Once per year the Europe and Central Asia team from IE’s International Development team gathers for a leadership meeting, and as tends to happen, we also like to host an Alumni Appreciation Night around this annual gathering.  This year, as senior leaders from the team met in Amsterdam at the Room Mate Aitana Hotel (the Room Mate Group is Spanish scale-up success story in itself), we also had the chance to catch up with Karan Ambwani (IMBA ’08) for a quick interview.  While today he’s the Director of Strategy and Alliances at TEVA Pharmaceuticals Europe, his career has included stints at Novartis, CapGemini, IBM, and he even headed up the Innovation area at IE for a couple of years, after graduation.  Below is the transcript from an interview with Karan (KA) and Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, Joël McConnell (JM).

JM: “How and where did your journey to Amsterdam begin, and where did the MBA program at IE Business School fit in? Sounds like you got a whole lot more than a degree from your time in Madrid…”

KA: “My journey to Amsterdam actually started in 2014, 6 years after graduating from the IE IMBA program, although it was rather serendipitous than planned. I did indeed get a bit more from my time in Madrid than just a degree. Some of those things include an opportunity to work for IE as an innovation manager right after graduating, leading to a fluent command of Spanish, leading to a wider network in Spain…and oh yes, meeting my wife! The MBA program in itself, apart from helping me understand the fundamentals of business management, allowed me to gain a deep insight in managing across cultures and gave me a very strong base to branch out into progressively senior level roles across multiple industries.”

JM: “How did IBM and Capgemini help you with your role at Novartis and Teva? What were the most transferable skills to you were able to apply?”

KA: “As a general management consultant, with both, IBM and Capgemini, I was exposed to a wide range of projects across industries and functions – from MRO services for military aircraft to a new food category development for FMCGs.  Being a part of a consulting organization focused not only on board level recommendations but also on providing support in execution across functions and industries helped me acquire a wide skill set. Among others – being adept at structured problem solving, ability to lead senior level professionals to resolve complex challenges and a functional expertise in Marketing, Finance, IT and Operations.

In my role, as a Strategy Director, now at Teva and earlier at Novartis, I leverage these skills and cross-industry insights to drive decision making at the C-Level, on complex and cross-functional challenges such as Business Performance Improvement, M&A, and post-merger integrations and Innovation projects.”

JM: “What are some of the most important things happening in pharmaceuticals right now? I understand you write about the industry from time to time? Where can people get more insights from you?”

KA: “I believe the most important thing that is happening in the pharmaceuticals sector is a fundamental change to the business model. The business model of the pharmaceutical industry has not yet been disrupted by the advances in technologies to the extent of similar disruptions in most other industries.

Currently, the average cost to develop and market a drug is about US$2,5 billion. Most of this cost is borne due to the higher failure rates across an intensive research, development & approval process that requires significant time investment of about 10 year per approved drug. Till now, a higher price justified this risk undertaken by pharmaceutical companies but recently price gouging practices by a small sub-set of the industry and a consolidation of other players in the health care value change resulting in a decreased rebate pass-through has led to a disproportional increase in the prices. In the near future, as these drugs become more complex e.g. biologics, and individualized to a patient’s genetic content, these research, development and approval costs would continue to increase unless offset by significant advances in technology.

I believe not only is the current pharmaceutical business model is not sustainable but wider healthcare model is now closer to a tipping point and in turn healthcare delivery requires a systemic disruption aided by technology. Pharmaceutical companies will need to leverage technology in all aspects to reduce drug prices – from reducing the drug development costs through predictive analytics, reducing clinic trial costs through leveraging electronic health records for patient selection, wearable devices to track trial adherence to ensuring lower healthcare costs by better management of chronic diseases through various digital aids and devices.

In addition, to effectively reduce health care costs we will have to focus beyond price decrease of drugs and focus on overhauling the entire healthcare delivery value chain through changes in regulations, increasing the efficiency of the approval process, ensuring competiveness amongst various players.

I have a keen interest in innovation and business model disruptions in healthcare delivery and I tend contribute my two cents to the debate through LinkedIn and in select seminars and conferences.”

JM: “You do not have health sciences background so how did you get into a senior role in big pharmaceutical? What career development tips can you share with aspiring applicants that might wish to follow a similar path to yours?”

KA: “While a health science background definitely helps a lack of it does not necessarily impede your progress in a big pharmaceutical company. A pharmaceutical company’s purpose is improve the quality of life for patients but to be able to do so requires a coordinated effort from various functions within the company.

A health sciences background can perhaps help in a faster understanding of the problem and the solution (e.g. drugs mechanism of action) but it might not be an advantage while ensuring the delivery of the drug to the patient at the right cost, time and quality. A coordinated effort across functions such as manufacturing –  aiming and reducing the manufacturing cost, market access – aiming as ensuring reimbursement and accessible pricing, sales force – educating physicians on the drug impact of quality of life are fundamental to meeting the purpose of a pharmaceutical company.

I believe my skills set helps me to ensure this coordination and alignment among people and resources to help us, as a pharmaceutical company, serve our purpose in an economically viable manner.

My suggestion to aspirants wanting to take a similar path would be to not settle and rather experiment with various roles in their career. Not only will this help them build a wider skills set transferrable to other roles but also help them to really understand their own strengths, drivers and create their own definition of meaningful work.”

JM: “Any tips on the best places to check out in Amsterdam? Having local alumni’s tips is always helpful for fellow graduates travelling through.”

KA: “For the foodies, don’t forget to checkout Foodhallen (http://foodhallen.nl/).  Also, instead of taking a tour boat, rent one of your own boats (e.g. on sloepdelen.nl) and sail through the canals by yourself at your own pace! It’s one of the best ways to see Amsterdam.”