In Conversation with a Mentor | Interview with Abhigyan Arun

In Conversation with a Mentor (ICM) Episode 2 | S2

In this episode, we talk to Abhigyan Arun, CEO of TNQ Technologies, a publishing technology, and service company headquartered in Chennai, India. Abhi has served as the CEO at TNQ Technologies since October 2016. Abhi’s focus has been on aligning the business, technology, and product strategy of TNQ to the demanding needs of the publishing industry. In this episode, Abhi talks about his career journey, personal and professional growth, journey with TNQ, and vision for TNQ.

Podcast Duration: 27 min 23 sec

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

[00:00] — Intro

You’re listening to IndiaBiospeaks- voices from the life science explorers in India.

[00:06] — Zill-e-Anam

Hello and welcome back to In Conversation with a Mentor’, on the stories of some path-breaking mentors across the life science research community. In this series, we talk to researchers, science managers, administrators, and entrepreneurs based in life sciences, enjoy listening and do send us your feedback at indiabiospeaks@​indiabioscience.​org. In season two of In Conversation with a Mentor’, we are talking with people who have come from a non-life science background and who have made a big impact in the community. Let’s delve into their inspiring and insightful stories. Today we have with us, someone whose organization, TNQ Technologies is very special to us at IndiaBioscience. Apart from being at the forefront of academic publishing services, TNQ has been the partner and supporter of IndiaBioscience outreach grants. We have with us, the CEO of TNQ, Abhigyan Arun. At TNQ, Abhi’s focus has been on aligning the business technology and product strategy of TNQ to the demanding needs of the publishing industry. Hello, Abhi, and welcome to In Conversation with a Mentor’, we are very excited to talk to you. 

[01:25] — Abhigyan Arun

Hello and thank you so much for inviting me to this forum and I’m equally excited to speak with you.

[01:31] — Zill-e-Anam

Abhi, first of all, many congratulations as TNQ has been growing rapidly in geography with the new office in North America and the breadth of activities. Be it customer segments, domains, and technology-based services. Can you walk us through your journey with TNQ beginning from when you joined the company in 2016?

[01:54] — Abhigyan Arun

Sure. I started working with TNQ in April 2016. Mariam Ram is the managing director and she started the business in 1998. TNQ was a family-driven business with very strong roots in STM publishing. It is financially a very stable company and a company with strong ethics that have a very strong value system towards all stakeholders. Now TNQ grew significantly under Mariam’s leadership, but the growth was concentrated on a few customers. TNQ technology capabilities were actually far superior than similar companies, but they needed the right sales and marketing positioning and our brand value was very strong in the publishing world, specifically in the STM publishing world. So Mariam’s brief was threefold built on the strengths of TNQ, whether it was technology or a dedicated focus on STM and strengthen the reputation built over almost two decades of an innovative and technology-driven company.

The second was to create a sales framework for growth in a sustained manner. And the third was to create a more formal and corporate structure that would suit a growing company, such as ours. Six years down the line, I guess, we are very happy and proud of what we have achieved. We have diversified our customer base across the world, and we have expanded on the technology portfolio with more products and services for the publishers, as well as the overall scientific and research community. We are now getting more and more closer to the scientific community through our product AuthorCafe and we hope to not just impact the experience of a PhD scholar but also take that learning to the publishing and pre-press processes and make the overall publishing much better. Of course, there’s a lot more work that is needed. That is because the situation keeps evolving and the goals have to keep pace with the change in both the micro and the macroeconomic conditions around us. I have a great team around me and we will continue to evolve and continue to deliver value to the publishing and research community.

[segue music]

[03:47] — Zill-e-Anam

Let’s shift gears to your career Abhi, which is very unique and unconventional, one wherein you started very early on with NIIT and British airways and then you worked with multiple organizations, like First Choice, BBC, Satyam, Cognizant, and Innodata. What is your philosophy in terms of choosing a career path or a job in life and what made you move from one organization to another?

[04:20] — Abhigyan Arun

I hesitated to be caught up in the hindsight bias and declared that the choices that I made at that time are the reasons why I am doing what I’m doing today and what you are very politely calling unique and unconventional could also have been labeled as haphazard and exploratory If it hadn’t worked out in the manner that it did. But if I have to think about choices that I made and what drove those choices, there are two philosophies, so to speak. The first is when faced with a dilemma about job A versus job B I would try and eliminate salary or compensation from the decision-making process, because I strongly believe that the moment you factor compensation, you become less objective and your ability to think objectively gets diluted. So my decisions were based on the job that suits my strength, jobs that would take me out of my comfort zone, jobs that would allow me to do things that I had not experienced previously, a job that would be meaningful and not just mundane.

