Animal health: harnessing collective intelligence

Partnerships in novel research areas are fuelling the innovation engine in animal health, linking new scientific capabilities with unmet needs.

The animal health industry has made enormous contributions to the prevention and treatment of disease in both livestock and companion animals through the development of effective vaccines, parasiticides and medicines. Animal health companies have relied, to a greater or lesser extent, on in-house expertise and the traditional drug discovery process in developing and registering such products in the past.

However, unmet medical needs and a desire for novel therapies have led some major players in the industry to look further afield due to growing recognition of factors that favour innovation via wider-ranging and less traditional partnerships.

Why now?

Due to increasing scientific and technical complexity, rising research and development (R&D) costs and challenging market dynamics, the animal health industry is following human pharma in seeking novel ways to pursue and develop new preventive and therapeutic options.

Intellectual property strategies and changing regulatory environments provide additional incentives for animal health pharmaceutical companies to pursue innovative research areas and partnerships that range beyond academic and biotech strongholds. In particular, the digital revolution in animal health promises a wealth of potential tools and interventions that are outside the realm of traditional drug and vaccine development.

Societal trends are also shaping change in the animal health industry. The global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050 (up from 7.6 billion in 2018). This, together with rising income levels and changing dietary preferences, will strain the demand for protein from meat production. Farmers will face pressure to produce more meat with less water and land available, and in an environmentally sustainable fashion.

The continuing increase in households with companion animals is another trend with no less compelling challenges. More than two-thirds of US households include a pet, and an estimated 80 million European households in 2018 owned at least one pet. Pets are widely regarded as a part of the family with the right to lead long, happy and healthy lives, free from preventable diseases, parasites, and chronic diseases associated with aging.

Faced with the need to deliver products that will meet the needs of a decade or more down the road, while also keeping current pipelines healthy, major animal health pharmaceutical companies are evaluating a multitude of different models, approaches and working partnerships. There has been healthy growth in start-up companies in the animal health space, which may be one reason why top companies are increasingly interested in the late-stage innovation or early-stage sales opportunities in these smaller firms.

Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health: mapping a new course

Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) Animal Health understands the value of working with external partners and has a history of successful partnerships, with a significant portion of the company’s current R&D pipeline originating from external collaborations. Working closely with researchers in universities, government research organisations and small companies has always been part of BI’s ambition to bring innovation to both patients and customers.

The results of those collaborations speak for themselves: products that have become blockbusters in animal health, including the first avermectin (Heartgard) and isoxazoline (NexGard) products developed for animals and the first therapeutic cancer vaccine (Oncept), are the direct result of these collaborations with others.

BI Animal Health has a vibrant R&D organisation that strives to bring true innovation to the market. Partnerships with others are also critical for innovation – the number of potential opportunities is vast, and the science and technology are increasingly complex. Innovating broadly, and in new areas, cannot be accomplished by in-house efforts alone. At universities, start-ups and biotech companies, the boundaries of science are being pushed and new opportunities are discovered almost daily. BI seeks to harness these shifts in science, technology and demand, to act as a true partner in jointly developing new solutions that meet real needs. While the company has a rich internal pipeline, it is a goal to have approximately 30% of pipeline projects originating from external collaborations.

BI has already begun to implement this vision, looking into some novel areas of innovation with key partners to address societal changes and unmet needs. These collaborations range from the development of innovative types of live therapeutics via a broad partnership with Novozymes, to development of digital and technical solutions to identify sick animals faster, such as our collaboration with SoundTalks NV.

Live therapeutics: more protein, fewer antibiotics?

The microbiome has been implicated as a significant contributor to overall health via its role in maintaining the gut-brain axis and its interactions with the immune system. It also may play a role in metabolic disorders, autoimmune disease and cancer. The development of therapeutics that impact the microbiome is a hot area of research in human and animal pharma alike and holds promise for the treatment of conditions that traditional science has found difficult to target. While current understanding of the microbiome is incomplete, ongoing research is inspiring many companies to investigate therapies with potential to impact its function.

Probiotics, live microbial feed supplements comprised of a variable number of species and strains of beneficial bacteria, affect the host animal by improving intestinal microbial balance. They are increasingly of interest in animal health as potential alternatives to antibiotics. In the past, antibiotics and other medicinal products were widely used to modify the alimentary microbiota, thereby boosting growth and productivity. However, long-term use of those substances has led to development of drug-resistant microorganisms, which pose threats to the health of both consumers and the environment. The use of antibiotic-based growth stimulators was banned in the European Union in 2006, and alternative natural substances with similar effects have been sought. By 2022, the probiotic market in animal health will reach $5 billion, with most of the value in products for livestock.

