As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast, CEO Alessandro Mantell spoke with Arnoud Huisman.
Arnoud is a member of several Executive Steering Committees, both for large global pharma and biotech companies in Europe and the USA, and currently holds positions as CEO at CC Diagnostics, and most recently as CSO at Nuvisan Pharma Services. Arnoud Huisman is an experienced executive leader with 25+ years in a wide variety of life sciences areas: CRO, Pharmaceutical, Biotech, Functional Food and Medical Devices. Throughout his career, Arnoud Huisman has fulfilled key leadership roles as (Interim) CEO, CCO and (Senior) Vice President in the account, line, marketing, scientific and operational management for local and global companies.
Alessandro Mantell: Thank you so much for joining me on the Mantell Associates Network, Arnoud. To start off, how have you found working as the CEO of a start-up organisation in the pharmaceutical industry in 2020?
Arnoud Huisman: I’m very happy to talk through this with you – I’m sure we share experiences in that respect! If I focus on my role as CEO at CC Diagnostics, my day-to-day has been rather different over the course of this year. To give a bit of background, CC Diagnostics was founded in 2016 and I joined as CEO in 2017, and the company works on developing a diagnostic kit for cervical cancer and we are striving to make sure that we finalise a prototype that is better than the current available test. In the diagnostic world, this means better specificity and sensitivity.
Of course, our work would ordinarily involve close collaboration with hospitals and labs that assemble kits. However, as you can imagine, since COVID-19 hospitals have been focusing their efforts, understandably, on a way to solve the current crisis. In early March, diagnostics reached a standstill as labs were either closed or fully functional for COVID-19 efforts, so it is safe to say that this year has been quite challenging in that respect! Labs have been slowly reopening and working at around half their regular capacity, which means we can start testing again and getting the last nuts and bolts together to finalise the kits.
Alessandro Mantell: So, following on from that, what’s it been like for you during this period in terms of some of the obstacles you’ve had to face, and how have you overcome them from a leadership/business point of view?
Arnoud Huisman: Well, the first thing obviously has been making sure everybody is safe. The world has been facing a terrible disease so you really need to make sure that your staff are safe. This means making sure you have the technology and machinery ready to enable everybody to work safely from home. You have to take responsibility as a leader, especially in an environment where you work so close with medical labs and hospitals. For example, one of my most important colleagues – my Chief Medical Officer – is a medical doctor who works at the hospital. So from day one we had to decide, ‘ok, we really can’t see each other’. It’s a risk for me and a risk for him, even with the 1.5 metres as the Netherlands standard, so we have really had to reinvent the way we are working.
At the same time, since we haven’t been able to work closely with the labs or with medical doctors during this period, we’ve focused on the many other things that need to be done in a start-up organisation. For one thing, regulations have been changed regarding your quality mark which will be introduced in 2022, which means we needed to build up a complete quality management system – a big task. Usually you would have to outsource this which takes a lot of money. Now all of a sudden I had two or three months to focus on this myself. It’s quite tedious but this period has given me a good amount of time to really look into the new quality management system, and it’s good to see that as a team we achieved this! It would ordinarily be an outsourcing cost or anywhere from thirty to a hundred thousand to build a quality management system, and we used this period to achieve this.
So, it’s really just been about shifting gears and seeing what I can do as an alternative to just working in a lab, and finding ways to give you a little bit of headway from a financial perspective. My advice would be to check in with other business leaders – ask how they’re coping with things and share experiences. Most importantly, keep in mind where you want to go as a business. I have seen so many companies starting with strategy A and shifting completely to strategy B because all of a sudden COVID-19 is the ‘hot topic’, that’s where the money is at the moment so ‘let’s try and grab a piece of the action’. It doesn’t work like that! You have to stay on your own course, make sure that you know where you’re going and make sure you pick your alternative strategies and prioritise things you can do now. Focus on the things that may have been in your plan for a year, or even 2 years down the line and pick them up now.
Alessandro Mantell: I think you’re absolutely right about finding other ways in your business to improve productivity and improve the business as a whole, and that’s something we’ve been trying to do here at Mantell Associates. A lot of leaders are in the same position as you are, and it’s amazing to hear that you’ve taken that stance and used this time productively in order to come back stronger and more resilient. What have you been doing in terms of business strategy and plans for your organisations during this period?
