Bridging engineering and biology: An interview with SymphonyTech Biologics CEO Dr. Narendra Chirmule

We are pleased to introduce Dr. Narendra Chirmule, an eminent face in Indian pharma industry. In this interview with Bio Patrika, Dr. Chirmule talks in depth about his journey in Pharma industry, his love for music and entrepreneurship.

Tell us about yourself.

I am an immunologist and a music enthusiast. Professionally I have held senior leadership positions for over 30 years in the pharmaceutical industry at Biocon, Amgen, and Merck in the department of Clinical Immunology overseeing drug development. I am now an entrepreneur and founded a data analytics company, SymphonyTech Biologics, with my engineer-friends, Ravi Khare, and Atul Khandekar. The tag-line for SBX is “finding engineering solutions to biological problems.” My scientific expertise is in the area of immune responses to biologics and vaccines. In Biologics, I have published extensively on immunogenicity prediction and assessment, predictive toxicology, and quality-by-design. My experience spans the development of assays for various viruses and bacteria to supporting the operations of very large clinical trials in vaccines. I am an advisor to the Ebola virus consortium, a reviewer on the HIV vaccine study section for the National Institutes of Health, and recently on the Task-Force for COVID-19.

Musically, I am an amateur percussionist, continue to learn to play the Tabla, as well as perform on various rhythm instruments. More recently, I have been learning to play the classical flute to quench my thirst for melody. My musical journey has been to understand the depth of Hindustani classical music using various kinds of forms.

What was your original career goal, whether as a kid or right out of school?

It was 1977, in fact, 7.7.77. I had just moved from a wonderful school experience of great friends in a protected Railway colony in Lucknow to Mumbai. I had no specific idea of what I wanted to do and be. I liked Chemistry and Biology; Mathematics and Physics, not so much. But that was not because of the subjects, but because of the teachers in school. Drs. Gon and AU Khan influenced the subjects more because of their teaching styles; notwithstanding that my mother showed me “how to study.” I really liked English (Ganguly) but thought that just English would not make a career. Hindi was just another language

[…] my mother showed me “how to study.”

I had to learn, but I got more than my share just being in LKO. I relish it in life for many reasons, including talking to ministers in Delhi, making big policy decisions. Every subject I learned and those that did not, have become important, e.g. statistics, a very uninteresting subject then, has become extremely valuable in my job; economics became fascinating, as I made my own money, and how the environment around me (politics, environment, world culture) influence it, not to mention history and geography.

What was it about a career in healthcare and pharma that appealed to you?

Initially, during my PhD, post-doctoral fellowship and academia, I was flowing through my career and life without considering the big picture. After I joined Pharma, I realized the importance of giving back and contributing to the development of medicines for patients, which could be our family as well as ourselves.

Tell of some situations in which you have had to adjust quickly to changes over which you had no control. What was the impact of the change on you?

Risk planning is now a core concept in the business we have started with my friend Ravi Khare. Anticipating situations requires training, a keen sense of observation, and the ability to adapt. None of which I had in my early years. This attribute requires self-awareness and humility. I cannot recall any specific situation where I had to adjust quickly to change, however many situations where I needed to adapt. e.g., change in management in Amgen and Merck, which has a major impact on the cultures of the organizations. I realized (later) that everyone in the company was trying to adjust to a new normal, and their actions involved “self-preservation”.

A specific incident: I experienced a devastating situation in my friend’s house in Philadelphia in the 1990’s, when I was asked to accompany a classical singer (“because I had told everyone, including myself, that I have learned tabla for many years”). True I had. But when I start accompanying, it was a disaster. You could not even play a simple taal and hold the laya. My friend asks me to come down from the stage, and he continues accompanying the singer. I am deeply affected by this incident. The next day, I started tabla classes. This decision has been a game changing event (despite the classes being quite expensive). My circle of friends expanded exponentially to many folks from different walks of life. I met and interacted with highly accomplished musicians (Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pandit SwapanDa Chaudhuri, Veena-Tai Sahahrabuddhe, Ashwini Bhide, Chaurasia and so many more). My “music” life dramatically changed. I was much more relaxed, which enhanced every experience: work, social, and even personal. This was when I started giving back to the community through “Sangeet” a non-profit organization.

