Making NITR Proud: Dr S.N. Mohapatra

Making NITR Proud: Dr S.N. Mohapatra

Punyaja Dash Aratrika Ghose | Apr 18, 2016

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A dynamic personality and an aggressive leader with an undying spirit, yet he is as humble at heart as one could be – Dr S. N. Mohapatra is one of the finest alumni that NITR has ever produced. He has been one of the major proponents of walking down the less trodden paths of life to achieve unbelievable goals. One of the very few Indians to have become the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, Dr Mohapatra strongly believes that Indians are sitting on a potential goldmine of their own talent.

He visited the institute on 26th March, 2016 to deliver the 3rd edition of the Golden Jubilee Lecture held at Bhubaneshwar Behera Auditorium and left the audience awe-struck with his inspiring tale of rising to the pinnacles of success. Team Monday Morning got in touch with this everyday hero to gain insight into his fascinating life and learn what it takes to pave one’s path to the top!


MM: Tell us something about your childhood, even before you joined REC. Any distinct memories or incidents that still have an impact on you?

SNM: I grew up in a large, supportive, knowledge-centric family with strong values and emphasis on science and technology. Integrity, responsibility, compassion, curiosity and mutual respect was in our DNA, and this has guided me throughout my personal and professional life, and continues to do so even today. We were seven kids and we saw our parents living up to these values through both good times and bad, with similar determination.  Since I was a boy, I wanted to be an "inventor". I chuckle when I recall that I dreamt of a career in research to get a Nobel Prize! Looking for new things, or creating something big was always more fun and exciting to me than doing the regular homework. I still have the same mind-set. Thinking the unthinkable has become a part of my subconscious mind.


MM: Tell us a bit about your experience at REC, any specific memories that you'd like to share?

SNM: Coming from a protective family, like many of my friends, it was not easy for me to assimilate with the bulk of students and hostel life. Many of us felt lost on campus. The competition was fierce from day one, both in class and outside, to create your own "personality". I was very unhappy in my first two years (of a five-year program) as there were no exciting courses for me; so I kept myself busy in building radios and stereo amplifiers, learning to draw and paint and I even tried writing short stories. My class work suffered severely until I started focusing on electrical engineering at the beginning of my 3rd year. Although there were no real electronics classes then, one professor recognized my interest and allowed me to experiment with various electronics projects. The last three years in REC were very good for me as I enjoyed the fundamentals of electrical and electronics engineering and got recognized for electronics being my hobby and an art!

Another incident that I clearly remember is when there was a college strike in Orissa. We were picketing outside the gate and stopping professors and students entering the campus. I distinctly remember our Mathematics Professor telling us with anger and frustration to break up the sit-in. He said if we wanted to improve Orissa, we should graduate from here and go abroad and earn ourselves a name. “That's how you can help, not sitting here!” he told us. I never had a chance to thank him but it certainly made an impact on me.


MM: What are some of the obvious differences that you notice between the REC of your times and the NIT of our times?

SNM: There is very little comparison of REC of early 70s to the NIT of today. The campus is huge! Instead of 600 students, now it has 6000 students. Instead of 5 specialties it caters 15 different faculties for B. Techs., M. Techs. and PhDs. I felt really proud and humbled to note what the students, faculty and management of NITR have achieved over the last decade under the leadership of the Director, Prof Sunil Kumar Sarangi. The current students of NITR are equipped to compete in both industry and academia in India and abroad.


MM: After completing your studies here, you chose to pursue your career outside India. What triggered that decision?

SNM: After graduation in 1971, I had to go to our local hospital in Puri for a surgery. I did not have a great experience. While I was in the hospital recovering, I decided to explore if I could use my engineering knowledge to improve medicine and patient care.

Going abroad for higher studies was not an unprecedented thought for me. My father was a civil engineer and went to Johns Hopkins U.S.A. to do his M.S. in Public Health. However, he returned to Orissa in 1949 to set up the water infrastructure. I was a witness to his dedication towards his profession and his passion for pursuing what he did for the people to get clean water and improved health.

My eldest brother, a mathematician, was the main supporter of the family after my father retired. He was in the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, by the time I graduated. He sacrificed a lot for all of us and encouraged me to go abroad to do Medical Electronics since it was not available in India back then.