Arnoud Huisman: As mentioned before, I am involved in a couple of other start-ups besides CC Diagnostics. One start-up organisation I’m particularly engaged with works in antithrombotic. We were very well positioned to get financed in 2020 but there’s a lot of anti-capital and now we are waiting for a little bit to see what happens in terms of finances. Things have been put on hold slightly but that’s perfectly fine – if I was a venture capitalist I would have done exactly the same and waited for a few months to see how everything pans out.
Considering the financial course of 2020, it is an opportunity to look at different ways to become financially backed and look outside only venture capitals. Be ready for the last part of 2020! Because at the end of the day, the money is still there and venture capitalists still want to invest, and I’m sure that by the end of 2020 there’s going to be a lot of VC investments so you need to be ready to pitch your business in a different way than before.
In the past everything has always been done face-to-face – you would move into a boardroom, have a meeting with 10 or 20 important people and that’s how things would happen. But it’s going to take a while for things to be back to this normality, so you need to start preparing yourself to make an impact through video and virtual conferencing. Times have changed and video has become the new way of communicating and the primary medium to make an impact, carry out training, run board meetings etcetera.
Alessandro Mantell: I couldn’t agree more, the world is having to learn to adapt to different methods of communication via Zoom or other forms of video. Certain businesses that Mantell Associates are currently partnered with are opting to use Zoom as opposed to phone calls – it has undoubtedly had a huge impact on the world as a whole. Something else I’m interested to pick your brain about, something that’s affected me. When you run an organisation – doesn’t matter whether it’s five thousand people or two people – if you run a business, the aim is to try and be as in control of certain areas of that business as possible. And try and keep your eye on everything inside that company. During a time like this, no one could honestly say they have complete control of their company because it’s something which is out of our control. How have you adapted or coped with having to accept that you maybe can’t be as in control as you were before COVID-19?
Arnoud Huisman: I think that’s a very interesting comment. As a CEO you do try to be in control and will have certain methods and channels of communication where you get all the information to make your decisions. But at the same time, like you were saying yourself, with COVID-19 there is no control right? We don’t know what’s going to happen – as a captain of a big shop you know you can make a change of course, but it will go slowly and then all of a sudden you go into this fog and you don’t know where to go. At the moment we can only really predict two or three weeks into the future, so managing this time frame is very different compared to a window of two or three months, or two or three years.
So I think what’s going to become more important, or has already become more important, is being flexible. And you manage by making changes – little changes, sometimes even big changes – and you learn with the times. So being in control at the moment is still important, but flexibility is becoming more important.
What’s vital in this process, which I’m sure you’ll agree on from the perspective of Mantell Associates, is having the right people around you. What I was seeing in the first two or three weeks post-lockdown was people responding differently to the situation. You see some people who are laying back and saying they can’t do anything about it, and then you have some people who react positively to change and are coming up with innovative ideas – ‘if this is happening, why don’t we do ABC…’ These are the people who had ideas before COVID-19 but couldn’t implement them, and now they see this is the right time. I’m very sure that all leaders are seeing this happening within their organisation – there are people who stand up and make change, and these are the people you need to have with you and who will help you set the course in this new world.
A fantastic example – I have two kids, 15 and 13, and they’re at different high schools. One of these schools is quite traditional, the other one is a little bit more advanced when it comes to the new school system – with video classes, online testing and exams. The school had this system set up in two or three weeks, but it was like they were already planning for this situation – they must have had some sort of plan in the back of their mind or a couple of people who said ‘let’s prepare for this’. The other school is much more traditional – they still haven’t figured it out yet, and if you look at the communication they have it’s completely different. The newer school is clearly saying ‘okay you know, under the pressure everything becomes more fluid and let’s use that energy to make something new’ whereas the older school is still struggling.
To sum up, the new way of taking control is listening to the people around you, listening to those who stand up and perform better in a climate of change – those are the people who will help you as a leader to effectively adjust your strategy, or maybe even make those big changes that you always wanted to.