What were the most important, funny, or weird things you have learned over the course of your career?

In no particular order:

  1. Working in Teams.
  2. Being Humble.
  3. Each one of us has something we are struggling with.
  4. Management cannot be taught; it has to be experienced through observation and experimentation.
  5. Mentors are critical for success.
  6. Time management is extremely critical.
  7. Constantly paying attention to improving mental and physical health

Who were your inspirations and mentors, both professionally and personally?

I have mentioned my teachers in school above; they were not necessarily mentors. During my PhD, Rita Mulherkar had an enormous influence on my way of thinking about immunology. Dr. Madhav Deo, my PhD guide, is my role model. I learned much more non-science while doing the science; the art of negotiation with peers and my superiors, the value of networking, making good friends at work that you could trust. Yet, I did not have a true mentor, someone who showed you direction in life, a “sat-guru.” Only until I joined Merck (in 2000) did I realize that I needed someone; the one person who made an impact on me (did things for me selflessly); was David Kaslow. Since then, I have searched for and have many mentors.

I learned much more non-science while doing the science; the art of negotiation with peers and my superiors, the value of networking, making good friends at work that you could trust.

Looking back, are there any career moves or decisions you’ve made for which you’d like a second chance, so to speak?

This question is one I have reflected on many times. I have never relied on astrology. I like to think of future events practically. Not “what if,” backward. Hence, the career and, more importantly, the life I have is the best there is.

What would you do if you didn’t do what you do for a living?

Maybe, Music full time.

What is something your peers don’t know about you?

Hmmm. I flaunt my capabilities endlessly. e.g., I have played the flute in a conference room, in the presence of the Chief Minister of Karnataka; I do drum-circles at work; sing in conference rooms. So, I don’t know what they don’t know, right? It’s for them to find out by reaching out to me.

What’s something unique you keep on or around your workspace?

While working in offices, I used to decorate my space to my liking, kept art, my coin collections, postcards, and books around me because I spent more than 8 hours there. After leaving my corporate job about two years ago, I have got rid of all my possessions. I (think) I am not attached to any physical things that I have.

What were your greatest professional challenges along the way and how did you get past them?

Keeping up-to-date with the literature and knowledge of drug development has always been a challenging task for me. I have now learned many processes to get information. Another challenge was aligning the upper management requirements with junior management needs. In my corporate career, I always felt like the role of Rajesh Khanna in Namak Haram. (I hope that reference makes it clear).

In my corporate career, I always felt like the role of Rajesh Khanna in Namak Haram

Working in leadership roles in the pharma industry is often tiring and leaves you burned out. What would you do to revitalize your energy?

Music and many hobbies have carried me through my life. In this day of high technological advances, work-life balance is not about a 9-5 job and 5-9 “life.” They are intertwined. Time management is very important to deal with the ups and downs of the pharma industry.

What’s one thing about pharma and healthcare you’d change if given a chance?

One thing. Hmmm. The ability to take informed risks to do innovative drug development.

What lessons did you learn from your entrepreneurship journey that you would like to share?

The entrepreneurship journey is a new one for me. I am still learning “on the job.” My friend Ravi Khare who has done this for the past 30 years, teaches and trains me. One lesson that I have learned so far is listening to what the customer wants and then making or giving solutions.

What advice would you give to others looking to get into the industry or move up the ranks?

Hmmm. Tough question. Advice to move up:

  • Be Authentic, Compassionate, and Honest.
  • Do the right thing every single time.
  • Be Courageous.
  • Learn to communicate effectively

Most other attributes, e.g., work hard, be on time, respect others, be knowledgeable about your subject – are baseline, to “stay in the rank.”

Inspiration for the title: Bridging the chasm between Engineering & Biology by Ravi Khare, CSO at SymphonyTech Biologics

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