The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the significant contributions of life science companies to a safe and healthy world. So it is not surprising that many articulate that their primary mission is not necessarily economic return, but to contribute to individuals’ health and well-being. Accordingly, one would think there would be many life sciences businesses among the approximately 4000 worldwide B Corps – companies that are certified for their social and environmental performance. Yet there are only a handful.
To understand this paradox, Brian Tinger, Corporate Controller of New England Biolabs (NEB), a biotech company that develops enzymes for everything from vaccine development to DNA assembly, recently told me that maybe the reason is that “the life science industry is capital intensive and typically requires significant outside investment” and so he suspects that “it’s challenging to find the right investor or corporate structure to support the policies and procedures that B Corp certification requires.”
As part of my research of purpose-driven businesses, I recently interviewed Tinger via email following NEB’s announcement that it has recently joined that small group of B Corps in the life science industry. I wanted to understand why the company pursued certification and what benefits it receives. As he expressed, for a company that printed its very first paper catalog, in 1975, on 100% recycled paper, this achievement was a natural progression.
Christopher Marquis: Why did NEB pursue B Corp certification?
Brian Tinger: NEB was founded with the advancement of science and stewardship of the environment as its highest priorities. Since the mid-1970s, NEB has worked on a number of initiatives through the company and the community that speak to this ideal, including establishing the first shipping box recycling program in the U.S., creating the New England Biolabs Foundation to foster community-based conservation, commissioning the design of a LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified laboratory, hosting science events for the community and engaging with art-based programs worldwide. As such, when we took a hard look at the B Corp mission, we recognized that our core values align closely, so it was a logical step in terms of formalizing the certification.
Marquis: What benefits did NEB see from the certification and what did you learn by going through the process?
Tinger: The B Corp assessment helped to provide a detailed roadmap for improvements that we could incorporate into our business. We examined several aspects of our business — from the way we work with our customers to the impact on our community to the happiness and satisfaction of our employees — to really understand what we were doing right and what area we could improve upon. We found that we lacked documentation of certain metrics referenced in the B Corp assessment and by measuring these aspects of the business we’ll be in a better position to monitor our performance going forward. We also discovered opportunities to improve our supply chain management by encouraging improved social and environmental performance of our suppliers.
However, attaining certification is only the first step. We see the B Corp assessment as a way to challenge NEB to evaluate its actions and enhance its ability to use business as a force for good, not just today but 20 or 30 years from now. We foresee many more businesses embarking on this journey because awareness of our social and environmental responsibility will continue to grow.
Marquis: Why do you think there are not more life science and healthcare companies that have become B Corps?
Tinger: There are a number of reasons why more life science companies are not B Corps. Through our own research, we noticed that B Corp status is more often associated with and pursued by consumer brands, such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, so there may be a general lack of awareness in our industry. Secondly, since the life science industry is capital intensive and typically requires significant outside investment, I suspect that it’s challenging to find the right investor or corporate structure to support the policies and procedures that B Corp certification requires. In addition, every organization is different but there are always competing priorities that a business has to consider and becoming B Corp may simply not be a priority.
Ultimately, however, B Corp certification is recognition that a company is meeting very high standards of social and environmental accountability, which is something that all life science and healthcare companies should strive for.
Marquis: Why should (or should not) more science based companies become B Corps?
Tinger: As B Corporations continue to gain prominence and visibility, I think the value of B Corp will resonate strongly within the scientific community. Life science companies, intrinsically, are on a mission to use science to improve the world and make it a better place. However, just like any other industry, life sciences can also leave behind a carbon footprint, which is why it’s critical to have a more holistic approach towards corporate responsibility. As a result, aiming for B Corp certification can further expand that mission by placing more emphasis on social responsibility, corporate culture and environmental sustainability.
Long term, this has great benefits for the company as well. From attracting new talent who are equally invested in sustainability to partnering with customers who are seeking companies committed to the values expressed by B Corp.