Guest Column | October 1, 2019

The Value Of A Scientific Background In The Pharma Business World: An Interview With Fabrice Chouraqui

By Juliet Hart contributing writer

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Fabrice Chouraqui was formerly the President Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. In this role, he led the pharmaceutical business in the U.S., including the day-to-day operations of US General Medicines. He joined Novartis in 2010. Chouraqui’s experience in the pharma industry includes leadership positions at Bristol-Myers Squibb and Hoechst Marion Roussel. He holds a Master’s degree in science and a Ph.D. in pharmaceuticals from the University of Paris as well as an MBA from INSEAD. In May 2020, he became CEO of Cellarity.

1. What made you decide to pursue both science (PharmD) and business (MBA) degrees?

Very early in my scientific studies I was attracted by the developers and manufacturers of these medicines. As I became more interested in drug development and worked in this field, I realized the drug industry was a business requiring significant investments and profits to be sustainable. This pushed me to complement my scientific degrees with an MBA to develop my business skills and strengthen my understanding of the various components of commercializing a product.

2. How has your scientific educational background helped you when working with scientists at your current and previous jobs? You mentioned that you “understood” scientists and the way they worked. In what way do you feel that you “understand them” and how is this beneficial to the work that you do?

The science is evolving fast, clinical pathways and R&D plans are becoming more complex. You cannot be an expert in everything, but you have to understand enough to be credible and ask the right questions. This helps to have constructive dialogue and to ensure the right data is generated and investments are prioritized appropriately. Ultimately, innovation is the result of experiments and failures, so it is critical not to shelf ideas or technologies too quickly. On the other hand, it is important to understand when to move on.

3. What is a common problem/disconnect that you have seen when a business executive must work with a group of scientists? Do you have any anecdotes or examples?

Scientists cannot expect everyone to have their knowledge, so they must articulate their ideas in a simple way which can be understood by most. This being said, simple does not mean simplistic. On occasion, the lack of scientific understanding of some leaders may lead to simplistic or subjective views, which has the potential to drive suboptimal strategies or decisions.

4. What are the strongest qualities of scientists? Are there any qualities or skills that today’s pharmaceutical scientists need more of now than in the past? Why?

Scientist are known for their passion, curiosity, constant experimentation, and resilience. These are skills that should be embraced by the broader organization at a time when change is constant in the pharmaceutical industry.

Given the pace of the change in the healthcare environment and the growing financial constraints of public and private payers, pharmaceutical scientists ought to develop a holistic understanding of the business environment and adjust their purpose accordingly. They should ask themselves: Will the data I am generating be enrichening solely intellectually or will it contribute directly or indirectly to ensure that the right patient is treated with this medication at the right time? Have I prioritized my different projects along the right dimensions, including external benchmarks? How can I make my team more productive to keep up with the pace of the competition?

5. What advice do you have for new scientists entering this industry? For example, are there non-scientific skills that you suggest they focus on?

My first advice to scientists would be to develop a strong purpose linked to tangible outcomes for patients and society and to understand how their work fits in with the broader business. It is also critical to develop strong project prioritization capabilities to ensure appropriate focus and resource allocation. To make a meaningful difference, a scientist must balance passion with reason and reality.

6. For a business leader with no scientific background, what is your advice to them for working with scientists?

Do not be afraid to ask questions and show your vulnerability. Scientists love to teach and explain. Spend time in labs and in clinics. Do preceptorships to understand the intricacies of medical practice. Also, put yourself in their shoes and show deep interest in their work. This will go a long way and will foster an environment of constructive conversations, stronger partnerships, and better outcomes.

7. Have you seen or implemented any specific initiatives that have improved the relationship between the business and science sides of a pharmaceutical company? 

In my experience, instituting integrated commercial and development plans enables teams to think strategically and cross-functionally and develop a common understanding of unmet medical needs and market dynamics. Joint sessions with external stakeholders like payers and clinicians also help teams understand what matters most in daily medical practice.

8. From a business leader’s standpoint, how can you maximize the potential of scientists?

Scientists offer many strong qualities that benefit organizations. They often have a passion for science, curiosity, and a disposition to work hard scientifically. As leader, it is important to cultivate these attributes, while also working with them to develop business acumen. The pursuit of innovation doesn’t yield guaranteed business outcomes. A new treatment innovation must offer improvements over existing treatments in the eyes of the prescriber and be easily accessible to patients. Without this kind of understanding of the marketplace, even the best drug may not reach patients.  

Bio: JULIET HART is principal at Hart & Chin Associates. After spending years in R&D as an associate scientist, she recently transitioned to a consultant role for leadership development in the biotech and pharma space.