In this article, we shine the spotlight on our CEO, Johan Strömquist. Johan has worked as CEO and entrepreneur in the IT service industry and has supported the pharmaceutical industry since the 1990s. He focuses on developing NDA as the undisputed global leader of strategic development advice, taking into account all critical commercial and regulatory considerations to successfully bring good medicines to patients in need.
Competence over confidence – the fortunes of a humble leader
After what seems to be an eternity of silence, Johan Strömquist, CEO of NDA Group pins down the word that he would use to describe himself. In a very characteristic way, the real-time train of thought explaining how he arrived at this conclusion fills the quiet space of the prior pause. “I always think that things will work out. Mistakes and inadequacies are part of life and learning from them can ultimately, and sometimes surprisingly, lead to future success.”
What Johan sees as optimistic, others may perceive as enthusiastic, inspiring, perhaps impatient or, if you do not know him well enough, as being a hard taskmaster. “If I didn’t wake up in the morning, trying to do my best regardless of the circumstances”, he explains, “I would be disappointed in myself. I guess that is something that radiates off me. I hold myself to that standard, and I keep pushing forward. I think that the most common misconception people have about me, however, is that I hold everyone else to the same standard. This is not true, if anything I’ve learned that the best thing I can do with other peoples’ mistakes is to forgive them and move on. This is far from the only way things can be done, but it works for me.”
Being a facilitator of change, Johan is used to thinking and planning ahead of time. Sometimes so long ahead that it can be hard for the people around him to spot him at the horizon. Many times, he already knows exactly what is required to reach the potential future he sees for the organisation.
“ I sometimes have to stop myself and rewind. I need to remind myself that no-one else is in my head and that I will only add confusion if I cannot clearly communicate what the next step is to the people around me.”
Change – how to evolve and improve
To change something for the better has always come naturally for Johan. How many sixteen-year-old boys know that they might be entitled to community subsidies for their gaming interest? Johan figured it out. As a Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast, he merged his group of friends with other local groups, found a venue and invited local politicians to a meeting chaired by an invited representative of the National Gaming Association to get funding for his greatest passion. There was a way, and Johan found it.
“I’ve only had one job where I wasn’t in a leadership position”, Johan testifies. At that time, he was 19 and hired to check maintenance reports. In the first week on the job Johan rationalized the whole working process to take half of the time expected by the supervisors. Then he asked for a pay raise. Shortly afterwards, he started his first company.
Being a creative person, Johan aimed for the intersection between marketing and IT. In the late 1990’s, roughly around the time his father, Lars-Helge Strömquist founded NDA, Johan founded his own business which focused mainly on building websites. One early contract was to develop the first official NDA website. The partnership evolved and soon Johan and his subcontractors were developing a time recording application for the consultants working at NDA. This application was the predecessor to the system currently in use at the company.
In the beginning, there was NDA
Up until 2004 the work Johan performed for NDA was mainly IT related and at that time he founded the IT company Further together with two partners. Around the same time, Johan became more and more involved in building the NDA brand. His father had a great vision that needed to be cemented and visualized. “In 2006 we sat down with a PR company to iron out the big questions, like what are the core values? How do we want to make a difference? And that's when we came up with let's bring medicines to the world because the world is waiting. That's when we really enshrined NDA’s mission of bringing good medicines to people all over the world without unnecessary delay”.
This new perspective of regulatory affairs shifted the paradigm for the entire business.
“ We realised in these workshops we ran that there was a limited appreciation of what we actually were contributing to ”, Johan argues. “ Because at that point in time, regulatory affairs were perceived to be about filing papers in binders and putting a stop to creative ideas. The profession’s self-esteem was quite poor. The whole idea that regulatory affairs is in fact a key strategic resource was only emerging. And the fact that regulatory is an enabler, not a bottleneck didn't really occur to many in industry. At NDA this became the centre of what we were doing, and it remains so to this day. ”
The tipping point
Realising that the work they were doing in regulatory affairs contributes to the health and lives of millions of patients was a revelation to many people within the company. This was also the moment when Johan got captivated by NDA for more than practical reasons. This was a mission and values he could truly commit to. “This concept is fundamental. And it’s built upon the vision that my father created, it’s mind-blowing. He came up with this and even if I have a different background, I can contribute to this. That is pretty amazing.”
As NDA continued to grow, Johan started to play a larger role in management cohesiveness, now as a part of the NDA management team. In 2012, Lars-Helge Strömquist decided that it was time to step down as CEO and he asked if Johan was interested in taking over. A controversial choice, as Johan did not have a history in pharma, but Lars-Helge knew that Johan brought new perspectives to the table, valuable for his company. In the discussions was also the former head of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and now NDA advisor Thomas Lönngren.
“ I am very grateful for Thomas who has been my mentor and who has guided me from the very day it was decided that I would step up as CEO. I’m an entrepreneur and I know a bit about running a business, but at NDA I am blessed with people who are true experts in their own domains. I am surrounded by these incredibly talented and clever people that never ceases to surprise and impress me.”
In January 2013, Johan took over as CEO for NDA. At that time the company comprised offices in Sweden, the UK and Germany. The upcoming years NDA added representation in the US and Switzerland as well.
This year, NDA celebrates its 25-year anniversary which opens for contemplation and reflection. The company was created to bridge the gap between the regulators and the regulated for the great benefit of patients. Today's complex innovation and revolutionary treatments needs a different kind of thinking and companies need a different kind of support.
“ I take great pride in leading and supporting a group of the finest experts in the world as we work with biotech and pharma companies to achieve remarkable breakthroughs developing new medicines. This is not a job as much as it is an important responsibility; because when we are successful, millions of people benefit ”.
Work hard – game hard
Johan comes across as someone who truly enjoys his job. However fun it may be, being a CEO of a growing, constantly developing organisation takes its toll, even on the most passionate leaders. When asked what he does to unwind, he lights up and turns his webcam so it can show off one of his 3D printers in action, printing layer by layer. He is printing dungeon walls to go with the breath-taking skeleton of a dragon he has designed, printed, and painted as part of a game he hopes to play with his daughter and her friends. The gamer who built a large community of like-minded people and arranged for its funding is still in there.
“ I had this friend who always had to stop me because, and these are his words, ‘I was missing a membrane in my brain between idea and execution’. And that is what I really love about where we are today technology-wise. I look at my 3D-printers and I know that visions can be turned into reality in your very own garage. The only limit is your imagination. ”
The advanced therapies of today, bordering on science fiction, are saving lives. Innovation in drug development calls for regulatory innovation and creativity and Johan’s organisation is ready to do what is necessary to keep bringing new medicines to the world.
Because change is good. And change is fun.
Johan Strömquist, CEO