As global leaders pitched their countries at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, US President Donald Trump had a dinner meeting with a clutch of European business leaders. And among those invited was Swiss drugmaker Novartis’ Vasant (Vas) Narasimhan.

Vas, as he is popularly known, is the next CEO of Novartis, set to take charge from February 1.

A US citizen, 42-year-old Vas is based out of Basel, also Novartis’ headquarters. Presently the Global Head (Drug Development) and Chief Medical Officer, Vas takes over from Joseph Jimenez, who steps down after eight years at the helm.

Trump’s meeting with European business honchos comes at a time when Europe is looking to assert itself and the US President pushes his “America First” agenda.

BusinessLine had got an insight into Vas’ thoughts on the increasing attempts at protectionism around the world when the Indian-origin executive had visited Novartis’ Hyderabad centre last February.

Vas was confident that businesses, and indeed Novartis, would adapt. As a global enterprise, the ability to move talent around the world is core to how the company works, he had told the correspondent.

Referring to the company’s research sites in the US, Switzerland, China and India, he said: “These are international sites that work on global projects. The ability to share talent, move technology around the world is core to who we are. So we feel very strongly that it needs to continue to be supported for innovation to happen.”

This discussion with Vas was before Novartis announced his appointment as CEO, in September.

Vas was confident that policymakers across the world would come up with better solutions when they understood the implications of a global business.

And once it settles, “then we will adapt and we will a company, between our predecessor companies and the formation of Novartis in 1996. We have been doing this for over 100 years, so we’re confident we will find a way to adapt,” he had said.

Vas has family in India, and visits the Hyderabad location about twice a year, he had said.

Public private persona

Vas has a degree from Harvard Medical School and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government.

Coming from a public health background into private industry, Vas explains how the twain meet.

“When I started out in medicine and was working in public health at the Rockefellar Foundation and the aspiration was very much the same, in public health.”

But public health communities often lack management capabilities to run organisations and they lack innovation and technology to address issues in poor countries, he observed.

But the next steps were not planned, he said.

“I left medicine, I did a brief stint in McKinsey to learn a little bit about business and then I joined Novartis (2005) and did drug development.”

He held several positions in Novartis including overseeing the entire general medicines pipeline.

Speaking of their work in vaccines, a business now sold to British company GlaxoSmithKline, Vas said it was a case study on the huge impact you can have on public health.

“You can have a tremendous impact. That’s truly how I reconcile,” he said, of balancing his public health persona in private industry.

“Right now, managing one of the largest drug development portfolios in the world, we need medicine to reach hundreds of millions of people. The Novartis portfolio reaches hundreds of millions of people.”