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September 5, 2023 25 mins

Building blocks are a critical part of almost any private or corporate mission to reach success and scale.  They let executives quickly assemble a foundation for the rest of their plans to be built on – but how are the actual building blocks getting built? Enter Avantor, who is using advancements in connectivity, data, and computing power to “set science in motion to create a better world”. Avantor’s tools enable more efficient, more collaborative, and in general more innovative ways for engineers to bring these critical life science and applied materials we so rely on to life.

In this episode of The Restless Ones, I had the chance to sit down with Mike Wondrasch, Executive Vice President and CIO at Avantor, which is tasked with providing the foundational technologies behind the discovery, optimization, and manufacturing of the applied materials powering the world.  Whether it’s an internal stakeholder or an end customer, Mike sees his role, alongside his CIO peers across various industries as the same – “Get roadblocks out of the way for the really smart people.”  With a clear and connected path, The Restless Ones can build.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:03):
Hey everyone, Welcome to the Restless Ones. I'm Jonathan Strickland.
As always, my focus is on exploring the intersection of
technology and business by having conversations with the most forward
thinking leaders. Throughout my career, I've covered everything from massive
parallel processing to advanced robotics, but what truly inspires me

(00:24):
are the stories of innovation and transformation. Our guest today
is Mike Wonderush, chief Information Officer at Avontour, a company
that has as its mission we set science in motion
to create a better world. Avonteur is at the center
of the world of life sciences and applied materials industries.

(00:46):
The company traces its history back over a century when
a chemist in Pennsylvania founded a company dedicated to producing
high quality chemicals. A lot has happened since the JT.
Baker Chemical Company launched nineteen oh four, and today Avontour
is a global company with operations in more than thirty countries.

(01:07):
Mike Onedrash joined Avontour in twenty eighteen as CIO. He
takes an engineer's view of the world and sees technology
as a tool best used to solve real world problems.
I had the good fortune to sit down with Mike
to talk about his perspective on technology's role in modern
business and how connectivity can serve as the bedrock for

(01:28):
innovative solutions. But first I wanted to learn more about
Mike himself. Mike, allow me to welcome you to the
Restless Ones. Thank you so much for taking the time
to speak with us.

Speaker 2 (01:43):
Thanks the invite. I've listened to a bunch of my
colleagues and peers, and it's always a great conversation. I'm
excited to be part of it.

Speaker 1 (01:50):
Before I jump into all your work, I'm very curious
because you've had a career that has spanned multiple companies
in different job responsibilities. What first drew you to technology.

Speaker 2 (02:02):
I probably got initially drawn to technology because of its
ability to solve problems. I love the kind of applied
creativity or the problem solving capabilities of technology, starting for
those a million years ago, like myself, the Apple logo.
That was the first creative thing that I thought, Hey,
this is kind of cool. And that's what continues to

(02:24):
have me fall in love with technology every day. Its
ability to really make an impact in a dynamic world.

Speaker 1 (02:30):
I love that the engineer kind of view of the world.
I always say, the engineers view the world as a
series of problems that are just waiting to be solved,
and the technologically inclined one see the computer systems as
one of many tools to achieve those solutions. So let's
talk a little bit about your career path.

Speaker 2 (02:50):
Yeah, I feel like I've been super fortunate to have
done some awesome rotations in a number of different industries.
So I started my own business a graduate school, we
were doing early days of artificial intelligence, so collision detection software.
We helped work with NASA and doing some design work
for the Space Shuttle with the Department Offense with John

(03:12):
Deere detractors on human simulation in ergonomic design, so what
a pilot would see from instrumentation and from their seat.
Sold that business after a number of years, went into
consulting because honestly, I couldn't comprehend not being the final
decision maker on everything. So I'd got to explore a
number of different industries and it just spurred my interest

(03:34):
in applied technologies.

Speaker 1 (03:36):
Also out of curiosity. When you're chatting with someone just
casually and they say, so, what do you do for
a living? How do you boil down your job's responsibilities
in a way that the average person kind of grocks
what you're talking about.

