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R&D jobs in emerging markets - leaders wanted

Published on 29/09/11 at 12:40pm
Peter Mansell
Shanghai, where virtually all of pharma’s biggest players have established research centres in the last 5-10 years

The globalisation of pharmaceutical research and development is creating a wave of job opportunities in emerging markets such as India and China.

Pharma investment began with simple ‘offshoring’, which exploits lower costs in back office functions, but now emerging markets are seen as a vital part of international R&D networks and lucrative markets in their own right.

This has seen some major shifts in R&D investment from Europe and the US and into emerging markets, with full scale drug discovery and early stage development now being done in these regions.

This is not just about spreading the net wider for clinical trials, notes Gregory Lovas, Singapore-based partner with executive search firm CTPartners. Multinationals such as Pfizer, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline are investing billions of dollars in “cradle-to-grave” global R&D centres far outside their traditional comfort zones. 

Staff recruitment in emerging markets is following a similar trajectory as these countries move up the value scale. There is plenty of home-grown talent, hungry for work and success. At the same time, though, global operations demand global skills, procedures and mindsets, which means openings for seasoned and adventurous pharma candidates from Europe and the US.

What is emerging is a hybrid model, with both local and international input, and with a particular draw for ‘returnees’ who can offer the best of both worlds – people who are first or second generation emigrants from, say China or India, who are now looking to return to the region. Educated in the west, these candidates bring western management techniques and organisational skills while remaining sensitive to the cultural differences that must be accommodated in a truly global R&D infrastructure.

More for less

A key driver for shifting investment and resources to emerging markets has been, as Lovas observes, “tremendous” pressure to do more R&D for less.

A relatively early symptom was the rapid growth of patient recruitment for clinical trials in these countries – generally at the expense of established markets with higher costs and slow or low recruitment rates.

In 2002, Lovas points out, some 53% of patients for clinical trials worldwide were enrolled in North America, 14% in Europe and only 6% in Asia. By 2008, North America’s share had dropped to 32% and Europe had a slightly large slice of the pie at 17%. The really marked trend, though, was that Asia had already doubled its share of global patient recruitment to 12 per cent. 

That was only a precursor of the deeper commitment to R&D in emerging markets seen in recent years. R&D in Asia used to be about cheap and easy access to large volumes of patients, observes Ross Horsburgh, vice president and head of clinical development, Asia Pacific at Nycomed.

Commercial drivers

Originally the region was used mainly for rescue trials and there was “not a lot of trust” in the quality of the work, Horsburgh explains. From the turn of the century, though, companies gained confidence and placed increasing emphasis on metrics: rapid recruitment, cost-efficiencies, and the positive attitudes of regulators, site staff and other stakeholders.

There was particular growth in costly phase III trials, which is also where the market-access benefits of trial placement are most evident. As Horsburgh points out, commercial factors are key to gaining senior management support for R&D investment in emerging markets and multinationals can use these countries to “fine-tune” global products.

And the commercial rationale is compelling. IMS Health has predicted that sales in 17 ‘pharmerging’ markets will rise by 15%-17% this year, with China expanding by 25%-27%. That compares with forecast growth of 1-3% during 2011 for the five major European markets and of 3-5% for the US.

As such, R&D operations in Asia are being promoted to being full partners in global drug development, moving beyond the offshoring template that, in Horsburgh says is an expression of a US or Euro-centric mentality.  Global status implies global organisational structures and standards. Asia’s growing role in R&D also opens the door to globalisation of resourcing, ideally with two-way traffic between West and East.

Short supply

Despite the huge numbers of medical and science graduates being produced by universities in China and India, experienced pharmaceutical talent capable of filling higher-level positions along global lines remains in short supply.

As Lovas explains, China and India have top-level scientific institutes and a ready store of bright minds, so filling entry-level positions locally – chemists and laboratory technicians, for example – is not a problem.

Horsburgh agrees. There is little reason for clinical research associates from Europe or the US to move to Asia, given the rich pool of homegrown CRAs and research assistants with the right attitude and language skills. There is more of a gap, and hence opportunities to transfer from Europe or the US, in higher-level positions such as heads of R&D, biology and medicinal chemistry or chief scientific officers, Lovas points out. In his own workload, 50% or more of candidates for these roles are being sourced from outside the Asia Pacific region.

