A Q&A with CBS Alumnus Robert Ang '05
Healthcare Industry Association (HCIA) VP, Kavan Reddy '19, shares details of his discussion with Robert Ang '05, Chief Business Officer, Neon Therapeutics, which includes advice to MBA students, insights on his current role, and how healthcare at CBS has shaped his career.
How did you become interested in Healthcare?
My decision to enter healthcare was made very early. In Australia, you can enter medical school right after high school — I was 17 with very little life experience. I had done some informal internships with family friends who were clinicians. Science always fascinated me. It was a naive decision, but I entered medical school knowing science was very diverse. If I didn’t know what I wanted to do immediately, I knew I could figure it out during med school.
During medical school I really loved patient interaction — helping people during their dire times of need. But, I also wanted to understand if I could contribute to healthcare more broadly than on a patient-by-patient basis. Following med school during my general surgery residency, I started asking these questions. The time was during the dot com boom when people were doing a lot of crazy things. Trying to identify opportunities beyond being a clinician, I looked to a mentor who suggested I find a marriage between healthcare and business. I believe in the exploration between ability and affinity. I had the ability to interact with people and think more broadly about problems. I may have had an affinity towards business, though I never really tested this before I left; fortunately, it worked out.
What do you enjoy most about your current career/position?
I absolutely love what I do. My role today is fairly broad. It covers business development, strategy, commercialization, and legal functions. It allows me to have a broad view of the industry and the trends within our therapeutic space, but also the strategic direction of the company within that space and how we can navigate to stay ahead of competition.
My role also allows me to interact with a lot of senior executives of our partners to understand what they’re looking for and where they’re anticipating the industry will go. I feel like I have broad influence and handle many strategic elements without the full weight of the CEO responsibility.
Are you interested in being a CEO?
In biotech, experience matters a lot. The expertise needed as a CEO spans regulatory, research & development, commercialization, and strategy. One also must possess all the softer skills of managing people and being an inspirational leader — elements that take a long time to assemble. Definitely not in a hurry.
What's the office culture like at Neon? How do you shape it?
The strength and depth of culture at Neon is like nothing I have experienced before. This is my fourth start-up. I don’t know how to replicate this — I wish I could bottle it. One thing we did was establish our core values very early when we were at 20 people. We conducted an exercise that included the entire company. We identified core values that not only we somewhat lived up to, but that we also thought would be aspirational. We hired very closely to these core values and have been quite deliberate about emphasizing them as the company has grown. It’s vital that all the management team lives to these core values and visibly demonstrates these day-to-day in a consistent manner. This is not something that one executive can drive. I’m part of a team and this needs to be a team effort.
In what ways has your Columbia experience impacted your career and who you are today?
Columbia was an important milestone. I already had a medical degree and consulting experience but was far from a well-rounded individual who could contribute at senior levels in biotech. Columbia allowed me the opportunity to learn truly fundamental business topics (for example, accounting, business law, HR, management) before diving back into industry. These were vital skills and knowledge that I had no other opportunity to learn. Columbia Business School also allowed me to pivot careers. People do this all the time in business school. I moved from BCG consulting to venture capital in healthcare investments. Another important reason for me was that my school and work experience had been based in Australia. I was very disconnected from the US opportunities — the MBA at Columbia gave me a passport to the US job market.
Can you elaborate on your decision to move from VC to industry? What drove your decision?
My ability and affinity framework. In terms of affinity, if I were an excellent venture capitalist and I heard a strong pitch from a good management team I should be thinking: “How can I add value to this team?,” “How can I invest deeply to their success?,” “How can I contribute strategically through a board position?,” and “How can I connect them to the right people to assist in their success?”
Instead I was thinking, “Damn why can’t I do this?” That told me at that life stage I belonged on the operating side rather than the VC side — that my affinity was in getting my hands dirty building companies and making them successful directly, rather than as an investor or board member. I had a conversation with my firm and they kindly guided me towards different opportunities in their portfolio. I joined Cadence Pharmaceuticals in both a business role and a medical role. This was amazing, because I could get true operational experience in multiple disciplines simultaneously. This leveraged my medical background and the business skills I had picked up.