MM: Having been involved in the academic process and its consequent tie-ups with the industry, what are the differences between it in India and abroad?

SNM: I see strong a relationship between universities and the industry in the western world. Industries fund research and technological projects to solve a specific issue. Universities reach out to industries to license inventions made by their professors and students. In many universities, there is active support for inventors to pursue their start-ups. NITR definitely seems to be in a position to do so too!


MM: Tell us about your journey from being a CEO in Quest Diagnostics when you initially joined, to finally becoming the Chairman of the Board of Directors. What are some of the struggles you faced?

SNM: I was hired in 1999 soon after Quest Diagnostics announced to acquire SmithKline Beecham Clinical Laboratories. Both companies were similar in size ($1.5 billion each and not highly profitable). My first job was to integrate these two large companies with different cultures and not lose customers or business. We followed a very rigorous process for integration and created a new company twice the size ($3billion) with appropriate governance and compliance. The next big hurdle was to establish some pricing discipline and reduce cost to make the company profitable. Negotiating large contracts with surplus capacity in the industry was not easy. However, when the payers realized that we were losing money and saw that we wanted to invest in six sigma to improve in medical quality and science and technology for new diagnostics, they were supportive of the increased price. After all, it was their patients who we were taking care of.

When I became CEO and Chairman, I created a strategy for the company based on three simple but profound words: Patients, Growth and People. Patients came first in everything we did, growth was everybody's responsibility and we wanted our people to be trained and educated in order to grow to their fullest potential. We all followed the same strategy.

In 12 years, Quest Diagnostics grew from $1.5 billion dollars to $7.5 billion dollar and became the world's leading diagnostic testing and services company. Market cap went from $400million to $10 billion. We created jobs for 43,000 people including 1,100 MDs and 100 PhDs. The company became a Fortune 500 company and was included in S&P 500 Index. It was considered as one of the Fortune Magazines Most Admired Company; but for me, serving almost 150 million patients a year was a privilege and the most gratifying responsibility I had; I think even our employees were proud to do it!

It's important to have a clear vision of the future and a management team who are equally excited to reach that goal. It's amazing what one could achieve when you unleash the power of the people. People still remind me about the three simple words (patients, growth and people) and how it brought us together and created this unique patient centric company called Quest Diagnostics.


MM: What is your role as the director at XYLEM Inc.?

SNM: Xylem, headquartered in the US, is a leading global water technology company with $3.7 billion in revenues and 12,500 employees. It operates in 150 countries enabling customers to transport, treat, test and efficiently use water in industrial, residential, commercial and agricultural settings. The role of the Board is to oversee the management of the company and to represent the interests of all its shareholders. Xylem is fortunate to have a dynamic and independent Board where we bring our passion, experience and knowledge to solve the problem of water.


MM: What is the nature of the work you tackle as a trustee at Rockefeller University?

SNM: The Rockefeller University is the world's leading biomedical research university that is dedicated to science for the benefit of humanity. Its unique approach has led to some of the world's most innovative and revolutionary contribution to biology and medicine. Over the 115-year history, 24 of the scientists have won Nobel Prizes and 20 have received the National Medal of Science, the most desirable award in science given by the United States. It is inspiring and truly a privilege to be part of the Board of Trustees of this preeminent institution. We get a glimpse of the biomedical science and future of medicine by participating in operational and strategic matters of the university.


MM: Please share your experience of participating in the World Economic Forum. What were some of its highlights?

SNM: As you know, the World Economic Forum is a prestigious, non-profit foundation that brings together the foremost political, business and other leaders of the society every year at Davos to discuss global, regional and industrial agendas.

It is of course an honour to be invited to participate in meetings and panels. My focus was on healthcare, especially the role of diagnostics in early diagnosis and monitoring treatments. It's a rare opportunity to meet world leaders, gain their perspective and also share your point of view.


MM: As a part of Picker (Phillips) Medical Systems, you had a vital role in the manufacture and commercialization of MRI. Tell us about the work and effort that went into the entire process.