This is partly a function of companies’ own investment policies, Lovas adds. In the past, R&D “dollars were going to Europe and the US”. Many of best home-grown scientists followed suit and went to pursue their education and careers in western markets.

Dr Sham Nikam, vice president and head of global discovery at Nycomed Pharma in Mumbai, India – the company’s only global R&D centre outside Europe – describes the operation as “totally Indian” but with some returnees from both Europe and the US. 

Entry-level technicians and other scientists at Mumbai are sourced entirely from the local talent pool, Nikam says. Further up the value chain, however, laboratory leaders and executive positions are essentially imported, be they Indian nationals with training in Europe or the US, or staff originally from Europe.

Raw talent

India has a lot of ‘raw talent,’ but its expertise lies more in lifecycle management than breakthrough pharmaceutical innovation, Nikam explains. Even local Indian companies have personnel with substantial experience in the US and Europe.

What Nycomed India looks for at senior level is people with experience in a particular field of life sciences, such as chemistry or biology, a solid educational background including a post-doctoral stint in a well-regarded laboratory, and familiarity with problem-solving techniques.

Ideally they should also have Big Pharma experience, with exposure to different aspects of the business, such as marketing and clinical, and to the well-defined processes that characterise that sector of the industry – a key component of running an effective R&D organisation, Nikam stresses.

Vice presidents would need some leadership experience – managing 40-50 people – in the US and Europe as well as a record of project planning, budget management and resource allocation.

Horsburgh also underlines the importance of broad-based leadership skills in Asia, with a real understanding of clinical development and proof that candidates can deliver on their resumé. Senior-level jobs in the region have expanded from managing large-scale clinical trials to earlier clinical work, and with much more emphasis on “true process innovation”.

Where local talent have struggled to adapt to Western-cultured organisations in pharmaceutical R&D, the issue has not been so much lack of scientific nous as leadership and structural skills, Lovas suggests – the ability to communicate effectively across regional and functional lines in a global matrix-style organisation. Professional leadership and management capabilities are in the most demand and the least supply in Asia, he says.

Cultural hurdles

Inevitably there will be cultural hurdles to cross as well. Indian business culture, for example, is hierarchical, with the boss taking on the role of “family elder”, Nikam notes. While that requires sensitivity, Indian businesses also need to operate more efficiently if they are to deliver in an international marketplace.

That means moving away from the “yes-man” tradition towards a more professional, performance-based model. “We are looking for something in between,” Nikam comments. Sometimes, though, the difficulty comes from recruiting home-grown staff in Western Europe who take two to three years to understand the local dynamics – by which time they are often at the end of their tenure.

Another problem with expatriates in Asia is that they may not grasp how much of a “can-do” attitude there is in these markets, Horsburgh points out. It is no longer a nine-to-five job and they are dealing with a “very focused career mindset”, particularly among younger employees.

People coming into the business from middle-management positions and above also need to realise these are “transitional, evolutionary” positions that call for a coaching mentality and curiosity about the local environment as part of a global organisation, Horsburgh stresses. Many of the employees they will be dealing with have come through top universities, and that means managers from outside need to work hard to gain “traction and respect”.

Some of these difficulties derive from a fundamental difference in cultures. An employee used to the individualistic culture in the US, for example, “may sound very rude to a local” in an empathetic country such as India, Nikam points out.

Even returnees may find the transition painful if they have been outside the country for 20-25 years. And “the kids will never move”, Nikam adds. The pace of life is different, as are the lifestyles, mannerisms and professional language.

New appointees find themselves living in an apartment in a country where there is considerable pollution, a still shaky infrastructure and widespread “disorganisation”. “In India,” Nikam warns, “nothing is granted.”

Some environments, such as Singapore, with its compact, western-style infrastructure and broad use of the English language, will be a lot less challenging, Lovas points out. And there are well-established expat communities in India and China, with many highly regarded – albeit expensive – British and American international schools.

