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June 25, 2013 | By:  Dr. Bhavana Weidmann
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Life Science Consulting: An Interview with Dr. Siegfried Bialojan

Imagine writing to someone at the height of their profession, seeking career insights, and then receiving a warm invitation to meet and learn from them! It's rare, but certainly not impossible as I discovered when I received a reply from Dr. Siegfried Bialojan, who is the executive director and head of European Life Science Center at Ernst & Young office in Mannheim, Germany.

After a post-doc at the German Cancer Research Center, Dr. Bialojan moved to the pharma industry and later went on to become a global leader in life science consulting. The transitions from academia to pharma and eventually to consulting were exciting and challenging. They were facilitated by his ability to seek out new possibilities and amalgamate his prior experience with new skills on the job.

With the signature humility and kindness of all great mentors, Dr. Bialojan generously shared with me his experienced take on the art of navigating career transitions and finding one's niche. I am delighted to bring you his valuable insights that can help students, young professionals and research institutions forge a strong partnership with the industry to sculpt the sciences for lasting commercial success.*

Dr. Siegfried Bialojan at the Ernst and Young Office, Mannheim (Photo by Dr. Bhavana Weidmann)

The Interview:

Q. Dr. Bialojan, please share what brought you from academia to the life science industry.

A. After my PhD and 2 years of post-doc at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany, I made the decision to move into the commercial space of industry. I was more interested in contributing to the overall development of the final product that comes out of research. I had also partly completed my medical studies (however, I did not finish these). So, this was already directing me in a space for developing therapies. For me the pharma industry was just the next logical next step to take. It was also all about co-incidences. I joined BASF after some discussions and talks with the people I know. I didn't go through a very broad application process. I just had the opportunity to go and I chose to do it.

Q. What initial challenges did you come across during this shift from academia to industry?

A. The step from academia to industry was quite significant. It was not really appreciated from the academic side that I moved out, because at that time it was not really the normal thing to do. Scientists were in the science space and the industry people were considered to be a different breed. In Germany, going back and forth from the academia to industry is still not working that smoothly. There's still room for much improvement. In United States, it is much more customary for people to move out of academia, have some industry position for a while and then decide go back to the university. This is not really established in Germany or in Europe. Back then, it was even more complicated. Anyways I enjoyed that and moved on, having spent 8 or 9 years. Some would say may be even too long a time.

I think one advice would be to really ask yourself after roughly every 2 to 4 years – where am I now and is it still what I want to do or is it time to move on? Is there anything else you should probably add to your qualifications? When it's possible internally in a company that's fine, else one should also be confident enough to look externally. This is something I would do, if I had to chose again. I would probably be more flexible and more mobile.

Q. What were some of the highlights of your career in the pharmaceutical industry?

A. When I first joined BASF, a part of it was exclusively doing research in pharmaceuticals. This part had been acquired in 1970s and was called Knoll pharmaceuticals. There I started working with a team that did most of the drug development starting from pre-clinical studies and toxicology to pharmacology and finally clinical development. My tasks included looking after potential collaborations with academia and biotech firms and determining what is out there in terms of new ideas and technologies.

Also with the research we had done, Knoll started to develop, what is now the number one best-selling biological in the world – an antibody against tumor necrosis factor (TNF). In 2001, Knoll was sold to Abbott and it went onto manufacture this compound that we had started to develop, into the best-selling drug worldwide. It does give a sense of pride that one was involved in it at that time. Those were very interesting times at the company and I always enjoyed it. After the acquisition came about, Knoll became a subsidiary of Abbott. There were a lot of questions about whether even the site as such would stay, and so one starts looking for alternatives.

Q. How did the transition to life science consulting come about for you?

A. It was also a matter of coincidence. I never did a broad screen of where all the companies were. When Knoll had become a part of Abbott, I was getting in contact with my boss here at Ernst and Young, whom I had heard, was looking to build a team in the biotech arena. He was very visionary and thought that if one wants to work in the biotech field, one needs to have people who understand that field in greater detail. In this building only, where we speak, we had a meeting on a Saturday morning. It took about an hour and I was very convinced that this was what I needed to do. Namely, get out of the pharma industry and move into the consulting business and I was hired.

What I started to do here was to become more or less of an internal consultant. In the beginning it was really like me being the translator, because the scientists and researchers in the biotech companies would speak a different, more technical language to our audit experts. It meant understanding what the scientists were telling us and how it could translate into something we at Ernst & Young could do for them and communicate the suggestions of our experts back to the scientists in a manner that was relevant for them.