SNM: The GEC of UK was interested in getting involved in MRI which was called NMR in the late 70s. It's medical subsidiary, GEC Medical (which subsequently became Picker International and then was bought by Philips in 1999), was looking for a product manager who would bring this innovation to the market. I had no idea of what I was signing up for but I needed a job! I joined GEC/ Picker in 1980 in London.

I didn't have a business degree so I had to teach myself the elements of product management while bringing competing teams together to decide the best technology, to write the product specifications, clinical evaluations, sales and marketing materials and manufacturing plan. I was transferred to the US in 1984.

It was a transatlantic engineering and clinical program and was full of uncertainties and many new technologies including superconducting magnets, image processing software and innovative MRI sequences. Over the 18 years, during my journey from a Product manager to General Manager to a Group Executive, I enjoyed working with brilliant scientists, pioneering clinicians, innovative engineers, bright manufacturing, marketing and sales staff. We built a very successful MRI business.

There were challenges in every step of design, manufacturing and commercialization of this 'new to the world' product. However, the passion to create a machine to look into the body without unnecessary exploratory surgeries was intense and we were successful in creating that camera which could take picture of our internal organs non-invasively! Now MRI has become a multi-billion-dollar industry and is saving millions of lives.


MM: Tell us something about your current work as Executive Director at Columbia Business School for Executives residence program.

SNM: Columbia Business School was probably the first to start an Executive in Residence program almost 40 years ago. It integrates senior executives into the life of the school. We advise students one-on-one on career choices. Some executives are involved in class rooms and some of us are active in international programs. Additionally, I enjoy being a part of innovation and entrepreneurship at Columbia and advising start-ups.


MM: What was the inspiration, or motivation behind you taking up an interest in empowering patients and accountability in improving healthcare and reducing costs?


After so many years in medical research and healthcare industry, I learnt that the current healthcare system, world-wide, has nothing to do with "Health Care", it's actually all about "Sick Care"! Unfortunately, the incentives for physicians and hospitals are aligned towards procedures and tests.

Providers are paid for service (volume) rather than for quality or outcome, although the Affordable Care Act of President Obama is trying to change some of these. (Unfortunately, India has adopted the western medicine which is invasive and expensive but seems to be preferred by the middle class). This trend is not going to change unless we as consumer/ patient are accountable for our own health.

If we spend more money than we earn, we will be penniless. No bank or government can be responsible for our financial health. So why do we think the government or employer or even a doctor should be responsible to keep us healthy? This is why I fought to provide laboratory test results to patients directly in all 50 States in the US. We created apps to provide patients their results along with other healthcare and fitness information. If we can educate people with key diagnostic information, they will be empowered to a maintain healthy life style. It’s a pity that we know more about our cars than our body. There will be tremendous reduction in morbidity and cost if we can diagnose diseases early and treat it early. The patients should educate themselves and demand more from their doctors so that they can monitor their daily health.


MM: Despite your busy lifestyle and hectic schedule what are some of your hobbies and interests that you have retained?

SNM: Now that I have retired, I want to spend more time with my family in the US and India. I loved photography as a teenager and now I am enjoying taking pictures and learning black and white photography.


MM: For a personality of your stature, what do you believe have been some of your greatest achievements and why?


Success is a relative term. I am very fortunate to be part of the MRI revolution and very proud of building, with my team, the world's leading and innovative diagnostic services company. Quest Diagnostics used to reach half a million patients a day!


MM: If you could, would you change anything about the way your life has gone, so far?

SNM: I would have spent more time with my wife and children.


MM: You were awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award in the Convocation of 2016. What is your opinion on the current state of alumni relations in this Institute? What do you believe can be done to improve it further?

SNM: I believe the real value of alumni association is in integrating into the need of the Institute. Now we have so many graduates from NIT we could leverage the critical mass to help each other and the Institute. Alumni network can be a powerful resource when used appropriately for mentorship or advisors.


MM: Finally, what is your message for the NITR students?

SNM: When I was at REC doing my electrical engineering, I never thought that one day I will be involved in a revolutionary technology like MRI. I never thought I will be Chairman and CEO of a Fortune 500 company; and certainly never thought that one day I can touch 5,00,000 patients a day! All I can tell you is,

"If I could do it, you can do better. You are better prepared. Feed your passion, have courage and be creative; and most importantly, never ever give up!”

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