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Mantell Associates Network: Q&A with Dr. Ram S. Upadhayaya

​As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier this year, CEO Alessandro Mantell spoke with Dr. Ram S.Upadhyaya.

As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier this year, CEO Alessandro Mantell spoke with Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya. Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya is Chief Executive Officer at LAXAI Life Sciences. Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya is an experienced medicinal chemist with over 18 years of experience in drug design and development, especially in the areas of cell signal transduction protein kinase inhibitors and cancer research. He played leading roles in advancing small molecules from discovery to clinical stage.

Alessandro Mantell: Hello, and thank you all for joining me for Episode 5 of Mantell Associates Network. I am honoured to be joined by Dr. Ram today, who is the CEO of an organisation called LAXAI Life Sciences. LAXAI is a business that has over 1,200 employees across RND and the manufacturing side. The business as a whole is extremely interesting because they not only offer CMO services on the side of chemistry, they also offer preclinical and drug discovery services as well. So with their headquarters and a number of their sites being based in India they are growing at the moment in the EU and in the US as well. Dr Ram is based in Sweden and has had to manage the business through this pandemic, thank you so much for joining us today! I am interested to get straight into it and there are going to be a lot of people who are interested to find out what your life is like at the moment, you have sites all over India and all of your business is basically based out there with BD’s in the EU and US. How have you been managing the organisation, what does your day to day life look like right now, in terms of the company, family, everything like that. 

Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya: Thank you very much Alessandro for inviting me to this discussion. I will be very happy to discuss various challenges that have been caused by the COVID-19 situation. Working remotely is always a bit challenging but as a CEO and leader of the company it is a part of my job. I was always managing the team and travelling around the world discussing things with different clients. I would take on their feedback, take their suggestions and bring this back to the team and then we would work on them together so that has been my job so I think from my side nothing has changed. However you can say we are more digitally oriented for example, the way we are having discussions today, similarly the way are engaging with our clients and I think this is a new era altogether and we all need to cope with it, it is just how things are. 

Alessandro Mantell: New era – 100%, every business has had to adapt and find a new way of working. During this new way of working, how has everything been going in general for Laxai Life Sciences since COVID-19?

Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya: Let me go a little bit through the chronology of COVID-19 in India, as you know the first covid case started trickling in India in February and back then the operation was going on as usual. The alarm bells started ringing in March and Laxai swiftly transitioned into the precautionary and preventive mode. One challenge was maintaining productivity while continuing with the social distancing norms.

Another aspect was dispelling the fear in our employees with important  information. I was deeply involved in this. Social Media in general can send misleading information and confuse people, especially with one liners and different information. Some regulatory bodies and help agencies, are always putting out different information so it is very common to get confused. I was involved with my team and we decided to create a document called ‘The do’s and don’ts’ this had been explained scientifically. The teams started to use them and people started coping with those particular challenges that we faced because of COVID-19. So far, business is as usual for now because the team have adapted with absolutely no problem. We just need to work a little bit more on the supply team management side, trying to find some local solutions, because many things may not have been available, work on the SCMT and find the solution within the country, talk to the different people and get on with the delivery. These kinds of challenges we faced initially have now been sorted out. 

Alessandro Mantell: That was a really interesting point about the fear that comes from the media, you are the first CEO that I have spoken with that has mentioned the impact that the media has. It does leave everybody concerned about coming into work and it can almost be harder to manage, definitely 1,200 people, because it comes down so much to psychology. Not even just psychology but in the business as a whole. What sort of changes have you had to implement in the business, whether it be the people, the way you work, the psychology, the fear factor?

Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya: There can be many different types of fear within this situation, it can be a fear of your productivity, it can be a fear of losing business, it can be a fear of losing the job because of COVID-19. So the first thing is to go into an emergency, the second thing is going into the progression and the third phase is the recovery. As a leader, you always need to focus on how you can recover from those challenges, those two initial – emergency and the progression is just a response to that fear. But people like us in the leadership team, they always need to find a way to communicate with their employees, make them understand, make them confident and be self-reliant. But at the same time, how to behave normal in an abnormal situation. This is what is really important for a leader and that’s what needs to be communicated to the team to take that fear away, by giving them the right information, putting the right practices in place while you are functioning in a situation that can be contagious and infectious. Prevention is the only way to get through this, so we have put in place preventative measures, a thermostat procedure when people enter the building, you need to have sanitiser in place, you need to follow the social distancing rules and you need to have a mask in place. You also need to manage the social distancing in the company as well as vehicles. For example, making sure some seats are empty, increasing the transportation capacity of the company, all those things need to be in place. I think together, this is the first time where the employees and the people have understood that they have the responsibility to keep themselves safe and keep everyone else safe as well. This has all been adopted very well. 

