Clinical Trials ensure that the medicines we take for any disease, or the treatments/procedures we undergo for our ailments are validated and tested for safety, and solve the intended problems that they were developed for.

Abhinav Balakumar, our next pathbreaker, Global Transformative Design Expert at Novartis, identifies business problems across clinical trials to build solutions that transform the way clinical trials are conducted.

Abhinav talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being driven by the desire to work at the intersection of analytics and life sciences, to bring about a tangible impact on society.

For students, the biggest differentiator in any industry for someone who’s starting out is to have an undying curiosity to learn, because curiosity truly drives your growth and the longer you stay curious the faster you keep growing.

Abhinav,  can you take us through your background?

I was born and raised in Chennai. I studied at P S Senior Secondary School throughout my schooling. I majored in Science with Computer Science as elective. 

I had a very stable and almost monotonous upbringing. I studied in the same school, lived in the same apartment, mingled with the same crowd pretty much all my schooling years. A very bourgeois upbringing if you could call it that. 

My mother works for the Central Government and my father worked for a private financial institution, in sales. 

I was very much inclined towards extracurricular activities, learning classical and Carnatic music and playing the keyboard for over 15 years. I have a Guinness world record and the LIMCA record for keyboard and have performed 50+ concerts, competitions and solo performances. I also played Tennis actively and played at the local club level, but had to give it up after a few years. 

My mother developed a very strong reading habit when I was young and that had one of the biggest influences on who I grew up to be. I read voraciously through school, often getting through multiple books every month. I really wanted to be a novelist and take up English literature for under graduation. I was fairly good with science and mathematics, particularly with logic and problem solving.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After schooling, I got into SASTRA University based on my AIEEE scores . My initial aim was to try and crack JEE, but I lost interest in science during my 11th grade and wanted to do English literature. My parents would not even hear that as an option and so my only option was to take up engineering. I let them choose my major, and I started out with ECE for the first year. During the first year I realised ECE wasn’t for me, and switched to Chemical Engineering. Although I didn’t take up engineering voluntarily and it wasn’t my top interest, I still maintained decent grades, having passed with distinction. I took up electives in biochemistry, bioprocessing and life sciences related topics associated with Chemical Engineering. I preferred life science lab work over traditional chemical engineering topics and plants. 

Towards the end of engineering, I decided not to continue in chemical engineering as my core choice and wanted to move away from traditional chemical engineering jobs. At this point I did not have too many options, and could only focus on analytics and data science jobs that looked for aptitude and problem solving irrespective of the major

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I got my first job with Zifo RnD Solutions through on-Campus placements. I had a few analytics oriented jobs lined up when Zifo came with a similar proposal. Though they were looking for life-science specific graduates, they only tested us in aptitude and soft skills without focusing on core subject skills. This was the second company I sat for, having lined up another data analytics job. I chose Zifo because it was at the intersection of analytics and life science, so I didn’t stray too far from what I studied, while at the same time doing something I was interested in. 

One of the main reasons I chose the Zifo job, even though it was significantly lower in pay compared to my other job, was the way the CEO spoke during the pre-placement sessions and my interaction during the interviews. It was very clear the company was people first and had a strong culture. It was a small but rapidly growing company and I felt this was the right time to start a career. I was very particular about working at a place where the working culture was given importance. This stemmed from experiences I’ve seen my parents go through, being in toxic workplaces and often working only for a paycheck rather than interests. 

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

My first company, Zifo RnD Solutions works as a technology service provider for life sciences, pharmaceutical and biotechnology organizations. They work at the intersection of digital technology and life sciences. They have their own training curriculum that evaluates new joinees and places them in different departments within the company. I was selected for the Statistical Programming team as a Programmer Analyst. 

My first role included standardizing and running analytics on clinical trial data to see if they’ve met their goals. This data was eventually submitted to FDA and other regulatory authorities.

This was a very exciting role because I worked directly with clinical trial data that actually got translated into medicines we see in the market. I worked on over 20 clinical trials as a programmer over the course of 2 years, consistently learning both technical and service delivery skills.

