Suite Talk: Chugai Pharmabody Research’s CEO on the biggest talent challenge in the STEM industry

Suite Talk: Chugai Pharmabody Research’s CEO on the biggest talent challenge in the STEM industry

One of the biggest talent challenges the STEM industry is facing now is rapid digitalisation, affirms Dr Tomoyuki Igawa, CEO and Research Head at Chugai Pharmabody Research, as he shares why HR is one of the most important business functions in the company in this interview with Jerene Ang.

You’ve been in the Chugai group for almost 20 years now, what keeps you passionate and driven about continuing to work with this company?

Coming from a science background, I’ve always had a passion for drug discovery research. I used to often wonder about how to create drugs that can help thousands and millions of patients suffering from various diseases in the world. As of today, there are still so many unmet medical needs worldwide. I firmly believe that my work in Chugai is the best way to address some of these unmet medical needs. With Chugai’s proprietary bio-technologies and state-of-the art facilities, I’m being given the opportunity to advance my interest in drug discovery research, an area which I feel is still in its infancy.

Q How did you get to where you are at Chugai Pharmabody Research? What has been your most memorable moment with the organisation?

I joined Chugai Pharmaceutical Co., in Japan, as a scientist in 2001. When I started my career, I hardly knew much about biotechnology, but I was attracted to its possibilities and science. Since joining Chugai, I have been fascinated by a class of drugs called “monoclonal antibodies”. These utilise molecules called antibodies, produced by the immune system, as a drug. Although I knew nothing about antibodies prior to joining Chugai, I became more and more involved in antibody drug discovery.

My most memorable moment in Chugai was when I heard from a patient treated with the antibody drug that I worked to develop. I was glad that the drug transformed the life of the patient and his family. In January 2016, I was assigned to lead the biologic drug discovery function of Chugai Pharmaceutical Co., and then I was assigned as CEO & Research Head of Chugai Pharmabody Research in Singapore from April 2017. Given these positions were extremely inspiring and motivating.

Q You currently hold dual roles at Chugai Pharmabody Research as CEO as well as the Research Head. What would you say are the transferable skills between the two roles?

Though I was holding dual roles before I came to Singapore (I worked as a scientist as well as head of the antibody drug discovery group), holding dual functions as CEO and Research Head provided me with a unique experience. As a CEO, I am responsible for not just the research function but also the administrative function. I need to determine strategy for the entire company and allocate resources to realise the strategy. I’m learning new things which I could not learn if I were only involved on the science side. As Research Head, my responsibilities are mainly to lead the antibody drug discovery research function so that we can solve as many unmet medical needs as possible. Though they are different roles, I am benefitting from this unique experience.

Q How would you describe your leadership style? Having worked in Japan and Singapore, have you had to adapt your style according to the country?

I would describe my leadership style as communicative and I believe in empowering people. Whenever I have time, I try to communicate with not only my direct-reporting managers but also with scientists who are directly driving our drug discovery projects. It is true that I had to adapt my leadership style and to strengthen my communication skills (especially in English) since my Singaporean colleagues prefer to have a more direct communication with the lead manager.

I have come to understand that empowerment is much more effective than micromanagement.

I have come to understand that empowerment is much more effective than micromanagement (which I was doing in Japan). Every day we face some issues or new findings in drug discovery research, and therefore transforming the organisation to be more autonomous, proactive and agile is very important. Since I came to Singapore, I have learnt how important it is to trust employees.

Q As an early-stage drug discovery research centre, what are the pros and cons of being located in Singapore?

The good thing about being located in Singapore is that we have good access to talent who have a high level of scientific knowledge and who come from diverse backgrounds. Discussions and collaborations with the academia is much easier here, than in Japan. Since we are the largest early-stage drug discovery research centre in Singapore with no clear competitor in view, I do hear, at times, that there are not many opportunities in Singapore for employees to make use of what they have learnt in Chugai Pharmabody Research. To further develop the ecosystem of biomedical research in Singapore, I hope more pharmaceutical companies and startups will establish drug discovery lab centres in Singapore.

Q What are the key skills needed in early stage drug discovery? How can organisations equip staff with these skills?

In Chugai Pharmabody Research, we prioritise not only scientific knowledge but also actual experimental skills. Scientific knowledge in the biomedical field is essential, but people don’t usually learn about drug discovery in university, so if the person has good specific expertise (i.e. immunology or oncology) that is fine. As scientists in the pharmaceutical industry, we always have to bear in mind that our science projects are investments that aim to eventually help patients.

To ensure the safety and efficacy of our therapeutic antibodies, pharmaceutical companies need to provide accountable experiment data. For our lab technicians to produce such accountable research data, our researchers must present feasible experiment plans. It is important for our researchers to think about what is and is not ‘feasible’, otherwise the experimental skills of our lab technicians will ultimately fall. This is the reason why we prioritise experimental skills even for our researchers.

To help new researchers develop such experimental skills, we provide OTJ (on-the-job) programmes with periodical mentoring by research managers. In addition, researchers are encouraged to remain up-to-date on most advanced scientific congresses depending on their scientific needs and interests.

Q What is your view of human resources as a business function? How closely do you work with your HR head and on what kind of issues?

Human resources is one of the most important business functions of our company. Without a proper HR function, we cannot recruit or retain key scientific talents. I am working closely with the HR Head on various aspects. I believe there is no end to pursuing an ideal organisation for our employees to passionately work for. By having close communications with our HR Head, I am hoping that we are taking the correct step-by-step approach to reach our future ambitious goal.

Without a proper HR function, we cannot recruit or retain key scientific talents.

Q What would you say is the biggest talent challenge in the STEM industry today? How has this changed over the years and can the industry tackle this challenge?

The biggest talent challenge in the STEM industry today is rapid digitalisation. Informatics, big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are also hot topics in the pharmaceutical industry now, and every pharmaceutical company is facing the challenge of securing digital savvy employees and struggling to fill the gap between significantly increasing demand and the resources we can secure.

Q If not this career, what alternative career path might you have chosen?

If I were not a drug discovery scientist, I still would want to be a scientist who is creating something new. If not a scientist, since I like cooking, I may want to be a chef. Chefs also create something new as in recipes and cooking methods.

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