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A new age of health tech leadership

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Andrew Mernin reports on how the pandemic is changing roles at the top of health tech firms, in conversation with executive talent hunter Chris Hamilton of Odgers Berndtson.

The pandemic has ripped through many traditional business models like a twister, lifting up age-old fundamentals and throwing them miles off course.

Working practices have changed dramatically too – with remoteness and video calls so rapidly embedded that they are now part of the furniture.

In health tech, however, other COVID-fuelled changes are afoot, particularly in terms of leadership requirements.

Although perhaps more gradual than the remote working revolution, they may well have a profound impact in shifting the sector’s direction of travel going forward.

“There’s no doubt that, out of necessity, COVID has brought about a tidal wave of transformation in the sector,” says Chris Hamilton, global head of life sciences and a founder of the health tech practice at international recruitment group Odgers Berndtson.

“It has opened eyes and broken down organisational barriers. It has accelerated people’s view of data management and data sharing. Global biopharma companies, including AstraZeneca, Pfizer and so on, have adopted a spirit of collaboration, working with academic partners like Oxford University, and the NHS, on a scale we’ve never seen before.”

Chris Hamilton

Hamilton is well placed to assess the impact of COVID on leadership and approaches in health tech. He oversees global recruitment in the sector within a firm of 1,000+ staff in around 60 offices spanning 30 countries.

He believes COVID’s role as a catalyst for more collaboration crossing international, professional and discipline-based boundaries could lead to irreversible changes.

Among them is a shift in the required skillset of health tech CEOs and other leadership positions in the sector.

“There always has been collaboration in biopharma, for example, with some companies that appear to be competitors working as partners, jointly developing new therapies et cetera. But COVID has brought biopharma closer to the NHS, and its equivalents in other countries, and academic research institutes.”

As a result, the remit of leaders in health tech and related fields could be broadening.

Hamilton says: “When you start to look at the challenges for leaders, therefore, I don’t think things will go back to how they were. The requirement of senior leaders in healthcare is [now] to be able to face into other sectors, all of whom are converging. The need to accelerate and improve healthcare and make it universally available is so strong that actually everyone has to chip in together and play their part.

“In biopharma and medical devices, from now on, wherever you are in the world, you will probably have to engage far more with the government and health system of that country. It was quite stark when the pandemic first hit that infrastructures and protocols weren’t there and it was all hands to the pump.

“It was remarkable how well companies behaved and how selfless a lot of leaders were. Anecdotally, I heard of a lot of organisations whose salesforce had gone very quiet overnight, because it couldn’t go in and sell to doctors. They redeployed it to customer services, working with the NHS to help it solve logistical problems.

“That spirit of really engaging with your government and your health system partners is now a big part of the job in health tech and life sciences leadership roles.”

Alongside changes to existing roles, new leadership positions are emerging out of what are hopefully the last embers of the crisis.

“I’ve certainly heard more talk of the ‘chief wellness officer’ role. This is giving someone senior responsibility for the wellness of their people. This means really being on top of how you promote, enhance and protect the mental and physical wellbeing, the engagement and the happiness of your staff in difficult times. I suspect this has probably sat under HR in the past but I think it’s coming into its own now.”

There may also be a speeding up of the drive for greater social mobility and diversity within businesses, including in the upper reaches of health tech firms.

While inequalities have been laid bare in the economic fallout of COVID, access to well-paid opportunities previously hidden behind geographical and other barriers is opening up via technology.

Hamilton says: “COVID has given people access to digital tools that offer them a lot more options on how they work and how easily they can do certain jobs. If you’ve proven the job can be done just as well remotely, it’s quite hard to then roll back.

“I would hope that this opens up a whole new way of thinking about how roles can be delivered. I think this can really help the whole diversity and social mobility agendas as well.

“On a practical note, it means you don’t always have to hire people to certain locations. Businesses in London have long struggled with the need to hire people, given the challenges of renting, commuting and living there. Do you still, therefore, need to hire these people in London, or can you have them in satellite offices or at home around the world as long as you can maintain team spirit?

“Biopharma is very good at this. The typical biopharma team is scattered all over the world, spanning different countries, languages and cultures. It’ll be interesting to see how many more traditional business models have been disrupted, and will now start to think, ‘my team can be anywhere in the world, I can hire the best people without compromise, because I know we can make their personal situation work’.

“You can also keep people because you’re offering them more lifestyle benefits, as long as they can do the job and you can still promote your organisational culture.”

Odgers Berndtson created its health tech practice eight years ago in response to building momentum in the sector. It stood at the junction between the firm’s global healthcare, life sciences and technology practices – and continues to do so although it is now well established in its own right.

“It made sense for us to bring these practices together. We needed to understand how technology faced into healthcare, whether to improve healthcare planning and delivery or administration of health services. But equally, to deliver patient-facing applications like video consultations.

“The sector has come on so far in the last few years. Now leaders are born into it and may spend their entire careers in this space. Whereas, this wasn’t the case 10 or 15 years ago.”

The structure of Odgers’ life sciences operation reflects the border-busting nature of talent acquisition in the field.

“In life sciences, we’re based in Northern Europe, the Americas, Asia Pacific and some other strategic places. We follow the R&D and commercial global chains. By nature, we have to be structured to look like our clients.

“No matter which organisation you look at in life sciences, they are all global. Even if it’s a small spin-out from a UK university, ultimately, the goal is to discover breakthrough therapies to develop and commercialise them and get them out into markets around the world.

“That might mean the biggest global markets, or the emerging markets in Latin America, Asia Pacific and so on. It is an international sector. You have the absolute global giants like GSK, but you also have the really clever early-stage, specialty biotech companies, and plenty of stuff in the middle.”

Some of the COVID-driven changes impacting on health tech personnel are merely an acceleration of trends that were underway before the virus.

Among them is the growing influence of AI in processes traditionally carried out by armies of white coated professionals.

Hamilton explains: “We’re not far off from seeing early drug development work being done entirely through computer modelling. That’s where the sector is going.

“There’s a huge opportunity for AI and machine learning to touch every single part of the way healthcare works, right the way from the very earliest conception of a therapy through to how well the patient manages their condition and takes that therapy. But also, what kind of results the doctors get back from it. It’s becoming very integrated in a way that it wasn’t several years ago.

“I think you’ll see more of the very serious players doing amazing work in the AI and machine learning space; and it will have a transformational impact on how drugs are developed in terms of cost and speed.”

Also coming to the fore are the concepts of precision medicine and population health, both entwined and exciting growth areas in terms of opportunities for health tech leaders.

“It’s really about understanding your population, and the individuals within it too. For example, why one therapy may work for one person, but not another, and whether that is down to biology, lifestyle or a hereditary issue. Or is it actually down to the formulation of the drug and the dosage?

“Because technology and genomics are behind it, precision medicine is really helping companies target their therapies so that they work for everyone. It’s about ensuring you are not providing a one-size-fits-all health solution – and understanding the makeup of your population.

“By taking treatment down to an individual level through precision medicine, you have a far better chance of being able to give therapy at the right time of day, in the right combination with other factors, so that it works. That is such an interesting space currently.”

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