And the second philosophy again is I kind of had a rough direction in mind. Because very early stage in my career through interaction with mentors, I learned that my skills are in working with people. So I made a conscious choice to take such roles where I would get to interact with people and I don’t just mean having a team, but you know, having different kinds of stakeholders, like NIIT and First Choice where technical roles, but then BBC was a turning point of my career where I was able to observe stakeholder management on a massive scale and then Satyam and Cognizant allowed me to use these learnings to develop sales and account management skills and Innodata gave me an opportunity to hire, train and manage people and build a business from scratch. So if I reflect on my career, it does seem that all my jobs one after the other and in the correct sequence were designed to prepare me to do what I’m doing at TNQ today. I couldn’t see it then, but I can feel fortunate now. 

I have also been blessed to have very strong mentors throughout my career. I guess I am one of those rare people who have not had a bad boss. All my managers have contributed significantly to my growth. And perhaps that is another thing in hindsight, I never hesitated in seeking guidance and mentorship. Whoever was willing to give me knowledge. I was just grateful and willing to take it.

[segue music]

[06:44] — Zill-e-Anam

That’s wonderfully put, Abhi. Now coming to your education. After gaining extensive experience in information technology, customer services, consulting, and business development, you went back to study management at Henley business school, and IIM Ahmedabad. I’m wondering what made you go back to college? 

[07:04] — Abhigyan Arun

To be honest, my undergraduate education wasn’t the most rewarding and challenging experience. It was also not very useful for what I wanted to do in my career. So I wanted to get a higher degree, but I just wasn’t sure of what that should be. A very good friend of mine was actually at that time, my manager was exploring options for an MBA and he was quite sorted in his thinking and I gained a lot in discussions with him. So I decided to take the plunge that time. And also I believe an MBA is most useful if you can relate the theory to your learning. It’s an application-driven course where the theory has to be relatable to you. I thought that would only happen if I gained some experience of working and understanding of, you know, various aspects of business.

So I started my MBA at Henley around the same time as I was at BBC. And the coincidence worked very well. IIM Ahmedabad was actually a very short strategic course, but the experience was nevertheless, very enriching. You know, if I can find time today, I would go back to college again. I keep having this conversation with both Mariam and my wife. The world is changing so fast that what we learned 10 years ago is already obsolete. The sociopolitical context of today, the expectations of the new generation of workers, the new paradigm of sales and marketing using social media. All of that is very, very new and very different. So it would be great to learn today’s world alongside leaders of today’s and tomorrow’s generation. And I’m perfectly okay with the fact that I might be the only gray-haired uncle in the course, but I would want to go back to college again. 

[08:31] — Zill-e-Anam

Absolutely. Learning really never stops. And also who we are today is a result of these learnings and events. Some of them are planned, but most of them are unplanned and serendipitous. Can you tell us one or two unplanned events in your career journey that enabled you to be the individual you are today?

[08:53] — Abhigyan Arun

This is a very interesting question. Me getting an opportunity to work in the UK was unplanned. It just happened and that too, at a very early stage in my career, the exposure of working with a different culture, the experience of being on the demand as well as supply side of services, business, that had a tremendous influence on my career. I guess I work better with most of my customers because I can relate to them better. TNQ was completely unplanned and serendipitous. I had not even heard of TNQ when I was working at Innodata and I wasn’t actively looking for a job. TNQ and Innodata shared a common customer, a large commercial publisher, and they hosted a supplier event in Chennai in November 2015. I came to that event representing Innodata and in the inaugural ceremony, I heard Mariam speak and I do not know of many people who can speak with such clarity and poise. She was also very vocal about certain issues suppliers were facing, and I was completely amazed that somebody had the courage to speak about those issues publicly and that too, at a customer event. The next day I was in a workshop and at the same table as two other people from TNQ senior leadership team. And what Mariam did the previous evening gave me the strength to also speak up. And the overall workshop became very interesting and very charged. And then I said goodbye to everybody and I left for Delhi and a week later I got a call from Mariam’s office and they asked me to come to Chennai to meet her. I couldn’t say no to her and I was very intrigued by what she had to say. So I met her and two, or three other people, and we spent the entire day talking about completely irrelevant topics. Why was windows 95 a failure, and why didn’t Yahoo sell to Google when they had a chance? And I knew that I was in the company of people who weren’t conventional, they were completely unconventional. Mariam then asked me to come to Chennai and join TNQ. It was a huge decision, new company, a much larger role that I had very little idea about and a new city. So all of it was very intimidating, but I guess my decision was based on a feeling. It just felt right and I didn’t think of anything else. I suppose if I have to draw learning from that, I would say that we took chances and I say we, because none of these decisions were just mine alone. It was my family’s decision. Some chances would work, some won’t, but I guess you won’t know until you take chances. 

