Speaker Interview with Wouter Schul from Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research

A few months ago, EBCG made a big step and launched the 1st US Pharma PPM Toolbox in Jersey CityOne of our exceptional speakers was Wouter Schul, Director of Project Management for Infectious Diseases Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. When I called him for our interview, the first thing I asked was about the beautiful and sunny weather of California. But, as he explained, it is just a myth. “Unfortunately, it’s not always sunny. We have micro climates and, every other mile, the weather changes in an instance”. Right before going to work, Wouter answered my questions about his background, his projects and his session during our event.

From the Netherlands to Singapore and from there to California. What was the most significant moment during this journey around the globe?

My first stop after I left the Netherlands was Singapore. It took me over a year to realize that it is really easy to take your own ideas and values wherever you go and either ignore or judge other places and people. But you have to break through your preconceptions of what is normal and what is not. And then, you can open yourself up to new ideas and different ways of thinking and being. The Asian way is quite different from the Northern European way and all of the sudden, I discovered a whole new universe that I could learn from and become a better person.

From leading a research unit, you started working on Project Management. What made you so interested in portfolio and project management? Why is it so important to you?

Both in my academic and professional years in pharma companies, I have been surrounded by great scientists that devoted their careers to make breakthrough discoveries. The science is top-notch and it should stay that way. But there was an organisational side to all that which is still undiscovered and under-developed. I really wanted to make a bigger contribution. The question was how we can make this scientific process and discovery line up in order to bring us with momentum to where we want to be. Which is of course developing new drugs. Project management fits well to my organized personality and my Germanic nature of having everything just right. My philosophy has always been that if we work together better, we can do a lot more than working on our own. So I realized that my contribution in project management had a bigger impact. The results were twice as big, just by having three people – who were working on their own – cooperate, align and make better plans. And that’s what project management can do. Especially the one I’m trying to develop here, in our organization.

Tell me a little more about your projects.

Project management is more involved in late stages of research (such as phase two or phase three clinical trials) where it brings lots of benefits. But for me, it is kind of old-school. We are currently focusing on pre-clinical projects. “You mean the scientists?” as somebody asked me on your conference. Yes, the scientists. They are not a bunch of crazy people running around their lab. They all are smart people and many principals of project management can help them in their early project research. They are really interested in this opportunity for personal development because, in an academic setting, it was never part of their curriculum. Most of them used to work on their own bench, almost competing with the person next to them, locking up their papers at night and keeping science a secret. Because, the truth is, whoever publishes first, gets more attention. But we are doing the exact opposite. We are helping people understand how to plan things more effectively, make better decisions and work towards a common goal.  On these early stages of research projects, I work with many young people who have new ideas and a lot of creativity. We want to challenge that and channel that into more effective processes, better meetings and better interactions with higher level people and stakeholders.

In what way will the potential attendees benefit from our event?

Project management is not a field where things get published a lot. There are books you can read but they are usually old because it takes a long time for things to end up in a book. So I think that people will have the opportunity to expand their horizons, hear different perspectives and open up to new ways of thinking. It is all about interaction. I learned new things from other people and vice versa. I observed how other companies are working and in what way I can help our organization. On your conference, I heard about things that are happening right now. Did they work or not? Whoever is willing to open up to a wide range of diverse ideas will benefit from your inspiring event.

What are your expectations for our next event?

The preparation for the whole event and the way you approached people was spectacular. I get a lot of invitations to events each year. Somehow, what EBCG sent out, jumped out. It was straight forward and honest. You are doing a great job connecting people. I would expect more case studies for your next event. We are all scientists. We know the basics. What we need is to know more about what went wrong and what went right. Just keep up the good work!