Dr. Niven R. Narain is Co-Founder, President & CEO of Berg, a Boston-based biopharma driving next generation drug and diagnostic development by combining patient-driven biology and Bayesian AI. He is a pioneer in technology development at the intersection of biology and AI and is inventor of the Interrogative Biology® platform that has unraveled actionable disease insight leading to both de novo and re-purposed development of a deep pipeline of products in oncology, metabolic, rare, and CNS diseases. Dr. Narain is a member of the NASA/Gene Lab Steering Committee, Advisor to DoD leadership on breast and prostate cancer and forged strategic partners with industry, academia, and US and UK governments. He is an industry thought leader in precision medicine, drug development, and AI/ML serving as a frequent speaker at The Economist, Bloomberg, Financial Times, Wired, and Aspen Ideas and many international meetings on medicine and technology. Dr. Narain has been featured on CNN, BBC, CNBC, Fox Business, Fortune, and the Wall Street Journal among others. He was named to the Boston Business Journal top 40 leaders under 40 (2014), EY Entrepreneur of Year finalist (2018) and to the Deep Knowledge Analytics Top 100 AI Pioneers in Drug Discovery and Advanced Healthcare (2019).
As you can imagine, we were utterly delighted when Dr. Narain agreed to speak to us about his life and views on leadership that we should all bottle and keep centre shelf. We are sure you will enjoy and take enormous value from this read, whatever your level, background and aspirations!
Starting out in Science
I was in high school when the internet took off in 1994. I was captivated. I didn’t want to go into science – I was a kid in the 90s and I wanted to go into computers. Sadly, around this time I lost my Grandmother to breast cancer, learning first-hand the awful impact of disease on a patient and her family. Through education and personal experiences, computers and medical sciences rose to prominence, and set me on my career path.
I went on to double major in biochemistry and philosophy. I loved research: most students do a degree that involves research, I did research that happened to lead to a degree! I went on to the Miller School of Medicine and gravitated towards cancer research, all the while keeping an eye on how medicine and tech were, or more importantly were not, converging.
The moment that determined my career path came in my senior year. In the spring of 2000, the first iteration of the fully sequenced human genome was announced, and Jim Watson came and lectured to our class. Sequencing the human genome was seen as a fast track to future cures and knowledge, but I saw it as a lens into our past, how we got here, how genetics drives individuality, and how the environment and genetics interact. By looking back, we could move forward to help people.
There is no island culture of leadership
I would like to think I was hopefully bright, I was lucky to have the opportunities that I have had, and I worked hard, but I owe my success to the people who supported me along the way. I am the product of so many amazing mentors, leaders and giants that helped me get to where I am now.
Dr Robert Kirsner was my professor and mentor at Miller. When I approached him at 4:30pm for his signature on an NIH grant application due in at 5pm he refused, saying “your emergency is not my priority” – a much-needed lesson but not necessarily appreciated at the time! Dr Kirsner also taught me about compassion and patient care. He treated open diabetic ulcers in HIV-positive patients because he understood that the humanity of a touch goes a lot further for a patient than a few comforting words from a doctor. Chas Bountra, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Innovation at Oxford University, taught me the value of being a firm but gentle leader. The gentleness, humility and care with which he conducts business, never getting angry or rising to the anger of others, while maintaining an unforgiving manner of getting things done, is inspiring. Carl Berg, Mitch Gray, Co-founders of BERG and General Elder Granger, DoD, both fantastic business and leadership mentors. Sir Jonathan Symonds, Chairman, GSK; an incredible mentor and, in the most British way, as tough as nails.
It is crucial to have mentors, people don’t become great leaders in isolation. If you look at the similarities between the people I have mentioned here, they are humble people working to do the right thing. You cannot lead with arrogance or selfishness.
EQ vs IQ
Is leadership learned or innate? In a word, both. The chasm lies between a person’s emotional and intellectual intelligence. You can’t teach respect, humility, care, love or compassion, you either have these qualities or you don’t, and you need them to lead well. These skills drive the emotional side of leadership; how you speak, manage situations, embrace failure. The subject matter or career specific necessities required for leadership can be learned, or more accurately sensitised. Your experiences will hone your skills of precision, clarity and communication, and will sharpen your compassion; the environmental impact factor is important.