Speaker 2 (03:50):
Yeah, I think it's a fantastic question, even when my
kids say, so Dad, what do you really do? The
simple answer is, my job is to get rule blocks
out of the way for the really smart people in
a dinner party. My job is to look for new
and creative ways to leverage technology as a strategic asset
for the company. Whether that's customer facing opportunities, whether that's

(04:13):
internal collaboration, or whether that's supply chain efficiency. It's looking
at how we can leverage technology, which is really what
digitization is, right, It's how do I take advantage of
data and automate or ultimately integrate business processes most effectively
to be differentiated in our sector?

Speaker 1 (04:32):
Excellent For those who aren't aware of what avontur does,
we're talking about like material science and chemistry, what role
does it play in this space?

Speaker 2 (04:43):
I would say probably three areas come to mind. One
is how do we make research scientists more effective? How
do we take what they're doing and accelerate their ability
to bring novel science to everyday society. How do we
eliminate friction in their environment, whether it's product procurement, whether

(05:05):
it's labs traditionally have been very fragmented in their technology solutions,
so we play a significant role integrating labs from inventory management,
chemical management, precurrement management, equipment management, bio repository. So really
our role is working with large bioform of companies, working

(05:25):
with material science companies, working with semiconductor industry, and working
with their scientists co developing in many cases, but leveraging
technology to make them more efficient, bring science to the
table faster.

Speaker 1 (05:39):
And I absolutely love that messaging. Here on the Restless Ones,
we talk a lot about connectivity because I really do
believe that that is the technology that is sort of
the foundation that enables all these others to exist beyond
just being a silo. Can you talk a bit about
how the company leverages connectivity in various ways.

Speaker 2 (05:58):
Yeah. Absolutely. The notion of connectivity for us is how
can I integrate everything in a lab? How can I
enable scientists to work remotely or whether they're physically at
their lab bench or in front of experiments. How do
I enable my global base of nearly fifteen thousand associates
to be productive anywhere, anytime, whatever they're doing, whether it's

(06:22):
my commercial associates, my frontline distribution workers, my manufacturing associates
that are working twenty four by seven. So I view
ultimately connectivity being the number one most important thing. How
do I have what's done at one part of my
business be accessible, visible, and usable by other folks within

(06:43):
the organization. And I say organization broadly from customer to supplier,
because they're ultimately going to know the best way to
take advantage of that data or that piece of information
most effectively. I think that's when I think about the
connected enterprise, how I think about connectivity.

Speaker 1 (06:58):
Mike, you are really hitting on things that I personally
find inspiring and exciting. Having this incredible connectivity that has
this high throughput, low latency so that we're able to
take advantage of that, you know, moment to moment.

Speaker 2 (07:12):
I agree. I think the opportunity to be creative in
how you take advantage of all the different connected assets
out there, to me is incredibly exciting. You know, we
say it is simple, but we use augmented reality and
our distribution centers to help our warehouse associates optimize picks
so they bend over less or they know the right

(07:33):
pile to put a box on, so we create a
more stable palette, so we use it for safety purposes
all the way to in manufacturing lines, predictively understanding when
a line is operating suboptimally and sending someone there to
understand why, whether it's a mechanical issue or whether it's
a flow issue or material issue or something going on.

(07:55):
I think there's some real world tasks that we've seen
such significant benefit in IoT that sounds like this very
ethereal thing, but I think applying it to real world
activities I think is really making people's jobs more effective.

Speaker 1 (08:11):
Mike, you're the first guest we've had on who has
talked about using augmented reality in a way to ensure
employee safety and quality of life improvements. I hope to
see as a trend throughout all industries, this idea of
leveraging the technology not just to improve efficiency, which obviously
is important that's a big business driver, but as an

(08:32):
actual way to improve the quality of life of the
people who are working for the organization. You're going to
attract the top talent that way, You're going to have
incredibly high performing, loyal members of your team. When the
organization shows that they are taking that time and effort
to consider what their day to day lives are.

Speaker 2 (08:53):
I think sometimes we mystify things that don't need to
be that mystical and look for more practical ways of
utilizing them that is more broad. I think we generally
know AI has been around for twenty five years. It's
the ability to get access to the large language models
and the compute power that's allowing it to apply to

(09:14):
problems that maybe we haven't been as successful in the
past solving.

Speaker 1 (09:17):
Yeah. I have one more question specifically about connectivity before
we move on, and that is how can wireless technologies
like five G impact the material science and manufacturing space.

