Wanted: Top talents with the right level of commitment

Novo Nordisk’s chief scientific officer applauds Danish efficiency, but he calls for more top talent, who tell themselves they can sleep when they get old – and who write their doctoral theses in their spare time.

Photo: Gorm Olesen

Chief scientific officer Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen’s unit is the nerve of Novo Nordisk; this is where the brightest minds develop the drugs of tomorrow, this is where lives are saved in the long run, this is where money is spent, and this is where the foundation for making billions is laid. It is where stories of success and failure are written.

Krogsgaard, who was born in 1960 and boasts a 23-year-long career in Novo Nordisk, can hold an argument like few others, some might even say he could sell sand in the Sahara. But now, his most important task is somewhat different; he has to talk the bright young minds, the pillars of the scientific foundation, away from the rivals and into Novo Nordisk’s labs across the world.

Novo Nordisk’s research budget is set to land at around DKK 13 billion this year and every other day, Novo Nordisk will need to hire a new employee for its R&D department. 4,100 out of 6.000 R&D workers are employed in Denmark.

“Attracting talent is of critical importance; we need universities that don’t just target the masses, but also go for the top talent,” says Krogsgaard Thomsen.

He has something on his mind when it comes to recruiting and educating talent. Novo does not just collaborate with universities all over the world; the Danish group also tries to convince universities to work together. A recent collaboration with the renowned British Oxford University is just the latest in a long line.

“Going forward, I see Northern Europe as my hunting ground for recruitment to Denmark; in China it’s Beijing and the surrounding areas with 20 million people,” he says.

The proper commitment

The science chief might like to see better conditions when it comes to the tax breaks for researchers which should help attract people from outside the country, but his focus is on education of talents – or lack thereof – and commitment. Krogsgaard tells a story about a Danish scientist at Harvard who is asked to work a 60-hour week and finds that the work takes center stage, even after hours.

“That’s not the case here at home and could we just instill a bit of that anglo-saxon environment where you live more for your education or research and don’t go around thinking about what you’re doing next weekend. It’s as if the attitude is that things have been going well for so many years that some people haven’t realized that the world has changed – and not just the scientific world,” he says.

Mads Krogsgaard is quick to point out that he is not out to criticize the Danish population.

“They can get a lot done in a short period of time; Danes are typically more efficient, but they don’t get all fired up like you see it with Chinese or American scientists,” he points out.

The science chief concedes that everybody cannot be fired up for so many hours at a time at the job when they might also have children at home to worry about.

“But someone has to be fired up and say that they can sleep when they get old. Young people come to companies in this country, not just Novo, and they ask what the company can do for them, not what they can do for the company. When I was young, I also sat at home at night writing articles and such for the company. Some people come to me with a straight face and ask for time off to write their doctoral theses. I’m super proud on behalf of Novo Nordisk if they can get their doctorate, but I’m not going to give them the time off to take it. It’s a generational thing.”

Mads Krogsgaard earned his doctorate in veterinary medicine from the Danish Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in 1991.

He is not all that worried about a lack of nurses, engineers, pharmacists for “ordinary jobs”. “But we have a lot of extra-ordinary jobs,” he points out.

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- translated by Martin Havtorn Petersen

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