The innate quality that almost all leaders I have met share is huge ambition. To be valuable, this must be coupled with humility. Luc Montagnier, having just won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, told me, “You are always learning, and you always have so much more to learn and to do”.
You also need to listen. Lots of people get wrapped up in who they are, who they meet, their CV. These are the worst indicators of success, belonging and understanding. Instead, measure yourself by your willingness to listen, accept the truth and to try as hard as you can to achieve a team orientated outcome.
It is easy to lead when things are going well, it is when you lose or fail that things gets difficult. If you are a good leader you will be able to accept your failure and so will your team.
Ask yourself what motivates you
For me, building a team isn’t about qualifications or skill – sure, these things are important, but more important is what motivates a person. Are they someone who is truly motivated and inspired by your mission, who enjoys working with other people, has humility and is selfless?
Ask yourself, are they someone who can have fun? The journey to really making a difference is hard and you need a team that can carry each other through it. Your team will fight, fail, disagree and stall. Innovation isn’t easy, it’s tough, dirty, tense and stressful but this is how we progress, and your team needs to be able to see the big picture. For me, the key to building an amazing, effective team is for everyone, as individuals and as a group, to be motivated by the need to help people.
My motivation has always been patient-centric – to remember who I am serving. Ask yourself what actually is your job? My job isn’t to worry about ROI, the board, or income, my job is to run a business that helps patients, to have the best science to serve a patient, and to give patients and families hope. If you keep your focus on just doing your job, the rest will take care of itself and create lots of value back to investors.
Lessons and learnings
For someone setting out on this path, who has the ambition, motivation and desire to make a difference, my advice would be:
- Don’t set out to be a leader – if this is your motivation, then you are not cut out for leadership. You become a leader by working as hard as you possibly can to achieve your goal, not by trying to be a leader
- Work, work and work harder
- Stay humble and always listen
- Enjoy your failure – you will learn more from this than from any success
- Never ever, ever be afraid to ask lots of questions. Ask people who have done it before, and if there aren’t any, ask someone who has achieved something everyone thought was impossible
Diversity and Equality
The issues of discrimination and sexism are real and pervasive and need to be changed. We need to work from day 0, to make our children curious, ambitious and unafraid of failure. But, for parents working two jobs just to put food on the table, extracurricular activities take a back seat out of necessity. This disparity has been thrown into sharp relief by home schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we need to do more to support these children.
I am surrounded by strong women – my mother, wife and now my daughter – and none of these women, or any woman, should be limited by biases or chauvinism. We still have a long way to go to tackle the bias we see against women in science. We need to change our lens; it’s not that men don’t deserve to be there, it’s that women deserve to be there just as much. We need to open up the dialogue, air our issues, and acknowledge that there is a problem.
When talking about diversity, it is important to also think about other biases, including ethics, class, disability and hierarchical biases.
Do it anyway
To improve diversity in leadership we can’t just ‘fill the quotas’. If people don’t deserve to be there, we will be taking one step forward and two steps backwards. We need standardised selection processes to ensure the right people are selected for positions of leadership, regardless of gender or ethnicity. This is the only way the change will stick.
My advice to anyone struggling against a bias of any kind is to look at history. Look at the people who knew they would never get credit, would be persecuted and might be forgotten, but did it anyway. Rosalind Franklin’s work was central to our understanding of DNA, and even though she knew she would never get recognition she did it anyway.
You need to derive your sense of achievement from yourself, not from the opinions of others. If your happiness depends on what others think, you will never find happiness or success. Don’t listen to the metrics of success as defined by society, law or economics, focus instead on what makes you feel proud and use this as your yardstick.
Be yourself, be honest, and work hard
Leadership is fundamentally about understanding who you are as a human and staying true to that. Be happy with who you are, don’t be afraid of what others may say, stay honest and just work; this is a theme of success across the world throughout history.
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