Speaker 2 (09:30):
I think the largest opportunity when we think about our
customer is the lab. I think the evolution of how
quickly can we take advantage of the data coming from
equipment in the lab into laboratory information management systems LIMB
systems to do correlation analysis. How can you accelerate trials data?
How can you do compound analysis? We produce very high

(09:54):
specification products to very narrow tolerances, so how can we
do that quicker? How can you identify which of the
raw materials are commodity and which have direct influence to
the specification of the output. So I look at what
conductivity can do for that and the ability in real
time to make those adjustments that will have a direct impact.

(10:18):
And then I think, secondly, it's your footprint. I think
you know having five G and these non tethered technologies
allow you to think pretty dynamically about what's the right
footprint for this capability, whether it's an office footprint, a
lab footprint, DC expansion, a pop up facility with a customer.
If suddenly you know, I'm call it BYO and bring

(10:40):
my own network, I just slap a five G spot up,
or I'm putting five G in every single one of
my devices laptops or mobile devices globally, and it's inherently
part of my extended network. That's a game changer.

Speaker 1 (11:00):
I'm curious. Also, you mentioned earlier about how you view
the relationships with suppliers and with customers as all being
kind of an extension of the organization itself. Can you
talk a bit about how technology, including connectivity, how it
facilitates that level of collaboration with entities that are not
under the corporate umbrella directly.

Speaker 2 (11:23):
Yeah, I think it's a fantastic question when I think
about it, ultimately, if you go back to customer centricity,
if our goal is to have at the scientist's fingers
the products they need when they need it, for the
purpose they need it, So how do I roll that
back to it's kind of we used to call it
just in time? So how do I have an extended

(11:44):
view of what I need to get out the door?
And if I need to know what has to be there,
how can I work with my suppliers on the most
efficient supply chain so they're not manufacturing huge volumes of
product that there is a demand for good for anyone. Right,
So when we look at it as an extended supply chain,

(12:05):
I can't be successful if my suppliers aren't reliable and successful,
and my customers can't be successful if I'm not successful
in providing what they need, maybe even before they know it,
Which is ultimately our goal is how do we do
a lot more in the predictive space, And we do
a fair bit of that today and looking at different
models to accelerate that.

Speaker 1 (12:25):
Man, it kind of gets back into that convergence of
big data and data analysis where you're able to see
those potential trends before they have even been manifested to
a point that we would normally be aware of them.
Can you talk a little bit about sort of the
technological foundation for these labs and research centers, because for
someone who is unschooled in the ways of material science

(12:46):
and manufacturing and that sort of stuff, as I am,
my thoughts immediately go to the latest Marvel movie with
Tony Stark in a lab, I would love to hear
a little bit more about the technological underpinnings of these
research facilities.

Speaker 2 (13:00):
So our goal is to provide customized solutions for a
lot of our customers that essentially pride an integrated digital
lab for them, and how do we take the waste
out of their process and allow them to do more
with science. So you talk about IoT solutions, smartshelf solutions.
We have thousands of associates that sit within our customer

(13:22):
sites that facilitate the type of research, whether it's helping
them with inventory, whether it's helping them with actual experiments,
et cetera. And the whole notion is how do I
have everything in a lab connected in real time so
it's perpetual experimentation, it's perpetual output and taking the data
and making that an input into the next part of
the process. So the underlying you know you mentioned connectivity

(13:46):
a number of times. Underlying connectivity is incredibly important, and
then ultimately stringing those different components together from equipment to inventory,
to analytics and ultimately to output.

Speaker 1 (14:00):
Can you perhaps talk about some initiatives or projects that
kind of stand out to you.

Speaker 2 (14:06):
Where I really get excited is we talk about e
commerce solutions and creating research platforms for scientists and then
linking that to how they work in the lab on
a day to day basis, working with our customers, looking
at their workflows, looking at what their research process is,
and being a scientific platform. And we're investing heavily in
that space. We think it's a space that we've got

(14:28):
strong capabilities, we think it's an area that will continue
to be a leader in, and we feel a strong
pull from our customers on hey, give us more. Hey,
you really are continuing to drive value for us as
a trusted supplier. Give us more automation, more capability, more visibility,
take more of what we're doing and help us accelerate

(14:48):
speed of science. When you look in your customer's eyes
every day and they're looking at you as an extended
part of their business. That's when you know that you're
doing something right and it's a true partnership.