Alessandro Mantell: I remember when this all first happened, I was genuinely a bit frantic about the whole situation – what’s going on, what’s going to happen. We were due to be moving into our brand new offices in central London and rent had gone up, as a small business it was a scary time. And I remember looking round at other businesses, some newer than Mantell Associates, and thinking ‘how is everyone so relaxed about this?’ And I think that over time, as you’re saying, it’s those businesses who accepted that it was the time to innovate who are surviving – there is no other option. We’re all realising things will eventually get back to normality, but it’s looking like it’s going to be a long time so it’s time to change and innovate. Speaking of change, how do you expect the market as a whole to change in terms of business development? What are the key topics that leaders need to be practical on during a time like this?
Arnoud Huisman: That’s definitely something everyone is thinking at the minute – when are things going to go back to normal so I can start doing the things I used to do? I think that if we’ve learned anything from COVID-19, it’s that the life sciences industry is critical. So, our industry is going to be good for the next ten, twenty, thirty years. 2020 has clearly shown that we need to collaborate, continue to innovate, and not just think about our shareholder value but about the community shareholder value.
We’re now at a point where people can be reasonably confident of returning to work in some sort of way soon (those who aren’t already back working), so this is also the time that I think people will start becoming more engaged in different activities and ways of working including less travel, less face-to-face work, and much more video conferencing. In the pharma world and considering clinical trials – the area of work that I come from – you would ordinarily have these huge meetings. But I believe face-to-face meetings are going to go down 90%, so you need to ensure you pitch and your message is going to be just as impactful. You now only have one or two opportunities to sell yourself, your business and prove how you differentiate through video conferencing – it sounds obvious, but to do it right is something else.
Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely. And it’s something we’re coming to grips with ourselves and speaking with clients and people on the market, everyone’s having to tackle that. Everything is being done remotely and I agree with what you said about the 90% – after this period things aren’t likely to be predominantly done face-to-face as they were before. Quite frankly, companies could think ‘we’ve been spending all this money on going abroad to conferences and face-to-face with clients – which of course in some areas is advantageous, but is it necessary?’ The final thing I wanted to cover with you was – what piece of advice would you give to other business leaders right now?
Arnoud Huisman: You know, it sounds strange but there’s this saying ‘never waste a good crisis’! This is not a good crisis, that’s clear, but at the same time I think you can use this time to your advantage as a business. It’s a good time to think about where you want to go, to realign your strategy and consider whether your old ways of working still work in this redefined world.
And this is not only for start-ups, but also for established businesses. You know, those businesses who have been around for years – I’ve seen so many examples where I’ve been asked to look into a company and see how commercial performance can be improved. I walk into a company and the first thing I do is spend two or three days, or for a bigger company maybe 2 or 3 weeks, simply talking to middle management and people reporting into middle management. Not the CEO, but levels below. I ask them ‘okay, what do you think? What’s gone well? What can be improved?’ That’s when you get the feedback concerning what needs to be adapted.
I’ve seen many many examples where management two years before I walked in completely reset the vision and mission in their business strategy, and they were 100% convinced that everybody in the company knew these. And yet when I ask them, I usually get two answers. First – ‘what mission or vision, I didn’t even know there was one?’ Second – a completely different mission from five or ten years previous.
So, my advice for leaders would be – use this time to set up video conferences, maybe even with small teams of two or three people, and ask them their opinions. USe the best people that you have, those who are usually the ones who react positively to change. People want to be heard. People want to feel engaged. People want to be empowered at some point in time and this, I think, is the perfect time to do that. Don’t talk – listen to your employees, understand what they are saying and use their input to your advantage to realign your strategy moving forward.
Alessandro Mantell:T hank you so much, that’s absolutely brilliant advice and something that I’m definitely going to take on board myself. Investing in people and doing it now – it’s really the best time to be doing things like setting up training sessions, working on people’s development and learning, implementing new business strategies. Inside all of this doom and gloom, speaking with somebody like yourself whose business has essentially been on hold yet you still have such a positive outlook on the situation, and an attitude where you can improve your business, is amazing.
Thank you Arnoud!
If you missed Arnoud Huisman’s original podcast and would like to listen, please click here!