[11:20] — Zill-e-Anam

What an insightful story. I was also wondering, having come from a sort of an outsider position with business development, did you find it challenging to make inroads into the life science community? Be it making connections, building trust, or fostering collaborations. And if you did, how did you overcome this? 

[11:41] — Abhigyan Arun

My colleagues at TNQ were fundamental in me being comfortable. Unlike most organizations of our kind, our senior management team has people who come from the research and academic community. So interaction with them was the first step of learning. We were not just talking about copy editing and typesetting, but we were having deep and meaningful dialogue about, let’s say, the efficacy of impact factor. And what could be the right measure in place of impact factor and all of that has had a very positive impact and influence on me at the time I joined TNQ. TNQ’s own portfolio work with prestigious health science and societies, Cell press, Journal of American Medical Association, American Cardiology, Rockefeller University Press, and the likes were quite deep-rooted in general conversation people would have, and in the technology and products that we would create. The editors of journals we work with are kind enough to talk to our team about the purpose of the journal, open access, directions, challenges they face and the value they would like to create for the authors, the value they would like us to deliver. All of that is deeply ingrained in TNQ. 

We were also very fortunate to work with somebody that you guys know well, professor Ron Vale, the HHMI vice president, and the executive director of Janelia Research Campus on a fascinating project called explore biology. You can just search it up and you will see such a precious collection of content from some of the most prestigious life sciences researchers in the whole world. And Ron’s vision is to make this content available perpetually to everyone in the whole world for free. We partnered with him to deliver the technology platform and we are so proud of our association with XBIO. TNQ’s annual distinguished lecture series in life sciences is another forum where I get to interact with exceptional scientists and researchers. And I will tell you that every time I get starstruck around such people, exceptional people. And then I’m humbled when I interact with them and realize that they themselves are so grounded in spite of their accomplishments. The lecture has been a huge source of strength and pride for all of us at TNQ and the lecture has given us a more well-defined identity of a company that cares deeply about life science. And life sciences of all fundamental sciences is perhaps the easiest to appreciate because of its applicability in general.

The thing that I have learned about the life sciences community, both in India and abroad was that people were a lot more open and interactive. They are a lot more visible and we have to be, you know, they have to be a lot more articulate because their communication goes to and can be interpreted or misinterpreted by the masses. You can see the good and the bad examples of that during the pandemic. And I suppose, you know, we relate to when a senior biologist or a virologist talks about the human immune system, then a topnotch astrophysicist talking about how gravitational waves from a cataclysmic crash between two neutron stars and black holes happen. You know, it’s just far more intuitive. So I suppose our focus on health science has just evolved over time. And by virtue of our focus, we did more and more work in this area. I inherited some relationships by virtue of TNQ’s legacy and Mariam’s relationship with those, both the publishing and the research community, and the rest of it developed over time, through the work that we did.

IndiaBioscience is an example of such an organization that is very visible and is making meaningful and valuable contributions to the wider community and I hope that we continue to do great things together. 

[15:09] — Zill-e-Anam

So do we. In these 23 years of your working career, you’ve grown as a person too. How would you like to describe your growth as an individual? And now when you look back, what do you wish your 23 years younger self would’ve known? 