Speaker 1 (15:00):
An incredible metric for success. You've also been in the
leadership position when or shortly after an organization has acquired
other organizations, which involves obviously lots and lots of work
on the back end to integrate various systems. Can you
talk a little bit about some of the inherent challenges
that come along with trying to integrate different organizations that

(15:23):
are now part of your own into becoming part of
the overall operation, and what are some of the hurdles
that you typically face when that happens.

Speaker 2 (15:32):
Yeah, I feel like a broken record. But data is
always the one that comes to mind first. I think
if you think about an acquisition, the ultimate outcome is
when I acquire a company, can one plus one equal three.
So I didn't buy it just to continue to get
the same results that we got before. So how do

(15:52):
I get access to the data? How can I leverage
the capabilities that I bought within this acquisition to compliment
the capabilities we had already. So the answer used to be, Okay,
give me twenty four months and then I'll have everyone
on the same platform and then I'll get you what
you need. Impatience sometimes is a good thing, and this
is where I think an expectation of how do I

(16:15):
get turned around the opportunities to find synergies between the company.
And when I see synergies, I don't mean cost takeout,
I mean how do I accelerate the joint benefit of
the two capability sets that have now come together.

Speaker 1 (16:29):
Well, and Mike, you never have to worry about sounding
like a broken record when you're talking about data. It's
something that have gained a great appreciation for the power
of information over the last several years. But as we've
talked about like that has changed dramatically over the last
few years, where we've seen incredible improvements and leaps and
bounds in our ability to analyze data, and it has

(16:51):
proven again and again to be perhaps the most valuable
asset that's out there.

Speaker 2 (16:58):
I'm a self professed data geek, so I think we
used to think about data as just being transactions, and
I think what big data has uncovered and then probably
AI is enabled, is the creative juices from everyone within
the organization. So it's not just an IT thing. Hey,
can you get me this report or can you format this?

(17:20):
It's you know, I've got a tremendous asset I'm sitting on,
which is data from across the organization plus all this
external data. Now I can really start solving problems or
coming up with perspectives or checking theories that I've never
been able to do before because either I didn't have
the data, I didn't have the compute power to do it.

(17:40):
I couldn't come up with relationships. And that's where I
think we're just scratching the surface today on what these
technologies are opening up, particularly with the large language models.

Speaker 1 (17:51):
And sort of on the flip side of that, the
dark side, I would say, is that we've also seen
new threats to cybersecurity. I'm curious can you talk a
little bit about how the state of cybersecurity has changed
over the last few years. What are some of the
larger risks that you perceive out for business leaders, things

(18:11):
that people need to be aware of.

Speaker 2 (18:14):
A couple things have forced that change. A handful of
years ago, we're looking to secure the four walls of
the building, right the physical infrastructure. If I kept my
four walls safe and everyone out, then I was safe
and secure. Well, I think the advent of cloud certainly
changed everything. So we've got data flying all over the
place now that I don't technically own, and then COVID

(18:38):
change where people are working. There is no four walls anymore.
Whether you're remote or you're hybrid, you're having people work
in locations you never could have imagined, you know, referencing
back to your five G com and they could be
out on the hills in the middle of the Rocky
Mountains and it'll look just like they're sitting in my
office just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. So trying to secure all

(18:59):
that dynamically to the same level is a challenge every
single day. It's moved from securing a location to securing
a person and then ultimately to securing the asset, which
is how do I manage access to the data? And
that's the most specific thing that I know. I can't
control where people are, I can't control who's getting in
and out. I have an extended enterprise, so how do

(19:21):
I make sure that the data is secured? And then candidly,
I spend a lot of time with peers. We're all
fighting the same thing every day. We're all trying to
do the same things. That's why I love being a CIO.
The peer group, it's really a tight community. We get
together a lot, and everyone's really open about what works
and what doesn't. And there's not a single time, whether

(19:42):
it's a conversation or a conference or a forum, that
I get together and I don't leave with like twenty
five ideas. So there's not a day that goes by
that we're not focused on it.

Speaker 1 (19:51):
I'm encouraged to hear that at this level of leadership,
you have leaders who speak with one another openly about
what's working and what's not working because as ultimately it
benefits everyone. This isn't an area where you're competing with
someone for a market share. This is where you're making
certain that everyone is protected as best they can be

(20:14):
based upon the risks and threats that exist at any
given time. I had a couple of questions I wanted
to ask Mike before I could let him go, What,
in your mind is the most misunderstood technology AI.

