Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

Changemakers: Misha Engineer

Doctor whose entrepreneurial spirit made her quit medicine to become a pharmaceutical CEO

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It’s a pretty exciting time to be alive and there have never been greater opportunities to enjoy good health. So says Misha Engineer MBA2012 – and she should know.

Engineer has a career that spans medicine and pharmaceuticals, with her current role as company owner and director putting her right at the frontline in medical innovation.

The co-founder of Northumbria Pharma, she sees what’s happening in healthcare and patient care and the business trends and innovations that are reshaping both.

“People are more informed than they have ever been. With the availability of information and knowledge and the rise of healthcare apps, we’re seeing an empowered population that is driving real change in healthcare systems,” she says. “Today’s clinicians are dealing with a cross-section of people who are really informed about their symptoms or who monitor their own health, so there’s an emerging collaborative trend between doctor and patient that is really exciting to see.”

Engineer began her working life as a hospital doctor, following six years of medical training – a career choice due as much to her family’s ambition for her as any deeply held sense of vocation of her own: “I was the typical, diligent student at school; the kind of profile that would prompt teachers and others to say ‘Engineer would make a great medic’. And medicine is, of course, an incredibly meaningful and worthwhile career. So I trained and qualified in my early 20s, curious to see what life would be like as a doctor.”

The value of “having a profession” and the kind of transferable skills that can withstand change or disruption was instilled in Engineer from an early age.

Her parents came to the UK from East Africa with no capital in the 1960s and built their own pharmaceutical businesses from scratch in the 1980s.

She was raised to understand the importance of hard and meaningful work: “My parents instilled that in me; a need to build the skills and the resources to feel safe so that if you need to move or change your life, you have something to offer that no one can take away from you. Medicine as a career was sort of pigeonholed for me: a safe career in which I could grow and do well while doing good.”

But it wasn’t her passion. Her BSc at Imperial College in London gave her the chance to do an intercalated year studying Management. It was a eureka moment for the young doctor: “The business side of things really resonated with me, far more than my medical studies. I knew as an undergraduate that my real future lay in business. With experience at my family business and my upbringing, I sensed that specifically it would be in entrepreneurship.”

In 2010 she was ready to make the transition from doctor to business person, a decision that took her to the MBA programme at London Business School to build her management knowledge and skill set. Switching to business wasn’t easy, though it felt inherently native.

“I was born, I think, with an entrepreneurial spirit. Creating something of my own, building something from scratch – these ideas were what motivated the ransition for me. But at LBS I was encouraged to really challenge what all this meant and to think about what I was prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve my goals. I got the space I needed to think about, not only my strengths and weaknesses, but also about what I could bring to my business and what my business would need from me. I built a lot of resilience.”

The resilience has been key in the intervening years. On graduating from LBS in 2012, she and her husband co-founded their first business, Fontus Health, developing and selling high-quality food supplements and branded generics to the NHS while maintaining their promise not to raise prices, like so many other pharmaceutical companies do. This really resonated with key prescribing leads and was pivotal in solidifying market presence and what Fontus Health stood for.

The success of the business was consolidated after six years of organic growth when they sold out to the remaining co-founder in late 2018. Two years ago, she and her husband started Northumbria Pharma, their current company, focusing on the provision of drug development services.

One core value, she says, underpins her approach to business and her success in a crowded and evolving market: “We have a vision to provide products of the highest quality to doctors and clinicians at a reasonable price. It’s about making quality cost-effective and doing business ethically. It’s about keeping the end customer – the patient – in clear focus.

“Everything in healthcare should be oriented to benefiting patients. That’s something that I embraced and internalised as a doctor when I worked face-to-face with people: you have to prioritise the patient-user experience.”

Patient care, she believes, is set to change in coming years as people become better educated about their health and start to build greater autonomy in monitoring their existing conditions – and taking steps to avoid future illness.

While systems like the NHS are “wonderful,” she says, they operate within an entrenched model that “treats the sick rather than preventing disease.”

“The future of healthcare is in preventive medicine,” she continues. “It’s in collaborating with individuals and populations to foster greater health and prevent illness wherever possible. We need to be looking at better health education, reducing morbidity in patients by promoting good habits and making better, earlier diagnoses.

“And I believe the compass is really moving on this. We’re seeing huge advances in pharma, in things like wearable tech and in the amount of data that we’re gathering about patient outcomes.

“I’m particularly excited by how our industry can harness AI not only to drive discovery through the therapeutic chain, but to help us address the big challenges in healthcare like scale and costs.”

Which is why, says Engineer, it’s an exciting time to be alive and to be well and working in pharma.

So does she have any regrets about spending the first decade of her professional life as a doctor?

“None at all. I gained a lot of experience and perspective training and practising as a doctor and I bring this to bear on my work in pharmaceuticals and in running my business. All the experiences in our lives are somehow interconnected.

“And change is all part of building the resilience and the strength to drive yourself forward, to be insightful, to use the setbacks to build yourself up, to conduct yourself with humility and to continue to be open to new perspectives that challenge our norms [in order to lead] a more balanced and meaningful life.

And that means the journey never really ends: “Success for me is about adapting to our ever-changing world and staying relevant.”

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