As much as we realise the science behind medicines, science without business knowledge would not work in the real world !

Sonali Amin, our next pathbreaker, Healthcare Strategy Consultant at Blue Matter, provides strategic recommendations to pharma companies to facilitate corporate decision-making related to business. 

Sonali talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the role of consulting companies in providing a holistic view of the healthcare ecosystem based on their domain expertise, experience and knowledge.

For students, healthcare consulting is a perfect blend of pharmaceutical knowledge along with the business skills, in order to address real challenges in drug discovery, pipeline planning, or commercial execution that ultimately benefit patients !

Sonali, Your background?

I grew up in a normal urban middle-class family in Mumbai where education was the number one priority. As my mother, grandmother and grandfather were all professors, I grew up surrounded by different kinds of books ranging from literary fiction to history to astronomy. From an early age I was exposed to scientific principles since my father is a passionate chemical engineer and I ended up having a soft spot for chemistry and biology. Understanding how the human body works and how we, as humans, have identified ways to make our lives longer and healthier always fascinated me. This eventually helped shape my career choices as I grew up.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy from Bombay College of Pharmacy. Following a two-year stint in the corporate world, I returned to academics in order to complete my Masters in Business Administration (MBA) in Finance from NMIMS Mumbai.  

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Deciding my career choice was not an easy decision by any means. I knew I wanted to be as close to biology as possible. But I also knew that the most obvious career choice of being a doctor was not the right one for me. As they say, I never found my medical calling. Despite a CET score high enough to secure a medical seat in the best government medical college in Mumbai (a dream for medical aspirants), I decided to take the offbeat path of pursuing a career in Pharmaceutical Sciences (BPharm), much to my family’s surprise.

Pharmacists are like the directors in movies – they play a vital role in the health of human beings but are never given as much importance as doctors as they are largely behind-the-sciences. My love for medicines began way back in 12th grade when I was preparing for my CET exam (not knowing what career I would eventually pick, which was terrifying, but in hindsight, it was absolutely normal). I remember reading a chapter on medicines and how the chemical structure of drugs can affect common human conditions like pain, fever, cough etc. This fascinated the scientist in me as it brought my love for chemistry and biology in one place. 

The 4-year BPharm course exposed me to various aspects of pharmaceutical sciences, including drug discovery, how medicines act in humans and how our bodies react to them, how they are manufactured, how plants are the source for a lot of our medicines and what are the processes that a pharma company needs to follow in order to develop a new drug.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After completing my undergraduate program, I was at a crossroads again –  whether to pursue a Masters in Pharmacy, or go abroad for an MS degree or find another option. I chose the road less travelled again. I decided to work for a few years as a Medical Writer at Sciformix to gain some understanding of the corporate world and identify my next steps. My role involved working on Medical Information queries that doctors might have for drugs and providing them with clinical trial data that can help answer their queries. This was a very interesting role where I got first hand exposure to academic papers and scientific articles and helped increase my knowledge immeasurably. It also gave me clarity in terms of my next career step.

Working in an office environment made me realise that I enjoyed working with people rather than being siloed in labs. As much as I loved the science behind medicines, I knew science without business knowledge would not work in the real world. With these thoughts in mind, I prepared for the CAT exam in order to pursue an MBA. After a year’s worth of hard work while maintaining a full-time job, I secured admission at NMIMS Mumbai. This was a completely different world from what I had experienced earlier. I was studying subjects I had never encountered before such as financial management and accounting, marketing strategy and HR. I was terrified that I would be a major failure since I was a fish outside water. But lo and behold, I managed to secure a summer internship with the best financial institution that visited NMIMS on the very first day of campus placement, due to my unconventional academic background in a crowd of engineering and commerce students. I had the privilege of interning with Goldman Sachs in their equity research division covering Indian Pharma stocks. It was a whirlwind two months where I worked on financial models, got exposure to the Indian pharmaceutical industry and engaged with some of the most intellectual people I have ever met. I must have done something right, since Goldman offered me a full-time role after my MBA! For the next 3.5 years, I worked on the European pharmaceutical industry, providing stock recommendations for well-known pharma companies. I had the honour of working with the smartest, kindest and most supportive team members who taught me everything, from the science behind gene therapy, to the shortcuts in excel.