Statistics plays a very important role in clinical trial research. Clinical Trials typically involve a protocol where you list down what you’re researching, how you’re going to do it, what data will be collected from the patient and finally how the data will be analyzed. 

Before beginning a clinical trial, we usually define what goal we expect to meet as the intent of the clinical trial, commonly referred to as the hypothesis. The data we collect is then applied through statistical tests to either validate or disprove the hypothesis we begin with. Apart from this, statistics is also used in many parts of a clinical trial including for patient randomization, design trials, to reduce bias, and conduct robust data analysis. 

Apart from these, there’s a whole world of data standardization and exploration which again involves statistics and programming where we work with data. Most of the statistics used in clinical trials fall under Biostatistics. I had the opportunity to be exposed to this during my undergraduate years, where we had a mathematics paper focused on biostatistics. 

One of the key aspects of working for a service delivery organization is that you get to work in a very dynamic environment and should be able to adapt to changes very quickly and since it’s constantly timeline driven, you also need to be focused and efficient in most of the tasks you perform. I discovered I was naturally good at client management and project management which was mostly about understanding the true needs of the client and communicating the work in the right manner.

Apart from my core job, I also volunteered for CSR and company wide initiatives very actively. This allowed me to build my network within the organization and also establish my skills and competencies across the board. I believe this was one of the key differentiators about my work with Zifo as I got to work directly under so many different leaders within the company on initiatives, and picking up a varied set of skills. 

After 2 years as a programmer analyst, I was given an opportunity to work as a Research Analyst with one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, in a role directly at client location. This was a completely different role, involving a lot of communication and triaging around helping users understand different scientific and clinical applications and navigating the digital landscape within the organization. 

This was a wonderful opportunity for me as I got to work with the largest company’s statistical programming team and was right in the middle of how the industry pushed boundaries around clinical trial data management and analysis. 

When you are curious and willing to explore and learn constantly, large organizations are a gold mine of endless knowledge. 

While working on this project, I also got the opportunity to lead my own team of research analysts, supporting scientific applications for a mid size Pharmaceutical company and got promoted to a Senior Research Analyst. 

This role was more focused on leading a team providing digital application support for clients conducting their own clinical trials. Typical large-scale biopharma companies use anywhere between 100-200 different scientific, clinical, and documentation systems focused on clinical trials. My team was providing support for over 40 applications covering many aspects of clinical trials. It was through these roles I learned about the different products present within the industry and eventually allowed me to move on to a Product Management role. 

This gave me the chance to lead teams and not just projects. This has been a whole different journey with something new to learn every day.

Zifo was a great place to learn and helped me set up my career because most people who join as freshers out of college aren’t too set in their ways of working. So you get to define your culture as you go while keeping sight of what’s right. 

After leading multiple teams delivering Scientific Application Support to different pharmaceutical and Biotech companies, I transitioned to a Product Manager role, working towards setting up the Digital Products team at Zifo. 

This was completely uncharted territory for the company and me as well, so we built things as we went ahead and i got to learn a lot of what it takes to create an entirely new function within an organization. 

Transitioning from a Project and Team Management role to a Product Management role was a natural pivot, but at the same time equally challenging. It’s even more challenging when there’s no template and you’re defining every aspect of the work that an entire department would need. 

I worked on multiple products covering data aggregation, transformation and process automation for laboratory scientific data. This covers a part of the pharma industry commonly referred to as Pre-Clinical research where data within labs at a molecular level eventually make their way to clinical trials. I cannot explain the actual work I did on the product as I am bound by multiple confidentiality clauses, which is again a very common practice within the clinical trials industry as we often work with very sensitive data and proprietary technology.

During my time as the product manager for inhouse solutions at Zifo, I was feeling a bit burned out from taking too many things and wanted to take a break to re-evaluate where my career was heading. So I quit my job at Zifo and took a break of 3 months to take a look at what I had learnt so far and what I would want to do moving forward. 

Once I was clear on the kind of roles I had the skills for and the ones that interested me directly, I shortlisted the kind of companies I wanted to work with and selectively applied for jobs. Though I was able to convert quite a few interviews with some of the top pharmaceutical companies, the offer from Novartis (my current role) was too good to turn down.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break through college On-Campus selection. 