Q. What would be your advice to young professionals considering a career change?

It's important to make sure, especially if you go for a change, to bring in some of your previous training (background expertise) and professional experience into the new job. That's something I am very convinced about because if you have to start from scratch in a new position, its going to be very tough. I think it can be very difficult for beginners to find the first job because many companies want to hire people with some prior professional experience in the field. However, sometimes the bigger companies may like to get young people and train them through their own training programs. However, the more it goes into a very specific function, the more professional experience they will expect in that field. So look for opportunities where you add to what you know from your previous experience. At least it is not my strategy to do something totally from scratch. I mean, there may be people who do that, they just go for it, but it's not for me. I was always trying to link things.

Q. What kind of career options should a young biologist be open for?

A. As a young student, one doesn't always have the perspective to see the whole spectrum of possibilities. One must always keep the mind open to seeking out new possibilities. Being in a consulting firm, I now find scientists everywhere. Retrospectively, the spectrum was much broader than I had initially believed. If you look where biologists end up, it's a very a broad spectrum. You will find them in biotech and pharma industry, in investor companies and even banks. They have used their background in sciences and have just applied it in a totally different direction.

Q. In your opinion, how close is scientific research to its commercial application?

A. I think there are still a lot of opportunities and potential in science. There is a lot of federal and state money going into research funding and scientific collaborations and it is well-spent. However, there is still too much separation between academic research and industrial commercialization.

I think where we need more is in translation of scientific research into commercial development. There are examples where biotech firms founded here could not be financed because of the tough financing situation. These have been acquired by American companies which go on to benefit from the commercialization thereafter. What sense does it make if a country like Germany invests billions into research and then not much comes out on the commercial side? We have a lot of examples where the research and original patents have been developed here in Germany but the final commercial success happens in the US and elsewhere. For example, BASF sold their pharma business and now the major success from something that has been developed here, is happening in the US. Thus, the whole value creation done here is finally reaping dividends elsewhere.

It is a big responsibility for the whole research system that the link of research to commercial exploitation becomes more effective. It also comes with people. I think younger people may be much more open and flexible to stay in touch with both research and commercialization.

Q. With the media becoming more extensive, perhaps this awareness might also grow?

A. Of course, but then there is still another problem. There is quite a bit of bad reputation in the media for the pharmaceutical industry. Most of the time negative stories come out. Many of the positive ones are left behind. One predominantly hears only about the costs, not so much about benefits to patients.

Q. How is the financing situation in the life science industry and how it is influencing the job market?

A. If you look into the biotech space, most of the standard financing systems are not working that nicely and that's been going on for a while. This is not only in Germany, but it's all over Europe and may be it's a world-crisis in financing. So, the companies are very reluctant to build personnel and have to really become more focused on capital efficiency.

In contrast to what happened at the turn of the century, when there was a big boom in biotech sector resulting in the hiring of people and building of organizations, now there is more of a tendency to go virtual with less focus on building personnel and big infrastructures. This means jobs are not supported as much. Having the company as lean as possible in terms of their personnel and outsourcing to service providers is what we definitely see on the rise.

Today, I think job opportunities are more in the service sector than in the biotech field. The more virtual the original players become, the more there is a need of service provider companies to offer infrastructures and capacity. That could be clinical research organizations (CROs), companies doing contract research or toxicology companies for example. One could also instead become an entrepreneur and start a company of their own.

Q. How is the entrepreneurship climate in Germany for life sciences?

A. Maybe it is a German weakness that we have too few people that are really willing to take risks and become an entrepreneur. There are reasons for that. If you look at US, they are much more inclined to take risks. Even from an investor's perspective, they are preferred, even if they have had a failure as they have still gained some valuable experience. On the other hand, here people are definitely less willing to take risks, even myself – tending to be in the safe haven of a big company, rather than starting one's own company and taking all the risk.

If one fails in their entrepreneurial venture, which is quite a normal thing, often just a statistical chance, one is considered a loser here. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to get that second chance here. This is where we do have mentality differences. It is difficult for young people to start their own business. Finding financing and taking risks is all very difficult and if one fails then one is a deemed a loser here. Who wants to do that? That has a lot to do with the whole sector, if you look at it.

The entrepreneurial sector needs people to take risks. It needs people to really go for it. It needs real entrepreneurs. We really need to seriously think about how we can train young people in advance to meet the challenge. Maybe it even goes back to schools and university programs as they offer only very specific subjects and not much training beyond that. This is where more thought about what is important to become an entrepreneur can really be initiated.

Q. Are additional qualifications helpful in making smooth career transitions?

A. I think today there are a lot of people with dual career tracks. Many complete their bachelors or master degrees and start studying MBA. If you are really looking to go into a more commercial setting, I think, it is quite appreciated to have some additional qualification that doesn't necessarily need to be a full-fledged MBA. We see this a lot, that people who do not want to stay in research try to do an additional course to gain some skills in management or economics.