[15:27] — Abhigyan Arun

What I thought I would be at 18 is probably very different from what I am today. It is very different from what I thought I wanted to be 10 years ago. I guess I have evolved multiple times and I’m sure I’ll continue to evolve and continue to grow. This is a very difficult question for me to answer because, you know, I still see enough flaws in me that I’m continuously working on correcting. To be honest, I have what is called imposter syndrome. And it’s a real thing that people should acknowledge and talk about. And I realized later, while speaking with a friend who introduced this concept to me, that I’ve always suffered from imposter syndrome in all my previous works. But it is a challenge if you let it overpower you, but it is a strength if, you know, if that keeps pushing you to evolve and be a better version of yourself. And I think unconsciously, I, you know, I chose the latter approach of it continuing to push me to evolve. But if I were to give an advice to my younger self, I would say two things: as a young person, I was eager to demonstrate my knowledge and skills and tell people that I know. I realized that that is a limitation to learning. You can only talk about what you already know, but you won’t learn anything unless you listen. So I would advise myself to learn more and talk less. The second thing that I would tell my younger self is given the culture and educational background that I grew up in, I was very low on empathy. In fact, that wasn’t a word or a concept that we knew of, or were talking about when I was growing up. So if there is one thing that I have learned recently, that is the power of empathy and how strongly and positively it influences your behavior. So I suppose these would be the two key things that I would advise my younger self that would shape me a lot better. 

[17:09] — Zill-e-Anam

Very very valuable advice, Abhi. I’m sure for all of our listeners as well. 

TNQ aims to help the research community and journals in scientific publishing. What was your motivation behind working with the scientific community? 

[17:26] — Abhigyan Arun

TNQ established itself as an organization with a firm commitment to the scientific community way before I joined. We did start as a business, but the kind of people that Mariam hired soon turned TNQ into a hub of scientific conversation. You know, she tells me of stories of a copy editor who later on became our chief scientist, who would identify flaws in a peer-reviewed article and then demand that we go back to the author, through the publisher, to get the errors corrected. Another person who is still with us and heads our R and D function,

Dr. Shanthi, Krishnamoorthy; she has a Ph.D. in chemistry and she says she joined TNQ because she couldn’t believe there was a job where she would get paid to just read chemistry articles. So it just happened with the kind of people that we hired. And our customers were also very supportive and saw that at TNQ and therefore gave us work and visibility that was unique across all our competitors. And over time, this has become less of a business and more of a passion. And of course, you know, business is still relevant as we do need to ensure profitability and growth. So perhaps a better way to say this is we run our business with a lot of passion. Mariam tells me that science has given TNQ everything it has today and therefore, much of what we do is to give it back to the scientific community. 

[18:43] — Zill-e-Anam

Now, diving a bit deeper, could you shed some more light on the ways TNQ is helping and engaging with the research community to overcome the common hurdles it is facing? 

[18:55] — Abhigyan Arun

I wouldn’t claim to know of all the hurdles that the research community is facing, but one area that we are working on is to improve the PhD thesis and dissertation experience. I earlier spoke about this briefly. See, whilst there is still enough attention on research that is being published, there is very little attention given to PhD scholarship, and that is also a gold mine of information that just gets lost. AuthorCafe is one of our core products that is out there to solve this huge problem and you can just look at what they do at www​.author​cafe​.com. Through AuthurCafe, we hope to get closer to the research community and learn more about their challenges in order to develop technology solutions. But more importantly, provide the Indian PhD and thesis and dissertation community solutions that are being used by researchers in the Western world to hopefully influence their behavior today.

We also realized that one of the problems that people face is a lack of mentorship to identify suitable research topics. This has been highlighted by so many senior recognitions and researchers that I’ve spoken with and we hope to create a forum to directly tackle this, but, you know, we had hoped to create this forum, but then the pandemic hit and decided to take a backseat. We hope to be able to revise this again through Author Café.

[segue music]

[20:18] — Zill-e-Anam

Abhi, you previously talked about employees at TNQ from a science background using their skills and knowledge. Could you tell us more about what kind of roles TNQ employs? 

[20:32] — Abhigyan Arun

We work in the world of science. We are hidden behind the publishers, but our work is very meaningful and relevant to the publishing of research content. In a nutshell, we do everything between the time a manuscript has been accepted by a publisher to the time it gets published. We are in the process of moving our work upstream to peer review support. So the kind of people we hire is varied. We hire a lot of fresh graduates, with degrees in science, primarily, but also in other domains, and then train them to copy edit peer review manuscripts of specific subject areas. We also hire people who have postgraduate degrees who are a bit more, you know, specialized to coach and mentor other copyeditors, as well as copy edit it on behalf of, you know, those highly prestigious societies and university presses. And as we expand on our services for peer review and editorial support and management of journal editors, we need more and more specialized skills of a researcher who has gone through the process and appreciates and empathizes with the publishing process. You know, we keep talking about the kind of people that we hire, and we realize that you know, a background in science and research skills can certainly be used in the pursuit of science. However, there are some of these careers that are equally interesting and add value to the research community on the whole. And these career parts may not be core research, but they’re built around research. 

