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Crafting Your Career (CYC) | 14 Informational Interview with Mohammad Atif Alam — Business Development & Project Management

Lakshmi Ganesan

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In this tenth episode of the series of “informational interviews’, IndiaBioscience chats with Mohammad Atif Alam - a senior business development officer and project manager at the centre for molecular and cellular platforms (CCAMP) in Bangalore about the business of science and opportunities in an innovation ecosystem and the startup culture in India.

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Note to listeners: This recording was done during the COVID-19 lockdown over a zoom meeting call. This has resulted in a slightly diminished audio quality with some mild disturbances in the recording, compared to a studio quality recording.


TRANSCRIPT WITH TIMESTAMPS

Lakshmi Ganesan 0:01

You're listening to IndiaBiospeaks, your one stop resource for science news and careers.

Welcome everybody to another episode of crafting your career in science. We are on our 10th episode of the series of information interviews. Here is where we talk to various science professionals about their career path. As young graduates who are looking to explore career options, you may use informational interviews as a tool to approach experts to learn about their work, and survey the ecosystem in order to help you make an informed career choice for yourselves.

Today we are joined by Mohammad Atif Alam. Atif is a senior business development and project manager at CCAMP (Centre for Molecular and Cellular Platforms). Thank you for joining us today in this information, interview chat.

Mohammad Atif Alam 0:58

You're welcome Lakshmi. Thank you for having me in this informational interview podcast.

Lakshmi Ganesan 1:08

Great. Atif, let's begin by hearing about your career journey and with your academic background. You did your bachelors and masters in biochemistry and a PhD in cell and developmental biology from IIT Kanpur. You also briefly worked in Piramal life sciences as a postdoc, and then a research scientist. So, can you briefly describe your career path from that of doing science to that of enabling science.

Mohammad Atif Alam 1:35

So, during my PhD in developmental biology, I understood my strengths and limitations and wanted to work using my strengths. I wanted to switch from discovery science to applicable science, and that is why I was single-pointedly exploring options in the biotech, biopharma and healthcare industries. I luckily got an interview for an industry postdoc through a friend and ended up at Piramal Life Sciences in Mumbai. At first I was hired there to do work similar to that in my PhD lab using the same model system Drosophila, but this time for early stage drug discovery. It was there that my interest to learn new things helped with my lateral movement within the company. This gave me an opportunity to work as a research scientist in the same organisation. While doing my postdoc, I learned some cell culture techniques, tools, about the drug discovery pipeline, and also about the business of science and project management in general. At that point, the company's interest or business interest shifted from this drug discovery to discovery research services and that's when I decided to move and started looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Lakshmi Ganesan 3:12

Atif as a business development and project management professional at CCAMP, what are your main roles and responsibilities?

Mohammad Atif Alam 3:21

So there are two parts to my job. One is the business development part and the other is project management. So, let me brief a little bit about the business development part. This is where my colleagues and I meet new people, have face to face interactions, explore new avenues, where we can work together with the prospective clients. CCAMP has a broad portfolio of technical and analytical services, for example, mass spectrometry, flow cytometry, genomics, imaging, structure related studies, transgenic animal services etc. So we offer these as services to researchers who can use these resources at the core facilities in a pay per use mode. Our goal is to meet academic and industry researchers and identify what they're working on, what support they would need from us and where we can help. This is the business development part where we convert business interests into projects. This also means that this portfolio requires one to apprise themselves of newer technologies in the market. This also requires looking at what are the new services one can add to their portfolio and also knowing where to look for the requisite technical expertise.

Now I come to the next part of my job description and that is project management. This is the part where the projects that we have started are managed. The business development and project management team actually don't do the work in the lab. But our colleagues who are technical experts, they perform the experimentation and provide the outcomes of the research. However, get involved in assessing the feasibility of the project in the beginning, and also evaluating the budgetary implications and monitoring the progress till the completion of the study.

Lakshmi Ganesan 5:37

Atif, one of your roles in exploring a business interest would also be to evaluate the feasibility or the translatability of an idea, right? On what basis do you evaluate this? This role should have a certain business acumen, am I right?

Mohammad Atif Alam 5:52

Again, there are two aspects to when we're offering services from the core facilities at the Bangalore life science cluster (BLISC) which includes the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Institute for stem cell science and regenerative medicine (InStem) and CCAMP, we do not worry about the product or the feasibility of what the client is expecting. What we see is what is the end user or the client's requirement from the services. The researcher gives the idea. We work with the researcher, and also our technical colleagues to assess what is the feasibility in terms of performing those experiments. In pure service mode, the ownership of the intellectual property stays with the inventor or the client. We just perform the requisite services through our portfolio.

In the startup ecosystem where CCAMP manages funds for projects, we need to choose ideas that have a commercially viable path i.e, idea to proof of concept to prototyping to product development. Now, this is where we ask questions like is it feasible? Are there anticipated pitfalls or challenges? These could be technical challenges or tangential challenges. For example, policy related or legal framework or environmental challenges or clearances. Such discussions around ideas are generally multifactorial and iterative and they do require some business acumen.

Lakshmi Ganesan 8:04

Thank you, Atif would you describe to us what a typical day or a week is like for you?

