A globetrotting ambassador for Novartis

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Paul Herrling personifies the globalisation of pharmaceutical research. Thirty years ago, when he joined Sandoz Pharma as a PhD biologist, the Swiss drug company's research efforts were concentrated in Basel. Today Novartis, the successor company, has its research headquarters in the US and a network of laboratories around the world.

As head of research, Prof Herrling masterminded the consolidation of laboratories - and the expansion across the Atlantic - that followed the 1996 merger of the Swiss competitors Sandoz and Ciba to create Novartis. Now he is building the company's scientific presence in Asia, where its Tsukuba laboratories in Japan focus on arthritis research and a new Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases is operating in Singapore.

"The more time I spend in Asia, the more sure I am that the region is becoming absolutely fundamental for science," he says. "But it is a place where you have to move in slowly and build relationships."

Prof Herrling, now 58, has a languid, old-world charm that would have fitted him well for the Herrling family business of running a grand Swiss hotel in Egypt. Although that possibility was closed off by expulsion of westerners following the Suez invasion, his upbringing has left him with a cosmopolitan intelligence - and a love of travel - that make him a perfect "scientific ambassador" for Novartis.

"In countries that want to build up their research-based industries, such as China, science gives much better access to ministers and senior government officials than going through the company's marketing and commercial departments," says Prof Herrling.

Although the Singapore institute focuses on discovering drugs for neglected diseases of the developing world, starting with Dengue fever and tuberculosis, Prof Herrling says corporate altruism was not the only reason the Novartis board backed the idea. As well as tapping into the scientific talent of south-east Asia, the institute is important for Novartis's reputation in the outside world - and even for morale within the company.

"Until recently the pharmaceutical industry's whole culture was about making as much money as possible for shareholders," says Prof Herrling. But that is changing, he maintains: "The immediate impact for Novartis of this institute is that we are starting to have a constructive dialogue with stakeholders such as Médecins Sans Frontières who previously did not want to talk to us.

"The institute has turned out to be a powerful motivating factor for our in-house scientists," he adds. "Many of my colleagues and their families were suffering from the bad image of the pharmaceutical industry."

Prof Herrling's international experience has given him firm views about the attractions - or otherwise - of doing pharmaceutical research in different countries. It is not just a historical accident that Novartis's European research centres are in Switzerland, Austria and Britain.

"Switzerland and the UK still have an excellent scientific infrastructure, although the extreme attitudes of some animal rights activists in Britain frighten me," he says. "France, Germany and Italy are less attractive: the Germans have taken a series of measures that have virtually destroyed their academic system; in Italy the university system is very politicised; and the French system is very bureaucratic."

While Prof Herrling is a fan of US science, he is concerned about American attitudes to foreign researchers - particularly the stringent new visa requirements. "The US has made the mistake of making brilliant scientists feel unwelcome - and many do not want to go there for political reasons," he says.

At heart, Prof Herrling is a scientist first and manager second. "I have always wanted to stay in research and I refused to do an MBA or spend time in marketing or finance, because I never wanted to go into general management," he says.

He believes passionately that pharma companies need a substantial in-house drug discovery effort - and dismisses as "a joke" the argument put forward by some consultants that they should farm the early stages of research out to biotechnology companies, concentrating instead on their development and marketing operations.

"The only way to understand what is happening in science is to participate yourself," he says. "You can then use your strong in-house research to leverage external collaborations."

Many critics have castigated the pharmaceutical industry for the big decline in the productivity of its science over the past decade, with a decline in the number of drug launches matched by a huge increase in research budgets. But Prof Herrling believes the tide has turned.

"During the 1990s the industry faced two problems - regulatory requirements became much sharper while the explosion in biology and genomics forced us to redesign our entire drug discovery process and culture," he says. "A new generation of drugs is on its way, first in cancer and then in other areas."

As far as Novartis is concerned, those new drugs are as likely to come from Asia as Europe and North America, thanks to Prof Herrling's global initiative.

A TYPICAL DAY IN THE FREQUENT-FLYER LIFE OF PAUL HERRLING

18.00 Land at Singapore Airport on a direct flight from Zurich. Prefer an evening arrival - don’t like to arrive in the morning after a 12-hour flight and then face a whole day of meetings.
19.00 Car to hotel. Rising sense of anticipation. Things are moving fast at the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases and I can’t wait to find out what has happened in the few weeks since I was last in Singapore.
20.00 Dinner in one of the hotel restaurants with senior colleagues from the institute. Some problems with external licensing agreements, but nothing too serious.
22.00 In bed after a quick drink. Always fall asleep quickly on my first night in Singapore and sleep well. My ability to sleep at any time helps me survive these time-zone shifts.

06.30 Get up and take car to the NITD. Receive an excellent cup of coffee on arrival. I always tell the institutes that the quality of the coffee determines their budget. 08.00-17.00 Spend the day talking to scientists and managers. There are a couple of formal management and board meetings - and four or five one-to-one conversations with researchers in the lab. For lunch we test one of the excellent food outlets that have sprung up on the Biopolis campus.
18.00 Back at the hotel for an hour’s rest, before dinner with two or three of the institute’s younger scientists. I like to get to know the newly recruited researchers in this way.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.