[21:54] — Zill-e-Anam

What are your thoughts on achieving longevity for TNQ?

[21:58] — Abhigyan Arun

To be relevant, you have to continue to change and innovate. The longevity of a business is built on only these two fundamentals and we relentlessly pursue change and innovation at TNQ. Understanding where the industry is going and keeping pace with it is also crucial. Listening to your customers and the market will keep you grounded and humbled. Listening to people that you work with will continue to strengthen the foundation on which the business is built. The benefit that we get, you know, because of our dedicated focus on STM, is that we can see the industry movement a lot more clearly, and we can react to it a lot more effectively. So I guess if we can balance all of these things in the right mix, we will have the right structures in place for longevity.

[22:45] — Zill-e-Anam

You’ve shared a lot of insights with our listeners, but any parting words of advice for young researchers or entrepreneurs who are willing to start their own companies and organizations, and are looking to create a meaningful impact and work with the life science community?

[23:03] — Abhigyan Arun

I am not an entrepreneur myself, so to speak, but I have seen a few and more recently Mariam in close proximity. So based on my observations and my own experience, I can tell you the following. The first thing that you need to acknowledge is that it is not easy. Building a business and being an entrepreneur is not easy. It is hard work and takes a humongous amount of effort and personal sacrifices. You need to be very passionate about the idea and willing to make the effort necessary to make the business succeed. So talk to other entrepreneurs, not just those who are successful, but also those whose businesses were not as fortunate, and learn from their experience. Don’t just gather your knowledge from books, reach out to real people with real experience, and that will help you match, you know, your business idea to their context. 

The second is you must be absolutely passionate about the work that you are going to do, or the business that you’re going to start because your passion and drive will be the fuel for the rest of the people in your business. Your passion will be visible to the customers when they have to make a decision to work for the young entrepreneur. Creativity and passion is the hallmark of a flourishing business. The third is, I read a long time ago that every business starts with an identified need in the market. The success of a business is based on how big that need is and how big the gap is. So a product can be developed for a gap, but unless the gap is large enough, meaning there are enough people or companies that face the problem, the product does not translate into a meaningful business. That doesn’t mean you should not solve for smaller gaps in the market, but then you need to be aware of and, and be realistic about the size of your market.

The fourth is, you know, as I said, hard work and passion are two basic traits of an entrepreneur. Having the right idea is necessary to start a business, but the understanding of the business, especially things like cash flow, and how much time the customer takes to pay the cost of a business, these are some basic financial acumen that you will need to have to sustain your business because most young businesses fail because of lack of this basic knowledge of finance. Make sure you generate or at least secure funds with long-term visibility. Otherwise, even if you have a great idea or you are close to a breakthrough, you just might run out of juice.

And finally, the ability to adapt and change. Think about it this way, when you know, what you wanted to do 10 years ago is very different from what you want to do today. Businesses are the same. So be ready to adapt based on indicators from both the micro and macroeconomic parameters and my best wishes to all budding entrepreneurs. The impact you guys will create in life sciences will be direct, immediately tangible, very meaningful, and will have the potential to change the quality of lives for individuals and communities. So more power to you guys. 

[segue music]

[25:53] — Zill-e-Anam

Thank you so much Abhi for talking to us and for sharing an insider of you with us, it was great talking to you. You’ve had such an incredible career path, which I’m sure will inspire many in the community who are looking to start something independently, be it a lab or a company, or a project. Once again. Thanks a lot for joining us atIn Conversation with a Mentor’.

[26:16] — Abhigyan Arun

Thank you so much for having me here. it was a pleasure and a privilege to speak with you today.

Thank you.

[26:22] — Zill-e-Anam

Thank you all for listening to us at IndiaBiospeaks In Conversation with a Mentor’. We look forward to receiving your comments and feedback at indiabiospeaks@​indiabioscience.​org. Until then keep listening.

[26:37] — Outro

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