One should not go to the other extreme either – gathering several degrees without any professional experience while growing older. The extra qualification is very theoretical and even with good publications one may be asked to show the professional experience for a job. The more you develop in your field, the more experience is asked for, rather than just a theoretical background. The balance between qualification and experience is crucial.

Rather than go from one internship to the next, the best thing is to talk to people, to find your path. If one has an idea and wants to move out of science, then one should go ahead and talk to the professionals and experts in their fields of interest. You can only learn. How else can you know about another field, just from doing science at the university? This can only come for interactions to get some information. As a student, I didn't know it back then myself. I knew someone at BASF, got talking with them and got a job there. One should apply and ask for a meeting with a company or institution they have in mind irrespective of whether they are offering a job. I have always gone directly to the people saying this is what I am doing and this is where I think I am good enough. It is so important to be proactive in approaching companies and building networks is key.

Q. What job opportunities may be available for young life science graduates at consulting firms such as Ernst and Young?

A. At Ernst and Young, our history comes from an audit perspective and later we moved into the life science consulting business. It's not that we hire a lot of scientists, unfortunately. What we do hire, are people who come from some very specialized sectors of the life science industry. For example, we are doing a lot of consulting work for performance improvement in supply chains of pharmaceutical industries. There we may hire people with professional experience in pharma supply chain. From that standpoint, me being in the company is more of an exception than the rule I must say. I think it might be different in other consultancies.

On the other hand, there are others for example McKinsey & Company, that are not so much into prior professional experience. They like to have open minds with creative thinking in running their projects. It is also a pretty tough job where as a young guy one may really experience burn-out. They have an up-or-out strategy, that means within two years you are so good that you are moving up or you are out. It's really tough. Some people say this is great – I have the chance to move up and even if I move out, the credentials are so good that I will find a job in another company afterwards.

Q. What would be your top suggestions for building a successful career in the life science industry?

A. Really explore and understand the networks in a company. Find out what are the rules, what are the dos and don'ts. It's really important to know the game. Nowadays most companies are more professional and organized. It starts with knowing the company, knowing the rules and then finding a mentor, one who is really close to you and interested in you. Because if you want to achieve something, you need support. Commitment is also very important. You have to be committed to company goals and also have personal goals for yourself in the company that show that you like to be in that company and that you want to bring this company forward. Commitment in the form of what I can do for the company is also recognized. One also needs to stay flexible for other opportunities – within or outside the company. It is always good to be receptive to what is happening outside or inside the company. In case there is a need to move, then one is at least more open to doing that.

Q. Could you elaborate some more about the need for a mentor in professional life?

It is really important to have somebody who actively supports you in the company. In most of the cases, if you do not have a mentor or a supportive network, then it is not going to work. Finding a mentor cannot really be done strategically. This person will have to find you. On your part you can actively try to be identified as someone who adds value to the company. It could well be that you may not find someone, then be flexible and reconsider your position.

It might also be counter productive if one is too much in the admiring mode. Being admired doesn't only always motivate one to mentor someone – it must come from the content one presents to foster a bi-directional input. It's far more impactful if one tries to get to an eye-level discussion where one adds quality content that is creating respect for one's background knowledge. One has to be self confident and really diplomatic rather than only decent and quiet, to move up in their career. It may be helpful to even have a controversial discussion sometimes, without insisting, where you can politely defend your argument with good knowledge of the content. That gives a totally different and far better impression rather than just quietly admiring.

Q. Finally, any additional recommendations for making successful career transitions?

A. Have a clear idea of what you can achieve in the new job - sometimes it may be difficult because you may not know about the job much, but at least the employers would see that you are targeted and focused. Also, some people tend to be very calm and quiet. However, it gives more of a feeling of self confidence if you can actually step-up and tell people that you are looking for more, for example a particular job title, or about the money you get, the support and the team you want. Ask about what are the criteria you are measured with. Every company has an evaluation system. In companies you are evaluated on certain preset criteria that decide your promotion. So do find out what you can do to fit in best in the system.

In case you are not really satisfied with the job offered, it may be difficult sometimes but you should also ponder on whether you should really accept it. Look for what you can work with and there will always be room to improve. If you are a team player make them know that you would like to work in teams and ask how you would be integrated into the team. You need to have an open minded attitude and communicate effectively. Being really authentic and confident is key. Ultimatley, it boils down to just being serious about whatever you set out to do.

Me: Thank you Dr. Bialojan. That's such great advice!

Dr. Bialojan: My pleasure! Thank you.


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