Language barriers are liable to complicate acclimatisation in locations such as Mumbai and Delhi or Shanghai and Beijing. In the Chinese market, it is almost mandatory for international appointees on long-term stints to speak Mandarin if they are going to assess and manage a workforce, Lovas believes.

Financial compensations

There will be financial compensations, though, at least at a senior level. If you are looking for a team to monitor clinical studies in Asia, then there are “really bright” prospects available in local medical schools who can be hired at one third the salary of a CRA in, say, Germany, Horsburgh observes.

But if you want a project leader with five years’ experience, it is worth considering a secondee or expat from Western Europe who can be paid close to a global salary. As Lovas points out, Asia has moved very quickly on salary levels, with China showing an average annual increase of around 12% last year.

Top job packages in China are now “more or less on a par” with Europe – and sometimes even higher due to relocation costs, Lovas adds. It is also a “very competitive environment”, with a high level of need and few qualified, willing candidates. Even a former Chinese nationals coming back into the market will expect a “full expat package”, including tax equalisation.

In India too, Nikam says, overall compensation dollar to dollar for higher-level R&D positions is almost the same as in the west. That is a necessity if you are to attract “the person who really wants to make a difference in India”.

But salary structures are very different, encompassing benefits such as drivers or club membership. And staff coming into the country from Europe need to retain healthcare insurance from their country of origin, as the Indian system usually only covers hospitalisation.

Strongest cards

Ultimately, though, it is the returnee community that appears to hold the strongest cards. Many Indians are coming back to the country after 20 or 30 years abroad, Nikam says. These are ambitious people want to be leaders, but may have hit a glass ceiling in middle-management in the US or Europe. 

Another advantage with hiring returnees is that they are a very tight-knit group and network regularly through channels such as the BayHelix organisation or other Chinese biopharmaceutical associations, Lovas points out.

Returnees can also play an important role in helping to motivate and maintain local talent. At the moment there is huge turnover of staff in China and India, but these markets are “trending towards long-term sustainability”.

Too often the top local talent in pharmaceutical R&D have seen the next job above them go to an expatriate who will move on to a position in Europe within three years, Lovas notes. Putting a returnee into a high-level job shows “there is a runway” to grow and progress.

For Nikam, seeing international staff come and go in R&D is a fact of life. Some 90% of people who take jobs in India do not settle there, he observes. But what they bring with them can be invaluable.

“As long as the company can latch onto the talent for three to five years, “he comments, “then you’ll already be far ahead compared with hiring someone locally.”


Virtually all of pharma’s biggest companies have established a research centre in the Shanghai area in the last 5-10 years, transforming it into one the world’s hotspots for pharma R&D.

Roche’s development of its site illustrates the growing confidence in China’s research base; in 2004 Roche set up its Shanghai centre to provide medicinal chemistry services to global teams. Then in 2007 the unit was upgraded to focus on drug discovery and early stage development.

Roche says its Pharmaceutical Development Center China (PDCC) was was the first-ever multi-functional clinical drug development centre set up in the Asia-Pacific Region outside Japan.


The small city state nestled between Malaysia and Indonesia is one of Asia’s economic powerhouses, and pharma is one of the country’s most important industries. Singapore has built on its reputation as a manufacturing base by attracting big pharma to invest in research as well, with many companies collaborating with academics in early phase research, and also recruiting patients for trials in Singapore.

The country is not immune to the cost-cutting seen in the US and Europe, however. In October 2010, Lilly closed its Centre for Drug Discovery, first opened in 2002, and moved research back to its R&D headquarters in the US. Lilly will also now invest more in China.


India’s strong economic growth and abundance of well-trained scientists and lower costs makes it an obvious destination for pharma. Among the companies investing are GSK, which is to develop generics with Dr Reddys and BMS has opened a research centre in Bangalore in partnership with Biocon.  Meanwhile Nycomed has chosen to set up its first R&D centre outside Europe in Mumbai.

But problems with the country’s infrastructure and intellectual property laws continue to curb enthusiasm somewhat.

Meanwhile, a number of India’s own homegrown pharma companies are now crossing over from generics into discovering and developing patent-protected medicines.

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