Alessandro Mantell: Incredible, you mentioned fear beforehand and you mentioned it again, how did you go about implementing, just out of curiosity, to such a large group of people, that fearless mentality but to also get them to be careful at the same time. It is a hard thing, because when you think of fearlessness you think of going after it but in a time like COVID-19 you have to be so careful as well. How did you implement that? 

Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya: Communication is key, the main thing is getting information from all different sources, as I said previously, people can get confused. As a leader you have a responsibility to digest all the information and distil it out and give them this information with ‘Do’s and Don’ts’. You need to explain them clearly and what it means, why we are implementing this and making things more disciplined, why we are doing certain things. Then people will understand it better and it will be much easier for them to take on the responsibility and to be more accountable on their own. That is what I think people should do and this is what we did.

We have had a couple of webinars as well, for example, how to have a work and life balance, and how to help your child because, right now, the schools are closed and the children are at home so there is added responsibility to the household and to the parent. We spoke about different things, for example, how to take care of certain areas to make it easier for them, how they could find the right adjustment into those new life changes. We found this information really important so we conducted a couple of seminars and webinars where we educated them so we were able to dispel the fear from the mind of our employees. 

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely amazing and thank you so much for going through that with us and it is great to see businesses that are implementing that. The problem that I had with Mantell Associates was that I would say something that  I would like our business to do going forward during a time like COVID-19, to appear to be in control, to try and manage the situation but then your government could easily come onto the news and say, no you can’t do that and you can’t do that. How have you managed during this time period with, in some ways, having to accept that there is a lot that you are not in control of and how have you dealt with that. 

Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya: As I said, it is not about being controlling, it is more about guiding the employees. Controlling is one way you can achieve something but I feel like if you educate them and tell them exactly what is needed, what the demand is, how we need to survive, how to survive the business, to survive the job. Not only retaining clientele but how to add new business to the company, this was also a challenge. So as a team, once we started to trust each other, trusting me as a leader and me trusting them as my team then it was no longer about controlling, it was all about understanding what needed to be done. I had some suggestions, they had some suggestions, so we then found the best solution to implement in this certain situation. It was more about guiding, communicating, finding the challenges, finding the right remedy, implementing it and going on as usual. Make an abnormal situation very normal and find a way where we can retain our clientele and at the same time, keep adding to the business.  

Alessandro Mantell: Incredible and a large part of your message comes down to vision, guidance, communication, all of those different areas which are key for any leader but at a time like this it can, of course, be harder. All of those things that you mentioned have been about looking after staff and making sure that staff are guided through this period because there is going to be a lot of confusion, uncertainty and concern about jobs. My question to you now is, what else have you guys done aside from the guidance to the staff, what else have you and LAXAI Life Sciences done to assist your staff during this time period, whether that be working remotely, things like that? 

Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya: First we need to provide them with the right information, deciding on certain guidelines and how it is going to be implemented. This is useful, not only for the organisation but also for the employees and them going back home. This is very important, in the workplace you can maintain a few things but when people go home they can’t be adventurous, they cannot indulge in something that is not needed. If they go home, come to the office, then at least we know that they have certain contact points but if they are in public areas then we can’t keep track of it. So if something happened in those two points it is easy to identify and rectify later on. So we told them this and they followed it.

In India as you know, everybody prefers home cooked food so as a company we provided our employees with a free packed lunch everyday during this time, so then there is no pressure around the house to make lunch for the next day and figure out what they could and couldn’t bring, that way they could spend more time with the children who were at home and not in school. We have also put in different drills to make sure that if there was anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 we knew how to behave and how to deal with it. We needed to create a place where people felt like they could make suggestions and voice their opinions if they had any. As a leader we always need to find a way to help them. So the initiatives we have taken, some have come from our employees and that’s how I think we are getting through this time. I think it is going pretty well so far. 