What impact has the CBS network had on your career?
The CBS network made my school experience very compelling. I was able to listen to senior business leaders coming to school with broad experience across healthcare. This jump-started my professional network and allowed me to get some exposure to industries and job functions without having to experience them directly. Talking to classmates and faculty about what certain jobs and roles really entail was invaluable to me.
As I alluded to before, I have a philosophy around careers which involves understanding your abilities and your affinities. Abilities are what you’re good at today and potentially in the future. Affinities are what you like doing and how you want to contribute. A network is really valuable in eliciting both of those elements. Ask honest questions of your network and colleagues like “What am I really good at?” and “What would I enjoy doing in the future?”
What did you learn here that you think is unique to the Columbia experience and career success?
There was something unique about being in New York during my school experience. Particularly because I was exploring venture capital, being right next to Wall Street was highly advantageous from a networking perspective. My first job right out of school was directly from a Columbia job posting. That would never have happened otherwise. Subsequently, the firm I joined hired several people from Columbia, not just the business school, but also the medical school. I think the broader network of Columbia as an institution was very valuable.
What is your favorite CBS memory, such as a favorite professor, spot on campus or social event?
I TA’d a couple of times. There was a course that was being taught for the first time, Entrepreneurial Finance. It was an amazing course where we learned how start-ups operate and, as you know, had an amazing set of guest speakers. The course really married finance theory with practicality. My interesting experience was that I hadn’t taken the course before, but I was TAing. I was supporting class material that was still being prepared while it was being taught. It was a privilege to be a part of the course and support Glenn Hubbard.
What would you say to a prospective student considering CBS and the HPM Program?
There are lots of great MBA programs out there, but CBS has particular advantages given its breath of network, the extensive alumni, the quality of programs, and the truly leading faculty. I think being situated in NY is also very unique, because it is so proximate to a lot of the big pharma while also maintaining a very strong sense of entrepreneurship.
Are there opportunities or services that were available at Columbia that you wished you took advantage of while you were a student?
During my second year, I worked part-time for the same venture firm where I did my summer internship, which eventually led to a full time offer (which was great). That part-time work meant that I gave up some of the student experience. For example: I could have contributed more to the healthcare club and maximized the networking opportunities with alumni and students. That’s a bit of a regret. As a student you’re always thinking about keeping your head above water with both studies and money but, in retrospect, being an MBA student is a unique time in your life that opens a lot of networking doors that otherwise would be closed. I think maximizing that would be wise.
What do you believe, as a successful alumni and leader in your field, are the key qualities that make a person a leader?
I think that softer skills are absolutely critical: leadership, management, culture. Even basic skills like how to run meetings and how to negotiate. Columbia has great professors covering these topics. Another regret is not emphasizing softer skills more during my school experience. A lot of people like me decided to focus on technical skills and industry understanding. As I grow my career, I find myself finding these softer skills more important in what I do day to day to be successful.
What would you look for if you were in the position to hire new graduates from CBS?
Aside from the usual background before CBS, I would look for someone who tried to maximize their experience at school. I believe that students and alumni need to focus not only on what they get out of school but also what they can give back. Involvement in clubs, being a teaching assistant, and interviewing prospective students are all are very important elements of the school experience and are a sign of a more well-rounded student. I see this because, as an employer, I am looking for someone who can think more broadly about problems. When someone is assigned a task they should be thinking beyond their career more broadly about the company and how their work contributes to adding value.
What would you say to a prospective student considering CBS and the HPM Program?
There are lots of great MBA programs out there, but CBS has particular advantages given its breadth of network, the gret alumni, the quality of programs, and the truly leading faculty. I think being situated in NY is also critical, because it is so proximate to a lot of healthcare while also maintaining a very strong sense of entrepreneurship.