Mohammad Atif Alam 8:10

Generally, it's a mix of activities such as meeting people, most of the times pre-scheduled, but sometimes they happen on the fly. Activities include discussions, correspondences over emails, analyzing and monitoring projects at different stages (remember I mentioned about the project management part of it), as well as responding to and addressing queries that keep happening over the course of a project. Besides this, there is also planning that we have to do in terms of finances for the immediate future and for the long term for our next financial year or next quarter of the financial year. That's also built into a weekly program that we try to plan our day around.

Lakshmi Ganesan 9:04

Okay, so now I would like to know what you like most about this work or is there something that you would n't like as much or would like it to be different?

Mohammad Atif Alam 9:16

Like every job there are activities that one enjoys most and those which are routine, I wouldn't say as much as dislike. So it's a balancing act towards maximizing what one enjoys most. For instance, I really enjoy meeting different people, listening to their work, and most importantly, learning from them. The next best thing is striking partnerships and collaborations, and then starting projects, which all of us would truly like.

The routine part is of course to manage and evaluate projects which are ongoing. This is where the challenging part is when the project's don't go as planned. This can result in time delays for people involved - both colleagues who are working in the lab or the client who's waiting for the results and also sometimes incur additional costs. But these are also the opportunities to strategise, find alternatives, troubleshoot, etc.

Lakshmi Ganesan 10:18

Now Atif about the field in general, what are the trends and opportunities in the field of business development or the business of science?

Mohammad Atif Alam 10:26

I will try to give a perspective of the ecosystem in India. In India, the life science ecosystem when compared to the US or Europe, is very different both in terms of work culture, as well as critical mass. The overall ecosystem here is still smaller than it is in the West. However, the good news is that the ecosystem is growing, nevertheless, and with it, it is bringing its own set of opportunities and challenges.

There is a huge set of untapped resources in India. There are many young professionals with very good ideas. Such talent needs to be nurtured and given opportunities so that we attain the critical mass that I just mentioned. Not only should there be opportunities to succeed, there should also be opportunities to fail. As a culture, we are very competitive, of course, but not very good at taking failures. Any innovation Here comes from a string of failures. As a culture, we need to embrace failures and learn to take them in our stride.

Lakshmi Ganesan 11:36

Thanks Atif I think that's really nicely put and thanks for giving an overview of the Indian innovation ecosystem. So with that, I want to ask you next, if a graduate student wants to prepare for a career in the business of science or business development, what skills tend to be valued, and how can they prepare to enter in this field.

Mohammad Atif Alam 12:02

If one is planning from a scientific training to venture into the aspects of business development or the business of science, first of all, of course, they have to be well ingrained with their scientific training. They need to be able to also understand the overall big picture of the conversation. In any conversation, it could be a presentation in a conference or meeting face to face with another scientist who's either doing basic research or is doing applicable research, one has to really understand the overall objective of the conversation and understand of course, the science part of it.

That doesn't mean one has to be expert in all the scientific fields, but the basic scientific training is a must and that should suffice. It's always an added factor if one is good with numbers, at forecasting and strategising. But what is most important I would say is the soft skills, how one communicates, how one can listen and how one can interface with people. These are the most important factors in my opinion. Communication skills, as I said, are very valuable, both oral and written. Writing to the point, getting across your point of view and making a good first impression are all very important. I cannot emphasise more on the soft skills part of the training, which unfortunately doesn't come through during the regular scientific training we all receive.

Lakshmi Ganesan 13:46

Atif, I completely agree that soft skills are learned through experience and on the job, and there are certain skills that one can acquire during the training as well. Finally, can you leave our listeners with some words of career wisdom from your journey so far?

Mohammad Atif Alam 14:04

An individual has to look for something that is best for them. In case one has not found something that is the right fit for them, I feel it's okay, no need to worry about it too much. Because by being disheartened, you will lose more. It's important to take the lesson from that experience and move forward to our next opportunity or look for another opportunity.

Again, I would say if one has made a mistake, it is okay. It is not bad. One can learn to embrace the failure and also most importantly, learn from the mistake and then move ahead.

An interesting example comes to my mind from casual conversation with a very successful professor in the US. I was a PhD student then and he had visited our lab. Over coffee, he was telling his life story when we asked for it. He said that as a young man who had just freshly graduated, he did a couple of random things. He had a training in science but went to work for a club, and then worked in a farm and did a couple of things, which he did at that time. But it was in his mid 30s, that he enrolled for his PhD. It was in his 40s that he became a professor. Twenty years down the line, he is a leader in his field, he publishes very well in top tier journals. In his own words, he said he was doing things randomly in the beginning, but then he was doing them all well to his capacity, which made him realize what he wants to do and what he is not good at. Therefore, if he can be super successful in his 60s, then what is the harm in trying something new by people who are much younger.

Having resilience and moving on with the lessons from various experiences, including failures, I would say that is the key to success in the long term.

Lakshmi Ganesan 16:22

Thank you, Atif for emphasising how important it is to embrace failures, to drop the experiences and take the lessons from the experience and move forth and become better and better. At any point in our life. we can be successful and when we embrace failures we are successful the very moment we do so. Thank you so much again for allowing a sneak peek into your career journey and sharing the various lessons that you have gained along the way.

Thank you all for listening and keep on the lookout for another episode on crafting your career in science. If you like this episode, do leave us a comment, subscribe and share it with your friends and colleagues. Until next time, bye from us at IndiaBiospeaks.

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