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Vaccines as a Profession: ICEF Graduate Talks about His Work at Sanofi Pasteur

Nikolay Kuzin

Nikolay Kuzin
Photo courtesy of Nikolay Kuzin

Nikolay Kuzin, a 2011 graduate of ICEF, is brand manager at Sanofi Pasteur (France), a company that has been manufacturing vaccines for many years and where he oversees the launch of new products in Eastern European markets. We spoke with Nikolay about how he combines the background in finance with the administrative responsibilities in his position, about the unique nature of French master’s programmes, about how long it really takes to develop a vaccine, and about why Europeans trust medical developments in their countries.

How to Avoid Choosing a Programme on the First Attempt

I remember I had really wanted to study at HSE. It was 2007, and the university presented itself very well; I had friends who studied at ICEF, and their impressions were incredible. At that time, I didn’t think about working in finance, so I ignored the programme my friends recommended and was preparing to apply to business informatics.

When I started looking at the study processes at HSE, at graduates’ careers and the contents of the curricula, I concluded that the ICEF double degree programme was a very promising option, especially since it has a strong quantitative part and gave students the opportunity to apply their technical skills along with programming. I completely changed my direction and applied to ICEF, thinking about how effectively I would grow and develop, for example in fintech, while exploiting the additional subject opportunities at HSE University and the University of London.

How to Survive First-Year Challenges

One of the main difficulties for me was English. I applied with a basic level, and in the beginning of studies, I was sent to an intensive learning group in order to catch up with the stronger classmates. In the beginning, I was also a bit puzzled by the new system of learning. At school, you get used to the yearly schedule, to the grading system, and to the fact that someone makes decisions for you on everything. Here, you find yourself in an environment where you take responsibility and you are free, and where the quality of knowledge you get depends on your own initiative.

It was difficult to get used to the fact that even though you might spend a lot of time studying, you're your results on the exams might not meet your expectations

The first and the second years were quite difficult for me: I had to review a lot about how I approached my studies, learn to deal with a number of tasks, develop some new skills, and take responsibility at a new level. This would be the case for any undergraduate programme that aims to teach its students the ability to receive, process and digest new information. Students usually don’t understand what knowledge they acquire would be useful in the future.

Nikolay Kuzin
Photo courtesy of Nikolay Kuzin

Career Opportunities after Graduation

After the first three years of studies, I still didn’t know what field to choose. My mistake was that I hadn’t been really taken an interest in industries, although ICEF provides a lot of opportunities for it through interaction with graduates, internships, meetings with companies, and other events at its Career Centre. My goal was to earn very good degrees, which transformed into a desire to continue studying abroad in order to acquire a more global understanding of the market.

The environment at ICEF helps students get a sense of industries where students try out different fields and provide honest feedback

I came to understand that consulting and IB are completely outside my field of interest, while management would be much more attractive. I started looking for suitable master’s programmes in England or France. The first option was obviously more prestigious, while the second would give me an opportunity to improve my French and spend two years studying without rushing in order to acquire real knowledge. This is in contrast to running after offers, which often happens in London at the short one-year programme.

France is generally a more relaxed country, which is more attractive for me for a number of reasons. I could put all my effort in studies during the first year, and during the second one, get a job and write my thesis, using work projects as the basis of my thesis research. French universities provide good career support, which gave me hope and the feeling that at least part of the responsibility for the future had been taken off my shoulders. This is why I chose Lyon and Emlyon Business School and applied for a programme in management.

Why It’s Easy to Study Abroad

Since core training is provided during the first year at European universities, with an ICEF background you can earn good grades in micro- and macroeconomics without considerable effort. That’s why I dedicated this time to in-depth language training. In the second semester, I had the opportunity to choose subjects that aligned with my interests and adjust my specialization. At ICEF, I focused on banking and finance, and in Lyon I could pursue an additional, narrower specialization by taking a certain set of courses. For example, I could get a master’s degree specifically in risk management.

Nikolay with his daughter
Photo courtesy of Nikolay Kuzin

Such freedom of choice and the opportunity to study only the things I found interesting was really attractive to me. It was also great that I studied alongside people with backgrounds in different fields, and I took advantage of talking to them in order to share opinions or get advice or feedback about a given company. It helped me to expand my professional outlook and find my way to the start of my career.

