Interview with Vetcare CEO Kalevi Heinonen and R&D Director Vesa Myllys

I arrive at Vetcare on a beautiful and cool October day in the pleasant town of Mäntsälä. Looking from the outside, the buildings blend calmly into the scenery and there is nothing to suggest that this tranquil place is where the innovative Finnish animal drug development meets international and ever growing markets. Yet, this is the case, and Vetcare is one of the key collaboration partners of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and a great industrial success story of its own.

I meet CEO Kalevi Heinonen and R&D Director Vesa Myllys first for lunch. I learn that Vetcare was founded 26 years ago by three veterinarians, of which Kalevi Heinonen was one. Vetcare employs 45 staff and has doubled its budget every five years so far. They market animal drugs in Finland and develop new medication in their Mäntsälä laboratory for Finnish and international markets. Today, they export all over the globe except Africa and South America.

The mission of Vetcare is to support Finnish veterinary medicine.

Why do you do research collaboration with universities?

“The mission of our company is to support Finnish veterinary medicine. It serves us well: the best know-how is right here and we can recruit the best people in our team”, Kalevi Heinonen explains. Vetcare has developed medication for treatment of pain, sedatives and udder infection drugs, and all their research they have conducted with universities.

”In the University of Helsinki, we have several important collaboration groups in pharmacy, pharmacology, production animal research and vaccine research”, Vesa Myllys outlines. “A good example is the probiotic Canius. Researcher Shea Beasley did her PhD on the idea of isolating lactic acid bacteria from dogs – usually dog probiotics consist of human or other animal bacteria. After her PhD, Shea came to work with us and we developed her idea into a commercialised product”.

In the early-stage innovative research, UH is a fantastic partner for Vetcare.

Because of strict regulations in drug development, the final development of a product usually happens in a commercial laboratory. However, Vesa and Kalevi agree that in the early-stage innovative research and in the proof-of-concept stage the University of Helsinki is a fantastic partner: the best experts in every field are there. “In this stage, our collaboration can be really open. We do not decide what to do. Instead, we give the framework within which to work and are open to anything interesting that may come up”, Vesa says.

A good example of this is the sedative project: Prof Outi Vainio and her group discovered a molecule that inhibited some of the undesired effects of sedatives. Vetcare and Vainio made a contract about research on cats and dogs but included funding for similar research on wild ruminants and African lions. Research on wild animals did not help create a product for Vetcare but it did produce scientific articles and new international collaboration partners for Outi’s group. The project required Vetcare’s drug and some funding.

Why did you do this? “The sedative is a good product and all information about it can be useful. The research also helps us understand other types of medicines. And first and foremost: we want to maximise the number of publications the university gets out of it. Our aim is to be a desired partner for the university. One day this may give us an edge in competing for projects with them”, Kalevi explains.

Is collaboration really such a risk when both parties have realistic expectations?

What do you get out of research collaboration?

”Information, some of which can be patented. Our dream is that part of the collaboration leads to an actual product, and the reality is that approximately 5% of all collaboration does”, Vesa replies.

Unlike for many other companies, Vetcare’s first concern in research collaboration is not the risk aspect of it. “Is it really such a risk when both parties have realistic expectations?”, Kalevi asks. “We always get publications and sometimes even a product. Collaboration pays off for us as a whole.”

While we move back to the Vetcare building, Vesa and Kalevi describe what the university gets from working together with Vetcare: resources for its own work in the form of molecules, funding, infrastructure, data and ideas. Vetcare has funded projects of 5-6 years for several researchers.

Have you already found all research groups that you need?

Over coffee and fruit at Vetcare’s, Vesa ponders that there must be dozens of researchers that Vetcare still hasn’t made contacts with. ”There’s so much research going on here. It would be really interesting to hear more about what’s going on in the university, on a regular basis, if possible. At the moment, Vetcare mostly hears about interesting things on the grapevine.”

It would be really interesting to hear more about what’s going on in the university on a regular basis.

Vetcare has three closely related development projects going on, one in the University of Turku, one in Helsinki and one in the University of Eastern Finland. One of Vesa’s dreams is to combine the resources and know-how of all these three universities and start something new in this field. “We could brainstorm new ideas, new avenues and look for joint funding. We could even have our own product development project running alongside it. This way we could get to know new researchers and they could get to know one another”, he explains.

A useful concept is match-making researchers with companies that have an idea but something is missing. “Tekes used to organize animal drug development events. They brought in funding experts, companies and research groups sent speakers. These events were good for networking”, Vesa continues.

And have researchers found Vetcare?

“Yes they have, and they often come to meet us with interesting ideas”, Kalevi says. “We speak much the same language with researchers and we trust each other so deeply that interaction is easy. We have confidentiality agreements, of course, but we can have very open discussions in the spirit of mutual understanding and trust. It also helps that our company staff includes many with researcher background.”

Trust comes from giving researchers their freedom.

Trust comes from giving researchers their freedom. Vetcare never asks for anything that would go against the researcher’s conscience or interests. Kalevi thinks that if the researcher can promise a result, it is no longer new and productive. “If you start working on ‘sure things’, you’re working on something that’s already been done”, he laughs.

University collaboration is fruitful but there are difficulties as well. As a commercial company, Vetcare has to think about expenses. Price is one crucial factor when weighing between a commercial laboratory and the university. “The recent development of university pricing is a concern and has already cost the university a few deals”, Kalevi estimates.

What advice do you have for researchers planning collaboration with Vetcare?

“The best time to approach us is September-October when we are planning next year’s budget. In November and December, the funding has already been allocated”, Vesa explains. “It would be really helpful if the researchers could walk us through their idea and project in and understandable way”, he continues. “It would also help a lot if researchers had a better understanding of how an idea becomes a product. How great would it be if a researcher would walk in the door and say hey, I have an idea like this, let’s turn it into this kind of a product and improve animal welfare!”, Kalevi smiles.

It would help a lot if researchers had a better understanding of how an idea becomes a product.

Vetcare is interested in both commissioned and publicly funded research that Kalevi says serve two different purposes. ”If we are looking at a product development project where we need to own all the IPR, then commissioned research is the only possible choice. But when we are in the ideation and brainstorming phase, it is better to do joint research with multiple funders. In this case, the university owns all the discoveries and then we negotiate.”

The mission of Vetcare is to support Finnish veterinary medicine and to improve animal welfare. Kalevi concludes: “We’d also like to change the public image of drug companies that are sometimes subject to pretty hard criticism. Drug development is so regulated that it is very difficult for a researcher to start a spin-off themselves. Research is crucial but you also need someone to develop research results into products. You cannot separate the two!”

Drug development is so regulated that it is very difficult for a researcher to start a spin-off themselves.

1Health and other interesting directions for Vetcare

Our interview is drawing to a close and my final question is about the untapped potential in university collaboration for Vetcare. “The interaction of human and animal health with each other and with the environment is an important concern in drug development for us”, Vesa says. Vetcare is already studying how feeding Canius to the family dog influences the health and allergies of the family’s children. “There is evidence that pets reduce the propensity of children to atopic allergies, and balancing the gut microbes of the family dog might help.”

Another interesting topic in this field is resistance to antibiotics: when dogs are fed a lot of antibiotics, they develop resistent bacteria that will, inevitably, jump to humans at some point. Canius can restore the microbial balance of the dog and thus shorten the reign of resistent bacteria.

Digitalisation, using monitors and sensors in improving animal welfare is also interesting. “Monitoring the animal’s pulse and determining the timing and dosage of medication from it is one possible application. Turre & Toivoset 2.0 is a very interesting Business Finland project about this kind of ideas”, Vesa says.