What is the secret ingredient for a productive and fun CRO work environment?

A conversation with Daniel Guay, Ph.D.

As our Chief Scientific Officer, Daniel Guay brings a wealth of experience from almost 20 years as a drug discovery scientist at Merck-Frosst.

However, as a founder of NuChem Sciences, he is dedicated to sharing that knowledge and experience with his ever-growing team.

Today, we talk to Daniel about what traits and talents he looks for in scientists, the importance of collaboration and the future of small molecules in drug discovery.

As someone who has years of experience in drug discovery, you must have some notable achievements that you’re proud of.

I have a few! When I completed my postdoc at Stanford, I moved back to Canada to work at Merck Frosst in Montreal. I spent just under 20 years with them in drug discovery as part of multiple teams, and we were very successful in putting a number of drugs on the market.

In fact, the first project I was involved in produced a drug called Singulair. It became a great commercial success story and earned billions of dollars for the company while bringing relief to countless people with asthma.

Actually, one of my proudest professional moments was being told by an employee that the family atmosphere we have at NuChem was his favorite thing about working here. And he said that atmosphere was because of me.

This was the best compliment I’ve received in many years. I don’t want to sound paternalistic, but the fact that people felt our group was like a second family was really rewarding. This is exactly what I try to create in a work environment.

For you, what is most important in a work environment?

I care about two things: the science but, even more importantly, the team. We started out as a small group – we were all ex-Merck Frosst colleagues. I picked my colleagues because I knew how good they were and how well we could work together. We had a family culture in the company.

Now, we’ve grown to a point where that culture might have changed slightly. However, I still know everyone on a first-name basis, and I tour the lab regularly. I chat with people, ask them about their weekends, ask them about their projects. For me, that personal interaction with my team is super important.

Do you think this collaborative working environment attracts the best people?

We’ve been hiring new talent at a rapid pace in the past few years, but I’ve always been selective about candidates. It’s not just about talent, it’s also about personality.

When we interview people, we always tell them that we’re looking for really high-level candidates, but we’re also looking for colleagues who will stay here for many years. It has to be a good fit in every way.

And, when we welcome a new hire, I always tell them not to be afraid of asking questions – not only of your teammates, but of other lab mates or even colleagues from the lab next door. Collectively, we have so much wealth in terms of scientific knowledge and we all have different backgrounds.

For me, everybody at NuChem is a colleague – not merely an “employee”. I hate it when people call me the boss! I think pairing an easygoing atmosphere with a high scientific standard definitely attracts great candidates.

What is it like to work in drug discovery? Does it feel like you’re contributing something to humanity?

It’s great! We all strive to be part of a drug discovery program that will help to alleviate pain or cure people.

Our work happens at the earliest stages of the drug discovery process. We help our clients find the best molecule that they can push forward to clinical trials.

Of course, we keep in touch with our clients to see how successful our work was. Knowing that you have been part of a program that has been successful is an amazing feeling. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the industry?

Obviously, COVID-19 has been very unfortunate for the whole world. But it has opened up the eyes of the whole world on how it’s important to invest in science – not just vaccines, but therapies for all sorts of diseases.

We have also seen lots of investment in life sciences in the past year, which is a good thing for CROs, but also for individuals who need treatments.

For example, big pharma did a lot of work in the development of antibiotics in the past. However, their investment in this area was reduced after the 1980s, and now we have a lack of good antibiotics for fighting infections.

I think society is realizing how important investment in new drugs and treatments is. It’s just a matter of recognizing where the efforts need to be put.

You mentioned the positive atmosphere you helped to create at NuChem. What do you most enjoy about working at the company?

What drives me is the science – whether that is talking to my colleagues in the lab to find out if they’ve made any progress since we last spoke to the client or looking at what we’re presenting to the client.

When the client is happy and they say: “Good work, good job this week,” this is the cherry on the cake for us. That’s what we want to hear, we want to make the clients happy because their project is progressing.

Do you think NuChem could be the largest CRO in Canada?

We hope so! That’s the plan.

I don’t know exactly how big we are going to be in the next five years. I think that depends on the market and the economy, but we’re going to be open-minded.

However, I believe we are definitely going to be the best. Any growth we experience will never come at the expense of the high-quality science we do here.

What personality trait do you see as important for leaders?

You have to lead by example. You also have to enable people and empower people.

If you try to do everything yourself and control everything, it’s not going to work. You have to trust your team players and delegate appropriately. I see leadership as being like the conductor of an orchestra – you can’t do it all on your own!

How do you see drug discovery changing in the future?

In the past five years, more biologics have been approved than new drugs and small molecules. So, biologics is definitely going to be a major player.

However, the costs and challenges involved in producing these will always be a hurdle, whereas a small molecule will always have its place. I think drug discovery with small molecules will share the space with finding new therapies with biologics.

In small molecules, there is a new area in chemistry called PROTACs. These are small molecules that do same thing as an antibody, and they’re simpler to make.

There are actually one or two PROTAC candidates in clinical trials right now. If these are approved and have a significant effect on the diseases they’re trying to treat, that’s going to propel this niche area of chemistry. Between gene editing, biologics and small molecules, there is room for everybody.

Pursue your passions

In terms of advice for young scientists, Daniel shares the wisdom he passed on to his children when they were making their career choices.

“I told them to pick something that they’ll be passionate about,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to do something I love all my life. Of course, there have been tough times. However, if you’re passionate about it, you’re going to put the hours in to be the best you can!”

Transformer les idées par la science

Société de recherche contractuelle dans la découverte de médicaments et en chimie des procédés.

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