Poultry are a promising target for intervention with live therapeutics. The intestinal tract of the bird is a complex system designed to take nutrients and efficiently convert them to growth. The broiler industry is largely driven by feed conversion, as feed represents approximately 70% of the producers’ costs. With the current shift toward using fewer or no antibiotics which can act as growth promotants, alternative products that can promote a healthy intestinal balance are needed. A wide variety of these products are found on the market including various prebiotics, yeast extracts, phytochemicals, or essential acids, but product quality, purity and viability have been reported to be variable.

Poultry-rearing operations are usually intensive, providing an opportunity for intervention with live therapeutics at an early stage, in the hatchery, to ensure maximum benefit. Birds for commercial production are hatched in a relatively clean environment, which can effectively delay colonisation in their intestinal tracts by healthy microflora and provides an opportunistic niche for any pathogen. However, colonisation with beneficial gut microflora could provide an economic advantage by reducing pathogens and also impacting other physiologic processes related to feed efficiency.

BI Animal Health entered into a strategic partnership with Danish biotech company Novozymes in 2017 to develop live therapeutic products for poultry hatcheries. The collaboration takes advantage of Novozymes’ experience in screening and developing probiotics and BI AH’s experience in distribution and relationships with large-scale poultry producers.

Over the next decade, the partners plan to work together to develop a range of live therapeutic products across all phases of the hatchery and grow-out phases that are clinically tested and quality controlled, with the hope of offering increased average daily weight gain, improved feed conversion ratios, and potentially improved food safety from bacterial pathogens without the need for antibiotic growth promoters. Novozymes launched its first product, FloraMax®, a lactic acid bacteria-based probiotic, in 2018; others developed with BI will soon follow. BI strongly believes that products such as these, coupled with effective vaccines, will provide excellent preventive care, enabling producers to bring healthier and faster-growing birds to market with less antibiotic use.

Digital expertise meets healthcare know-how

Digital technologies hold the promise of improving performance, cost, and productivity in the area of disease identification and management in animals. Already the advent of new technologies has given rise to smart devices for dogs and cats; in fact, the market for pet wearables alone will reach more than $2bn in the next few years, analysts have said. For livestock in particular, development and deployment of digital tools allows for earlier and more specific treatment of diseases, potentially resulting in a reduced need for antimicrobial treatment and healthier, more productive animals.

In April 2019, BI acquired a minority stake in SoundTalks NV, a Belgian technology company we have partnered with since 2016. That partnership has led to the development of a digital monitoring technology that uses sound to indicate pig health in barns, with the aim of improving swine health and helping farmers to operate more efficiently. BI is successfully carrying out the first pilot studies of this technology in a number of countries in Europe, in the US, China and other Asian countries and a global launch is being prepared.

Vocalisations of pigs can convey information about their current state of health and welfare; for example, an increased level of coughing is suggestive of respiratory disease. Respiratory disease has multiple causes and is difficult to prevent in intensive swine farming. It leads to economic losses due not only to mortality but to reduced growth rate, decreased feed efficiency, and additional costs of drugs, particularly medicated feed. However, with responsive management practices, including monitoring of vocalisations, such diseases may result in only minimal losses.

The SoundTalksTM system revolves around a digital microphone that records pigs in the barn. It relies on an algorithm to differentiate coughing from other sounds and thus detects increased coughing that could signal respiratory distress. The system lets farmers and veterinarians intervene quickly to obtain samples and get a diagnosis, potentially improving the health of sick pigs and limiting the risk of exposure to nearby animals. That could boost a producer’s bottom line in an industry where respiratory and other diseases claim an untold number of pigs and cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

BI’s pilot program with SoundTalks unfolds as rapid technological change promises to transform an array of industries, including animal health. Companies around the globe are racing to apply artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet of Things, and data analytics to leverage the power of real-time data to create solutions to unmet needs, a trend that some have dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0. For BI, SoundTalks is an integral part of our Integrated Health Management and is closely connected with other services and products to bring value to our customers, including additional new diagnostics such as Mobinostics® and monitoring tools.


Shifts in technology, new scientific discoveries, and changes in customer needs and expectations are only just beginning to impact health care for people and for animals, and that impact is anticipated to increase in coming years. Partnering with others – whether universities, biotech start-ups, government entities, agribusiness or human pharma – who can bring cutting age innovations in science and technology such as the examples mentioned above, are just one way in which the animal health pharmaceutical sector can meet the future needs of customers and contribute to real improvement in health and economic benefits.

For all of the reasons cited here and more, partnerships are essential. BI Animal Health is strongly committed to collaborations that create value for customers and enable us to leverage our strengths in successful development, registration and launch of significant new products for both livestock and companion animals. We monitor current trends carefully and understand the need to seek opportunities for not just new molecules but also new technologies, diagnostic tools, delivery devices and combinations of approaches. External collaborations that expand our horizons, and challenge the status quo excite us and will continue to play a key role in our future success.