Profile with Nermeen Varawalla

Dr Nermeen Varawalla (Rhodes Visiting Fellow & Somerville 1988) is a successful entrepreneur in the biomedical sector. Originally from India, Dr Varawalla has a background in clinical medicine and has trained at the Universities of Oxford and Mumbai. She holds a DPhil in Clinical Medicine from the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine and an MBA from INSEAD. Nermeen’s area of expertise is executing global clinical trials for new drug development and she has established and sold businesses in this sector. Most recently she founded ECCRO, an India specialist clinical trials business.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Nermeen Varawalla: Home for me is London. However, I’ve travelled extensively; hence consider home to be where my toothbrush is! I always have a toothbrush at my home in Mumbai as well as London.

Rhodes Project: When you were a child, what did you aspire to be later in life?

Nermeen Varawalla: I wanted to be someone who could make a difference. Given the context and time when I grew up, being an obstetrician and gynaecologist to me seemed to be the best way to fulfil that goal.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a little about the research you do with ECCRO?

Nermeen Varawalla:I’ve been involved in clinical trials for the past decade and I’m considered to be an expert in involving emerging countries like India in international drug development. It’s a complex, multi-faceted exercise with multiple stakeholders with often conflicting agendas and requirements. ECCRO was a venture that I set up three years ago: an India-focussed specialist clinical trials business where we worked exclusively with select medical centres in India. However, due to the challenging regulatory environment in India, I have made a decision that the business is untenable and will not achieve ourobjectives. Hence, I am in the process of closing down ECCRO.

Rhodes Project: What was establishing your own business like?

Nermeen Varawalla: This is the third business that I have established. I find the entire process to be all consuming yet very exciting and invigorating. The personal and professional challenges it has placed on me have been tremendous learning experiences.

Rhodes Project: What is the most rewarding part of your job now?

Nermeen Varawalla: Assessing opportunities in the biomedical and healthcare sector with a view to figuring out whether these could be developed into businesses that could make an impact, both from a healthcare delivery and commercial perspective.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part?

Nermeen Varawalla: Delivering cost effective healthcare is what the whole world is clamoring for.  What I am most interested in is finding a way to deliver this, whilst making it a viable business model. It has to be a profitable business and yet deliver what our global healthcare environment needs. I have worked in academia, within the NHS (National Health Service), for large multi-national organisations and for start-ups. In each of these settings, the challenge for me has been understanding my goals, capabilities, and limitations, and working out how I could make an impact within the given framework.

Rhodes Project: Is there one framework you prefer working in?

Nermeen Varawalla: One where I am in control! And that is an entrepreneurial one. However, the advantage of a corporate framework is that the potential to make an impact can be greater. In an entrepreneurial setting, so much energy, time, and resources are spent on establishing the business platform.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman in your field?

Nermeen Varawalla: Be excited about the prospect of having many jobs and multiple careers throughout your working life.Embrace, and welcome the prospect of continual change. Develop the skills required to excel in such a world - namely, constant learning, flexibility, adaptability, and comfort with the multicultural global working environment.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite memory of Oxford?

Nermeen Varawalla: I have many wonderful memories. One special one is dashing up and down the Marston Ferry Road with spring daffodils on either side of the road. In my mind this remains a symbol for my privileged intellectual life straddling a cutting edge biomedical research laboratory, the then new Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine and the multi disciplinary academic community of Somerville College.

Rhodes Project:Could you describe the last holiday you went on?

Nermeen Varawalla: I just returned from a most wonderful week on the Amalfi Coast in Italy–a perfect mix of stunning locations, delicious food, and fascinating ancient sites.  A memorable cocktail of nature, culture, and hedonism!

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Nermeen Varawalla: I greatly enjoy tennis and the arts, and hence strive hard to ensure that I am able to fit these in to my life.

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