Speaker 2 (20:34):
I think AI is a group of technologies and capabilities.
It's not in and of a thing, and I think
that lack of broad based understanding is causing some of
the fear based discussions out there. It's causing some of
the dialogue on what needs to be regulated and not.
And I think, similar to some of the other technologies

(20:56):
over the years, that the more we can demystify what
AI is, what it can do for positive as well
as for detriment as well. I think that's good for everyone.
So I think the being in the news is positive,
not getting out over our skis about things that it
can't do, but also not trying to say, well, if
you're not an it, you can't understand it. I think

(21:18):
that's a poor answer to what I think is going
to be a societal changing technology.

Speaker 1 (21:25):
Excellent answer, next up, what's the best piece of advice
you've ever received?

Speaker 2 (21:30):
Be authentic trying to pretend you have all the knowledge.
Everyone sees through it really quickly. But it also doesn't
pay enough respect to the talent you have in your team.
If you enable your team and be authentic about hey,
here's the problem I have, how can we go solve it.
I think people are drawn to sincerity and authenticity and

(21:51):
honesty and vulnerability. I had a boss a long time
ago say, people watch how you walk into the building
in the morning. If you're soul in a head down
and trudging. They're going to take that as Oh geez,
I wonder if something's wrong. I wonder if you know
I shouldn't approach him today versus Hey, listen, we all

(22:12):
have work lives, we all have business lives, and how
to be transparent on Okay, well, hey this is where
I'm struggling today, or it was a late night my
kid was in the hospital last night, or hey, we
went live with this program this weekend. It didn't go
as well as I thought it did. Here's what we're
doing about it. I think that level of transparency for
the team, in my experience, breaths an awful lot of

(22:34):
trust and an awful lot of we're going to rally
together to solve a problem, so be authentic.

Speaker 1 (22:40):
I love that answer. It's distantly related to the young
philosophy I try to follow, which is that I try
to never assume I'm the smartest person in the room,
and so far it's been a pretty safe assumption. So
I just go with that.

Speaker 2 (22:53):
That's great. Trust the people that you work with, right.

Speaker 1 (22:57):
Yes, it doesn't hurt that I work with truly brilliant
people who constantly amaze me. So that definitely helps well.
And finally, this show is called The Restless Ones. What
does the term restless one mean to you?

Speaker 2 (23:11):
To me? What jump to mind right away when I
heard the title? And I love the title, by the way,
is someone who's not satisfied? How do you continue to
be inquisitive? How do you continue to look for new
ways to better yourself or better the organization? How do
you look for ways to solve things that they have
been solved before? So I love that whole idea of

(23:34):
how do you not just settle? And that's the fun part.
That's why I love technology because it is the most
dynamic field out there. Maybe I'm a little biased because
it's the space I'm in, but I think, you know,
having this as a title for this space couldn't be
more perfect.

Speaker 1 (23:48):
Mike, thank you so much for joining The Restless Ones.
It has been a real pleasure to have this conversation
and I really appreciate your time.

Speaker 2 (23:58):
Yeah, thanks, Jonathan, you a fantastic job and you made
it easy, that's for sure.

Speaker 1 (24:07):
Thanks again to Mike one Drash of Avontor for joining
the show. I think Mike really brought into perspective exactly
how crucial data is for the modern company. Data is
why can help you identify an issue before it becomes
a problem. It's what makes you aware of problems in
the first place and gives you a foothold for finding
a solution. And it's what helps you anticipate what comes

(24:28):
next before everyone else does, giving you the opportunity to
capitalize on it. And I know I say this a lot,
but it really is true. Connectivity is what enables organizations
to take advantage of that data. It's how we shepherd
information from the point of collection to analysis to innovating
solutions and new processes. With the era of untethered connectivity,

(24:51):
we're no longer constrained by cables. We can implement that
connectivity where it's needed, either temporarily or permanently, and the
benefits we see can be transformative. Again, thanks to Mike
for joining the program, and to all of you out there,
thank you for listening. We'll be having more conversations with

(25:12):
the leaders at the intersection of tech and business, so
be sure to come back for those and take some
time to look over our back catalog of interviews. Until
next time, I'm Jonathan Strickland.
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