How did you get your first break? 

I consider my role at Sciformix as my first big break. Although I had secured a job during my campus placement, things did not materialise and I was extremely disheartened. I poured my heart out to my favourite professor (who also taught my favourite subject – Biochemistry) and told him how much of a failure I felt. I remember him looking at me calmly and giving me a visiting card of his friend who was looking to hire a fresher at Sciformix. With nothing to lose, I landed up at their office the very next day with no formal appointment scheduled and just my professor’s name as a contact. His friend, who turned out to be the director at Sciformix, gave me an opportunity to interview with one of her teams. And the rest is history.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

My biggest challenge has been making the right decision. We live in a world of plenty and as more and more opportunities come our way, the more confused we get. However, I have now realised that there’s no such thing as the “right decision” and it’s all a matter of perspective. I now motivate myself to believe that every decision I take is the right one and if it doesn’t feel like the right decision, I will figure out a way to make it the right one.

Another challenge that I frequently face is “the imposter syndrome” where I feel like I’m not good enough. However, after talking to peers and managers, I have realised that this is a very common problem and only by discussing our difficulties and challenges can we find a solution to our problems!

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am currently working as a Consultant at Blue Matter. Blue Matter is a US-based boutique life sciences consulting firm which has recently established itself in India. While consulting requires specific skills like presentation, strategic thinking, business acumen, life science consulting is further complicated by the fact that pharma companies have specific needs and requirements related to drug discovery, pipeline planning, commercial execution etc. I believe this role is the perfect blend of my academic knowledge, my pharmaceutical knowledge along with the business skills I picked up at NMIMS.

Blue Matter provides niche life science consulting to small biotechs as well as household name pharma companies (the pandemic has truly made some pharma companies household names). While pharma companies have in-house knowledge about their products, they may have a knowledge gap or resource gap related to the competitive landscape, doctor/patient preferences or the regulatory environment. This is where consulting companies fit in and provide a holistic view of the healthcare ecosystem, relying on previous project experience and internal expertise. Based on a comprehensive analysis of the company’s strategic objectives and internal capabilities as well as a thorough evaluation of the competitive landscape, Blue Matter provides strategic recommendations that can then facilitate corporate decision-making. 

My work involves a lot of reading – be it about diseases, drugs, clinical trials, new technologies, marketing strategies etc. Based on my reading, I create slides that can help answer executive questions which are related to future products, product launch strategies, geographic expansion etc. I also speak to doctors and try to understand their point of view when they treat their patients. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The thing I love most about my job is the real value that I can add to patients based on my research and recommendations. While this may not be in the near future, recommendations that we make may change a pharma company’s future plans and thereby benefit patients. I believe pharma companies provide the real tools that make a doctor’s life easy and pharma consultants are the engineers that help create these tools.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I would say the first time I wrote a report at Goldman Sachs all by myself and my manager approved it without any changes. I had done all the analysis, thought of all the implications and found a way to visualise all the data in an easy to digest format. My manager was extremely happy with my work and sent an appreciative email to his manager acknowledging my contribution. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would say it’s ok to not have things figured out from the get go. Though plans are helpful blueprints, life throws curveballs at every stage. Sometimes the most unexpected things can end up changing your life. So being flexible and adapting to changes can make things a lot easier! 

Future Plans?

I would love to build something in the future that allows patients in India to access innovative drugs that are created by developed countries like the US. At present, innovative drugs in India are launched much later than in the West and are priced exorbitantly. My dream is to identify a way to make this process easier and cost efficient for the average Indian patient. It is a lofty goal but one that is very close to my heart.