Interview with Esteban Pombo-Villar

23 Sep 2011

SCI Members' News talks to Dr Esteban Pombo-Villar, alliance manager at the Novartis Institutes of Biomedical Research

What does your current job involve?
EP: I work in alliance management in the Novartis Institutes of Biomedical Research. In my current role, I have responsibility for supporting the scientific teams in all the business aspects of an alliance or collaboration. This varies from helping to obtain internal approvals and working with joint project teams, to helping teams define what needs to be achieved within the contract framework to meet the scientific goals of the collaboration or alliance.

Did you have an interest in science from an early age?
EP: When I was about eleven, I started developing an interest in science and chemistry. I wanted to get a microscope and to discover medicines to help people.

What has your career progression been like?
EP: In retrospect, I see where I am today as a result of a process of decisions and risk-taking. The first was to decide to study chemistry. The second one was when I realised that riots and closures at the National University in Colombia would inevitably delay my studies, so I decided to move. I came to England to finish my studies at the University of Warwick. There, I learned to admire the way Prof Albert Eschenmoser analysed organic chemistry. I dreamed of going to his lab for a postdoc, as Prof Bernard Golding (my PhD supervisor) had done before. I was delighted when I was accepted! Later, as I was interested in neuroscience, the opportunity of having a research lab and studying neuroscience from the chemistry perspective was also fantastic. It built on my previous interests and development.

After working on some alliances, I thought: 'this is kind of cool. It's interesting: you get to develop new technologies; you come in contact with people in the outside who have different ways of doing things, so you learn a lot. I'd like to do more of this.' So I ended up doing just that. So far, my career progression has been an intellectual adventure.

How has your vision evolved throughout your career?
EP: When I arrived at Sandoz in 1988, it was my dream come true: I had a lab, a couple of technicians to help me, and I could now try to discover a drug. This was where I wanted to be. I was very focused on the science. Throughout the next 15 years, I became more aware of the business context in which the science is enabled; the fact that somebody has to fund the science and how this occurs.

Now, my job involves a series of disciplines that enable the people in the lab to be as productive as possible and as excited by the science as possible, without worrying about the financial, legal or business elements, which would distract them from focusing on how the molecules are acting on the target, and how the disease is going to be cured.

What key things would a young person need to know or do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved thus far?
EP: Managing collaborations is vital, and a clear understanding of the science is useful, because you can make a contribution in terms of asking the right questions. The second part is building a solid understanding of the legal framework, especially as regards contracts. It's essential for an alliance manager to translate the legal wording into specific actions. Similarly, in terms of finance, you must understand information requirements and involve the finance organisation in the alliance, so that they can forecast and plan budgets.

In terms of people skills, project management and project leadership experience are important. The ability to convey your point of view clearly and convince people are important, too. No one in the alliance reports to you directly, so you need to learn to lead by influence, not by authority.

What are the key things that you have learnt?
EP: In my career, as well as my personal life, I've learnt that you have to listen carefully and ensure that your assumptions and your experience (which are colouring the way you interpret reality) are continuously being questioned and checked. If somebody comes to a conclusion that is very different from yours, you need to analyse the facts to find what you are missing, and why someone else is seeing things differently, rather than just assuming that 'this is the way things are'.

Everybody who has the privilege of being married has experience of this sort: there are many things that families do differently and are interpreted in different ways. Marriage counsellors do a little bit of what alliance managers do: they make sure that people can understand each other, even when things seem to be very difficult.

How do you achieve your work/ life balance?
EP: The demands of work can be significant. There's always more to do than you can achieve in a day or even a week. On the one hand, it is important to structure your day and your work, but you also need time for your family and to look after your health. I've taken up climbing recently, and I like running; physical activities help me balance a lot of the sitting in the office and looking through contracts.

It's important for me to have time with my son and go scouting with him. For me, being able to contribute to the community through scouting, and keeping as physically fit as I can means that I then have the energy to come back to work each day and be excited and delighted about it. For a young person, it's very important to work extremely hard, but this has to be sustainable in the long run. There has to be a balance that brings energy back.

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