Insights on Pharmaceuticals and Biotech

By Lin Min Htoo

The Discovery+ Series is a series of events, delivered through online digital solutions, which give students the chance to speak directly with working professionals and learn about careers they aspire to enter. Given the developments in the COVID-19 situation, Advisory is keen to provide support to the many students who are experiencing woes in this time of disruptions, by digitalising professional mentorship.

On 18 May 2020, Advisory organised an online panel: Discover+: Pharmaceuticals and Biotech. On our panel that evening, we were privileged to have experienced professionals from a range of pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. The panel consisted of Rachel Phang, Chief Digital Officer at Sandoz; Raphael Ho, Regional Commercial Lead, Cardiovascular, Japan & Asia Pacific at Amgen; and Joanna Koh, Associate General Counsel at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Raymond Francis, Head of Communications, International, at Cardinal Health (Moderator). Our registered participants comprised students from various education levels and institutions, with a curiosity about the prospects in the pharmaceuticals and biotechnology industry, and what they can do to better position themselves for a career in this field.

There are many diverse roles within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. Apart from researchers and clinicians who play critical roles in developing drugs and medical products, an entire ecosystem of professionals is required to manufacture the drugs, maintain stringent quality control, meet regulatory standards, market the drugs to doctors and patients, and manage a supply chain to move the drugs to the patients. 

Those in the industry often start from very different roles, backgrounds and career goals, but find themselves staying due to the satisfaction of knowing that their products preserve and prolong the lives of people. They are also encouraged by the memos of appreciation they receive from patients who have recovered.

Each of the many diverse roles in the industry contributes to the larger pharma and biotech supply chain. For example, sales and marketing teams are responsible for increasing awareness about medical products or drugs among doctors and patients. They regularly listen to the problems and needs of healthcare workers, and recommend specific products that will help them solve these problems. In particular, the sales team has to be very knowledgeable about their own products, be able to communicate in medical terminology, and make claims that are factual and supported by medical research. 

There are also in-house legal counsels in pharmaceutical and biotech firms. Legal counsels are required to have good knowledge on the industry’s regulatory framework, and utilise legal principles to ensure that their company’s marketing, commercial, or product teams can operate both legally and optimally. Some challenges which legal counsels face are having to navigate the industry’s regulatory framework which can be particularly stringent at times, requiring the company to achieve high standards and obtain approval for their products before moving forward. 

With the recent developments in data and artificial intelligence, new roles are also emerging within the industry, such as helping pharmaceutical companies leverage on data and technology to improve their products and enhance productivity.

Generally, the types of roles in the industry can be classified as specialist or generalist. Specialist roles include researchers and clinicians in R&D, or process engineers in manufacturing. As these roles require deep domain expertise, a suitable scientific or engineering background is often necessary, be it through educational certificates or work experience. 

It is important to note that research in the pharmaceutical & biotechnology industry is not exactly the same as in academia. In the pharma and biotech industry, research is extremely application-driven, with a key focus on treating specific diseases with precise solutions. However, in academia, research is more theoretical and knowledge-based, focusing on expanding current knowledge about a particular field. Typically, however, many researchers in the industry begin their careers in academia or smaller biotechnology companies to acquire deep domain knowledge and skills, before moving into larger pharmaceutical companies.

On the other hand, generalist roles include sales, marketing, and communications, and can have a lower barrier to entry, as they do not require specific domain knowledge. Nevertheless, it is still helpful to have prior exposure or background in the sciences or medicine, to better understand common technical terminology used in the industry. 

For those aspiring to enter the industry, certificates, grades and hard skills can only do so much, especially for a fresh graduate. While good grades and a degree can increase one’s chances of securing a job interview, it is soft skills that ultimately help one land a job. This includes being able to communicate well, establishing personal rapport with the interviewers, and showing that one is a right fit for the team and company culture. Most importantly, employers look out for intellectual curiosity and a can-do attitude, as being able and willing to learn new concepts, products and trends is critical to success. One should also be a team-player who listens to teammates’ opinions and understands that collaboration is necessary to achieve the best solution. For customer-facing roles, a keen sense of empathy and a good listening ear will go a long way in ensuring the customer’s needs are heard, understood and ultimately satisfied.

There are plenty of opportunities for growth and advancement within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. Other than moving up a corporate ladder and getting pay raises, one can also expect to take on different roles within the same company to experience a different section of the pharma ecosystem, ultimately building one’s portfolio in the process. For instance, one may transition from a manufacturing role, to commercial and sales, and then to consumer healthcare. There may also be opportunities to work in different countries, as well as networking opportunities to interact with different stakeholders in the industry. With increasing digitalisation, professionals can also explore acquiring tech skills, which will supplement their expertise in the medical/pharmaceutical domain.

Singapore is well-placed as a regional hub to take the pharma & biotech industry to the next level, being home to regional headquarters of several global pharmaceutical companies, as well as more than 350 biotechnology startups. The recent development of artificial intelligence and the COVID-19 pandemic has also further accelerated the transformation and growth of the industry. 

Currently, the industry is experiencing two major, interconnected trends: firstly, industry-wide digitalisation, and secondly, the evolution of healthcare itself. With current levels of high-speed internet connectivity, customers (doctors and patients) are gaining more power and choice over the products they choose. As a result, marketing is increasingly shifting towards a “pull” approach focused on creating channels of access for customers to get the information they need in an accurate and convenient way to make their own decisions.

Digitalisation has also paved the way for new modes of healthcare like robotic surgery, AI-driven diagnostics and treatment recommendations, which will enable doctors to provide better treatments to more people in a shorter period of time. Another rising trend is value-based healthcare, which places the emphasis on improving patient outcomes and health. To achieve this, compensation to healthcare providers and suppliers is determined using real-world data on actual treatment outcomes. Nevertheless, while digitalisation is likely to transform the majority of existing jobs, it is unlikely to phase them out entirely, as the human element is still valued in many roles, such as sales.

At the same time, there are also evolving requirements on the legal front, as societies worldwide demand greater protection of data and privacy. This requires pharmaceutical companies to innovate new ways of working within the regulatory framework to provide their products and services. The COVID-19 pandemic has also seen the relaxation of regulations around certain life-saving, urgent treatments, allowing patients to get faster access to the care they need.

To sum it up, the industry is poised for further rapid change in the coming years, and one piece of advice for professionals and students alike is to maintain a highly curious mindset, and learn to connect seemingly distinct solutions together to invent creative solutions. Rather than boxing yourself into specific domains, consider a more broad-based education. Those working in change management can also expect to find greater opportunities in the industry to help companies transition to fast emerging technologies, markets and trends.