks very easy. It’s in a nice shiny package. It saves or improves lives. But you never hear about the research, trials and hard work to get it into that shiny package.
OK, it’s the same analogy. I was at a point in my career where we were in the review of the dossier for regulatory approval with the rapporteur member state. The first member state makes the decision about the first registration. And they are in charge of doing that for all of Europe in this situation. And everything had been going very well. And then one day my registration person got a call to say that the authority wanted to have a meeting with us, because as they were going through the review, there had been a minor comment that had been written and they wanted to discuss it with us. So, we go and they show us and they say, “Well, from this comment it can make us suspect that there could additional investigations required with this compound.” And we say, “No, there is not. We have done all these studies, and so on.” But they say, “Yes, but this makes us question. And because of this, we are questioning if we can give you the registration. You have the chance to find and do a study to prove to us that this is not the case.”
Once someone gets a finished product that comes to market, it looks very easy. It’s in a nice shiny package. It saves or improves lives. But you never hear about the research, trials and hard work to get it into that shiny package.
But the study that would need to be done, had never been done before or developed. So, we as Bayer had to come back. And we were clear as to our position, as we had done all the requirements, and it was just a minor comment – it was just a comment somebody wrote. But it was clear that if we wanted to get this registration, we had to develop a unique and new method and get it approved by the authority. And then we had to do the study. And already we had spent millions and millions of dollars. It was a very important product.
Well, we worked and worked on it, and we came up with a suggested study. And at this point, this would have been like a low point in my career. I was in charge of all this. And you have to explain this to everybody internally, why this is not going well.
So we had to develop and design a new study; which we then had to get approved by our internal scientists; and then approved by external authorities at an international level; and then we had to run the study. And we did that. And the study worked out.
So, what could have been the low point of my career, actually turned out to be one of the high points.
Muga: Was this because you broke new ground in creating this study?
Applegate: Yes. And if we wouldn’t have been as inventive and tenacious and thought out of the box – and I really fought…but it also shows that you must have real belief in something, as an organisation and as a team. And I have to say that this product has been instrumental worldwide today and is one of the top selling active ingredients in Bayer’s portfolio. It has been a very positive development in that sense. But we could have said – at that earlier stage – “No we are not doing it” and walked. But we decided that we just felt confident that we could create something new, and we went for it. So, it really turned into a positive!
Muga: So here is a really difficult question: What kept you going? I am sure there were a few sleepless nights somewhere along the line. What drove you to see it through to completion?
Applegate: I am a very passionate person. And when I have a belief in something, and I am confident that it is the right thing to do, I am tenacious. I don’t give up easily. I will see the best on others. I can see the hope of why we should do this thing. And that is something that I am in all aspects of my life both personally and professionally. And honestly, I don’t have sleepless nights.
Muga: What? With all those millions of dollars hanging in the balance?
Applegate: You know that sounds really funny when people talk about sleepless nights. I am just not like that. I always sleep well. Short, but well. I don’t have sleepless nights. But I will say one thing about myself: I am very clear in my mind about what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. I am not naive. So, if we cannot go forward with something, then I am clear that we need to be done with it; we need to learn from it; and we need to move forward and go on. I am very clear like that too. I am not a Pollyanna – always seeing only the positive side of everything.
I am a very passionate person. And when I have a belief in something, and I am confident that it is the right thing to do, I am tenacious. I don’t give up easily.
Muga: It’s obvious looking back on your life that you had a natural inborn capacity – a gift we might say – for science, publishing academic papers while still a junior in college and getting a PhD in record time. Some people likewise have an innate capacity to tackle math. Or, much more common, there are people who are naturally just very good storytellers and write very well. But the world is not short of storytellers. What we read of all the time is the shortage of young women taking up the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – at the undergraduate or graduate levels. By some accounts, only about 7% of young women finishing college graduate with STEM degrees. What would you say to encourage young women – maybe including those not as gifted in organic chemistry as you are – that this is a career path worth pursuing?
Applegate: When I first started my career, I quickly learned that I had to be “all in”. Despite having a PhD in organic chemistry, I wore a standard hard hat and got my hands dirty…literally. In order to excel in your career, my advice is to be 100% committed to figuring out how to make your dreams a reality. Take the cards you’ve been dealt, play your hand well, and enjoy the journey!