Alessandro Mantell: That is so good to hear that everything is going well and you get 100% what you deserve. In a time period like this from our side, Mantell Associates side, being a headhunting firm you realise the amount of businesses that are going the opposite way so like what you said about the media, the fear, it installs into the minds of businesses that things are going to go downhill, everything is going to get worse. I thought this as well and I had prepared with our team to have a really bad quarter and fortunately it hasn’t been but it was in my mind regardless.
A lot of businesses are trying to lean up their organisation and cut costs and let go of people. To see that you guys are investing in the opposite way without a doubt is going to breed loyalty from people when times get better and the world goes back to normality. Everyone in your business, no doubt, is going to respect the effort that LAXAI has made during this time period. That is amazing, thank you for sharing that. As a business, a large part of your organisation is focused on the CDMO part, how have you dealt with and managed manufacturing demands during COVID-19 in regards to the workforce being there, what have you implemented, how has it been, how have you coped?  

Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya: I am happy to say that we were able to retain the business we had but we have also added a new business to the company. Which is a very good sign especially during COVID-19 where you can’t go and meet the client and not make a business pitch face to face. LAXAI has been around for 5 to 6 years, so we have looked into all of our meetings and the names of the clients that we had met previously, we had met around 5000 clients, however it is not possible to visit all of them now.  We had not received a response from some of our clients in the last year to 6 months so we have started to reach out to them again.Our entire BD team has been getting in touch with those 5000 old clients to see if they have any requirements, if anything has changed on their side and we had some great responses.

When it comes to CDM and CDMO business, generally as you know, no matter which company you are working with, their supply chain is exposed to China and other countries as well. Most people are getting their own materials from those countries so this has given us the facility to think that if we really want to survive in this field, how can we reinvent ourselves, if we need to start looking at new collaborations with local manufacturers, local venders and seeing what they have. It is not always wise to go abroad and find something that is available there, previously we didn’t look for supplies in India because we had got accustomed to something else. For example, looking on the internet and finding a source in Europe and just ordering from there. We had never looked within the country so this process has been changed and most of the chemicals which we were importing, most of the time they were available but if they weren’t people were happy to start manufacturing so this is what we implemented. I think this is a good approach as a leader, as a team and as an organisation to become self-reliant and try to double up something so you will not have that dependency on imports. So we tried to find that solution and reinvent ourselves and that is what we did. Whether it was a drug discovery, a process and development, manufacturing – we implemented this across the business and that is the reason why we are in a very comfortable situation. We enjoy the confidence of our employees and we are even creating new jobs and that is the reason why some of the people from the HR may have gotten in touch with you.

Alessandro Mantell: Great and what I like the most about that, before we get onto the recruitment part, is, how as a business you have used this time. I will give you an example of us as a business, completely different to you guys, we are nowhere near your size but we started to use the time to focus on different areas, such as marketing, processes, what can we tighten up on. More people like yourself in leadership positions in the pharmaceutical state that I am spoken to have done exactly the same thing. To hear what you have implemented is already having a positive effect on the business, meaning that you are now having to hire more people, bringing in more business, targeting more companies that you have not done before, sourcing locally which you hadn’t done before, COVID-19 maybe isn’t all that bad in the end. 

Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya: I think that you are absolutely right because it is an abnormal situation, you need to figure out how to adapt and make it more normal. That is the challenge every body is facing, so keeping your nerves calm but at the same time making use of this imposed opportunity, this is something that no one was looking for. We needed to figure out how we can change this challenge and make it into an opportunity. As I said, at the moment you can’t import anything from a different country, so you need to know what your options are and figure out a solution and if you can do it yourself. If the answer is no, then think of solutions outside of your site, if your neighbour who may also be in manufacturing can do it, do they have the resources, or have the technology to help you? We need to forge those new collaborations and start working together, relying more on the local ecosystem instead of going to outside imports. This is a new kind of facility which will help you adapt and not affect your business. This is a new thing and our employees have started to believe in themselves and they now know they can find a solution to help them. So yes COVID-19 is bad but it is how you can navigate in this bad situation and how you can sail through this troubled time to get to the shore and a happier end, this is what, as a leader, we all need to look at. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing, they say that opportunity is often decided by difficult times and hard work and I guess COVID-19 is the pinnacle of all of that but you mentioned earlier briefly about, hiring and that you are looking to hire more people, of course I don’t want to get into your positions and all that right now but what has your stance been overall in terms of recruitment, have you adapted, to video calls,  in terms of recruitment and how are you looking at everything on that side?

Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya: As you know, everything is 100% digital at the moment, if your company doesn’t adapt to this, you will not progress. We all need to have some kind of digital platform where we can adapt to it quickly and at the same time, try to understand how we can reinvent ourselves. Before, we used to have a team of 10-12 people in India, they were frequently travelling to the US, Europe and Canada however we can’t do this right now. As a company we have decided we needed to hire new talent, maybe local new talent so we did not need to be travelling. So if I wanted to bring someone into the business in London or in the UK, it would be good to have a local BD person over there. If I want to go into the market in Europe, it is always good to hire local people rather than someone who is travelling from the US, travelling from India however this may not be a good strategy if each and every company was doing the same. 

Now that travel is going to be restricted, it might be that only the local BD’s can reach out to your clients and nobody else. So why not look and extend that approach not only in COVID-19 times but also going forward. This is an area where you may not need to spend any money on travelling and only travel when it is necessary. I think expanding the business and integrating into a new market, it is always better to go by a local business development team. That is the reason why we want to recruit those kinds of people, Mantell Associates has a real competence which can really map the requirements of the job, credentials. You can provide the right candidates and the right match that will definitely help us to enhance our business abroad, whether it is with the UK, Europe or the US, this is the direction we are moving in. So go local, hire local and make sure that this strategy will deliver results for the company.           

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing to hear your stance on all of that and it is the stance that I am hearing from a lot of business leaders, of course you prefer to meet the people that you are hiring, of course it makes everything better, if they can physically come to your site so you can meet them. Businesses are saving a lot of money by not having to travel, a lot of the time you could have the candidate in the USA, so you have to go all the way to the US from India to meet some of your team  and then that candidate may decide they don’t want it anymore or you guys decide that person isn’t right then you have to travel all over again. Leaders are now saying, if I am hiring, for example, a salesperson who is going to be working remotely at home anyway, does it really make a difference? I need to see how this person performs in a video call, on a telephone call as opposed to that. It is good to hear your stance, moving with the times as well. Final part that I really wanted to cover with you. I have a rough idea of what direction you are going to go in, you mentioned the guidance part which I absolutely love but what piece of advice would you give to other business leaders right now? 

Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya: When we talk about the CRO and LAXAI. LAXAI is a company that is involved in various business quarticles, it starts from the ideation to commercialisation. There are a lot of facilities, so my experience comes from all of those domains. When it comes to new leaders, I simply say that we are all synthesising solutions so this time we need to synthesize the solution not only a molecule, not only a delivery of something, like a particular programme or project,  this is the right time for us to implement some new strategies, reinvent ourselves, don’t panic. At the same time I think we all need to believe that we will recover hopefully soon from this situation. Another thing, this is the time where people have understood the meaning of togetherness so as a leader we all need to work together with our teams, have confidence in each other, trust each other, build new businesses and at the same time make sure that we are thoughtful to everybody around you. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing, the thoughtfulness part is what stands out, I know you mentioned that the guidance that you had brought into LAXAI has been to not panic, to work together, to be a team but the thoughtfulness is interesting because you forget that most people are at a heightened sense of emotion right now. For a lot of people, even leaders in the industry will be feeling more sensitive so looking out for those around you and your team and having that thoughtfulness, that we are all in this together and we will get out of this together is absolutely amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that piece of advice and thank you so much Ram for coming onto Mantell Associates Network. It has been brilliant and no doubt what you have said in regards to everything, particularly in the areas around guidance, manufacturing and the advice is going to have an effect on people who are listening so thank you so much coming on it has been a pleasure. 

Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya: Thank you, I really appreciate this time with you, thank you so much for inviting me to this conversation and have a great day Alessandro! 

If you missed Dr. Ram S.Upadhayaya original podcast and would like to listen, please click here!

Mantell Associates is a specialist Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences Recruitment organisation founded by CEO Alessandro Mantell in January 2019. If you would like to find out more about how we support finding you the right talent or the right opportunity, reach out to Alessandro on alessandro@mantellassociates.com or give us a call on +44 (0)20 3778 0990.