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

The biggest challenge was in getting my first break when I had to choose which companies to focus on. A mistake I saw my friends make was to try and beat the spread by applying to every company and every role they came across. You need to be clear on what roles you want and what companies you want to work for. This helped me focus better on preparing the right way and land roles easily. 

Where do you work now? What problems to you address?

I currently work at Novartis as a Global Transformative Design Expert. My role is to identify business problems across clinical trials and build products and solutions that transform the way clinical trials are conducted by Novartis.

My experience with being comfortable around data, understanding every aspect of the different types of data used and generated by clinical trials is key. That coupled with a strong understanding of how a clinical trial is executed from writing the protocol to finalizing the data and submitting to health authorities helps me bring to the table the hard skills needed across the clinical trial spectrum. These skills allow me to identify problems across Novartis clinical trials and work towards building solutions that transform the way clinical trials are conducted. 

Working with multiple clients and supporting 40+ different applications involving different aspects of the SDLC process and vendor management helps me be comfortable around both functional/business conversations and technical conversations. This aids me to navigate ambiguity, which is very common when you work towards changing the status quo. 

What are the skills needed in your role?

This is not a very common role, and is typically unique to large organizations where you need to work across multiple functions to align and innovate. The work that I do needs a very clear understanding of the different technical and functional sides of clinical trials, in order to identify potential for transformation. You also need to have a very strong understanding of data science, software development, regulatory compliance for digital products and clinical trials. A bit of programming skills come in handy when you need to play with data or answer questions that involve working with data. My role is based on using design thinking as a methodology for solution design, and that’s one of the key skills I bring to the table. These are the “hard” skills. 

You also need to have very good communication skills, empathy, and presentation skills. My role also involves negotiation, working with large teams from a very diverse socio-cultural background, convincing multiple stakeholders who often have conflicting opinions. Finally, you need a lot of perseverance to constantly innovate because it’s just not acceptable to fail fast and fail often when you’re working on products that literally affect human lives through clinical trials. Therefore you often need to get a lot of things at least partially right the first time.

Most of the skills within the life-science industry are acquired on the job, although all data and technical related skills are easily learnable on the internet if you identify which ones to focus on. 

What’s a typical day like and what do you love about your work?

On a typical day, I often have multiple meetings with software developers to discuss how to build the product, identify different types of data to answer specific questions and create new designs for products to be built down the line. 

The best thing about the work that I do is that it literally helps get much needed medicines to people that need them, through a very well defined and safe mechanism and my contributions in whatever small capacity, have tangible effects in the trials that my company conducts. 

How does your work benefit society?

Clinical Trials are in place so that the medicines we take for any disease, or the treatments/procedures we undergo for our ailments are validated and tested for safety and solve the intended problems. The work that I do directly impacts the lives of millions of people. For example, just last year Novartis had medicines / treatments that were accessed by 766 Million people. That’s 10 % of the world’s population! 

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

Oh!, there are so many. Every clinical trial I’ve ever worked on is very close. One of the most memorable trials I’ve worked on was for a Prostate Cancer trial, where the intention of the trial was to extend the survival of people with terminal cancer. The work that we did extended someone’s life by a few months, and I was able to see this live and I still hold on to that memory of how the data translated into this emotion. I hold this close to me whenever I am bogged down by things at work, or feel demotivated. It helps me move forward and trust my choices on picking this industry to work. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

The Clinical Trials industry is mammoth, although not very vocal and visible. It requires a lot of multi-functional skills involving every subject you might think of, from science, technology, finance, planning, logistics, communication, marketing, HR etc. 

I would say the biggest differentiator in any industry for someone who’s starting out is to have an undying curiosity to learn. Curiosity truly drives your growth and the longer you stay curious the faster you keep growing. This has been the single biggest differentiator in my career so far and I’m sure it will help anyone who stays curious

Future Plans?

Right now I’m focused on transforming clinical trials with Novartis. I have short term plans to improve the education around clinical trials in India specifically as it’s not too prevalent in India yet. Somewhere along the line I would love to work more towards bringing more effective medicines to India and transform the clinical trial landscape within the country