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Leading the way in the big Apple, Danish style

Having worked a decade as CSO of Copenhagen based Symphogen, John Haurum decided to cross the Atlantic with the eyes set on New York City.
The sun beats down on the newly finished glass high-rise on the Manhattan waterfront. The view from ImClone’s 14th floor offices, with Brooklyn across the water, and the view towards the Empire State building only partially blocked by the NYU medical center, is impressive to say the least. John Haurum, VP of Research at ImClone, greets us in the Scandinavian dress code – jeans and a well cut jacket.

After 10 years as CSO of Copenhagen based Symphogen, the Danish native came to NYC to head up the Biologics research at ImClone in January 2010. “The offer came at just the right time, and once my family had agreed to the move I did not hesitate to accept,” he smiles. Haurum had been with Symphogen from the beginning as a co-founder, and as the company developed it went from focusing on a platform technology to moving efforts and resources primarily into the clinical development. “My focus is on pre-clinical research, so it was time for a new challenge,” says Haurum.

Structure without stifling creativity

The difficulties and opportunities of leadership is a topic we return to many times during the conversation. Haurum is looking to find the right balance between freedom to innovate and results oriented structure – a classic challenge in drug development. “In my experience, scientists like a clear vision, with well communicated goals for the company, the department and for the research group.”


His best tip is to use the scientists’ own input and insight in setting the goals, so that the whole team feels ownership for them, and feel they can impact the direction. “It is important to have processes and timelines
in place to help move the projects forward and prioritize, while at the same time not stifling the creativity with too much bureaucracy.” As an example, the ImClone research department has a goal of delivering a defined number of new product candidates to the clinical development pipeline every year. So far, the strategy has worked well and the company has an exciting pipeline with many novel targets for the treatment of cancer.

Access to funds, access to leaders

So what is the biggest difference Haurum has experienced when moving from the smaller Danish Biotech Symphogen in Lyngby outside Copenhagen, to the NYC-based, big pharma-owned ImClone?
“Sometimes it is hard to know exactly which differences come from the size and company culture, and which ones come from national cultural differences,” says Haurum. However, one factor clearly attributable to company size is the availability of funds. “Working in a smaller company is really exciting because of the speed at which things happen, and the short distance between staff and management. But being in a larger company has clear advantages as well. We can place all our efforts on building value in the pipeline, and allow the products to be tested carefully. We have the time and money to work through more aspects of the product at an earlier stage. In a smaller company there is always the stress of funding; it becomes necessary to cut some corners in order to achieve results at a pace which will satisfy investors by the next round of financing.”

Diversity fertilizes life science

A widespread interest in working in NYC makes it easier to attract international experts or collaborators, of which ImClone has a plentitude. “Scandinavia as a place is less well known and not really on anybody’s radar. The climate and the tax system (with exception of the visiting researcher tax exemption) may not be so appealing, and the distance becomes a barrier for attracting major research collaborations. The fertilization of life sciences both in academia and in the industry with talent from abroad is insufficient in Denmark. This places more responsibility on the companies to make an effort to actively search for and recruit international staff and market themselves to academic teams around the world.”

How and why Denmark should attract more internationals

So why would a Danish company need to look internationally for their employees? “If there is no diversity, no openness, we just get more of the same. It should be a top priority for the life science industry in Scandinavia to become more international on all levels, from scientific staff to management, and the boards. It gives better access to the international networks, allows recruiting the best people (not just the best of the closest) for a job, but also because diversity fosters creativity and new solutions. To paraphrase famous Danish novelist Carsten Jensen’s ‘We, the Drowned’; if we only look to our neighbors for answers, we will stay peasants with our nose to the plough,” Haurum laughs, but you can tell that he is serious about the need for international recruitment.

However, there needs to be a critical mass of foreign staff in a company for cultural impact and to force the native Danes to adjust. “Danes tend not to be as open and inviting to foreign staff as is necessary for integration. For example, many Danes will not switch to English when speaking in multicultural groups in the company lunch room, unless they are directly addressing a foreigner. For this reason, a clear policy on English as a company language can be necessary. Integration in Denmark does not happen automatically, so companies need to have strategies in place and processes to make it happen. It is up to the management to foster a feeling of openness,” emphasizes Haurum.

In the US in general and the port town NYC in particular, integration of internationally recruited staff comes much more naturally. “At ImClone, people from all over the world have been recruited from the very best universities and companies. It does not feel like a company for Americans, but rather a company for the patients, and anybody who can contribute is welcome. NYC as a city gives off the same feeling. It is very easy to move here for a job,” Haurum says.

What Haurum misses the most from Denmark, and wishes to bring to his new American team, is the Danish flat hierarchy and propensity to express opinions regardless of place in the organization.

Danish leadership

Scandinavians are famous (and sometimes infamous) for our flat hierarchies, and penchant for expressing our opinions and questioning authority. “In Scandinavia, feedback from all levels in the company is not only normal and accepted, but also desired.”

In the US, leadership is more hierarchical: the management decides on a strategy and the staff is not expected to question or provide input to it. “The open culture of Symphogen meant that most staff would come with questions or bring forward any criticism, or join discussions. We don’t get the same degree of feedback here.” Haurum is working on bringing aspects of the Scandinavian model into his research departments by repeating to his staff and the individual teams that he expects everyone to contribute and give their opinions. Though the traditional behavior is deeply ingrained, he feels that the staff is embracing and appreciating it. “They experience the move toward openness as refreshing, and understand where we are going. The best part is that they perceive how they become involved to a greater degree, and this in turn leads to greater commitment, team work and innovation productivity. Engaging discussions where we are not in agreement all the time are the most productive and relevant.”

A vision: The best of both worlds

To conclude, John Haurum adds a vision for his new workplace “If we can take the diversity and cultural multiplicity I find here in NYC and at ImClone, with the high level of scientific research sprung from recruiting the best people we can find from all over the globe, and integrate the Danish flat hierarchy/openness, we will have a world class research environment.” With his drive and experience, I leave the impressive views of the bright glass building and do not doubt he will succeed.