Why IB Isn’t for Everyone

During my second year of master’s studies, I started working as Coverage Analyst at Société Générale CIB at Europe’s biggest open office that accommodates 2,500 people. I dealt with financial markets and worked a lot with sales managers and traders. Honestly, I didn’t like the elusiveness of the industry and the vague value of the results that you get from the work. Changes in clients’ portfolios, which are subject to market fluctuations, is the indicator of your success. This means that the quality of the work you do doesn’t always have an impact on the obvious result. In addition, working in IB is quite stressful.

I wanted something different; I wanted more substantial and purposeful communication with clients, in order to have more time for decision-making. I wanted to try a different industry, as real as possible, with obvious values, such as health care, and particularly, pharmaceutics. That’s why I went to Sanofi Pasteur.

How to Look for a Job in France

Just like in London, your education is a ticket to big companies here. An ICEF degree tells your employer that you have a great command of English. Over the two years, I have improved my level of French a lot, and Russian proficiency determined my first specialization: working with Eastern European and Central Asian markets.

Proficiency in several languages combined with a degree is almost the perfect set of competencies to enter the European job market

I found my job at Sanofi Pasteur at a university career fair. My first position was at a regional headquarters. The company was outlining its 10-year development plan for Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia, and I was responsible for coordinating this project. I had to communicate closely with each country in order to understand the regions’ resources and opportunities for joint development. This was a very unconventional task for someone who is used to model development and analysis beyond the human factor.

As a strategic analyst, I communicated with pharma representatives who had been working in the industry for 20 years. This has been inspiring, at the very least. The skills I got during my undergraduate studies helped me understand the specific nature of the industry and such a special product as a vaccine. ICEF developed my curiosity and thirst for new knowledge. As a student, you learn to crave the unknown, to give feedback on new information, to set goals and determine how to achieve them. This skill becomes the basis of your future career.

Why I Like Working at Sanofi Pasteur

Sanofi Pasteur had produced and delivered vaccines to various countries for several dozen years. Most often, these are ‘ready-made’ vaccines, but, for example, in Russia it is hardly possible to sell anything without the support of a local institution. That’s why Sanofi Pasteur gives away some of its technology for local production in exchange for the opportunity to enter the market. I followed the same principle on Uzbekistan’s market, and my experience with health ministries in this region has been truly unique.

I have been with the company for eight years, and I believe that my career has successfully grown thanks to my openness and flexibility in taking on new tasks. In addition, my work requires frequent relocation, which is something not all employees are ready for. My family, on the contrary, loves it. We started in France, then proceeded to live in Kazakhstan, Russia, and in the Czech Republic where we are today. I believe this list will continue to grow. Whenever I saw an interesting new career opportunity, I moved to a new position at a new office, followed by a relocation.

Nikolay Kuzin with Turkmenistan’s Minister of Health
Photo courtesy of Nikolay Kuzin

My willingness to take on projects that would obviously be beneficial for the company’s reputation and would be presented at the highest level have also played a role. The company works in the global community and generates a lot of value in the fight for human health, so it is very important that its representatives have sufficient communication skills to work at the state level and with healthcare system representatives.

How the Pandemic Changed the Pharma Business

The pandemic forced the company to make a huge investment, both financial and human, in order to carry out research as fast as possible and enter the market with a COVID vaccine. Sanofi Pasteur is still the only international company to create a COVID vaccine independently, without any international partnerships. Pfizer bought a company that had performed successful vaccine developments, and AstraZeneca did the same.

The Sanofi Pasteur vaccine is still in trials. Our company’s top management has always understood that we would not be the first in this race. The COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, requires the development of several vaccines, and our role in it will be one of the most important, since we have more time for clinical research. In addition, our manufacturing facilities are used for certain stages of vaccine production by other companies, such as Pfizer, which isn’t yet capable of supporting such large-scale production. The pandemic changed the pharma industry phenomenally. Today, we have partnership contracts with our two fiercest competitors. No one could have imagined this under other circumstances.

Why Vaccines are Slow Investments

I came to Prague to work as brand manager for new products, but this involves coordinating and launching new vaccines in Central and Southern Europe, which includes 14 countries. We are selling three major vaccines, which we had started developing long before the COVID vaccine trials. One of them is the meningococcus vaccine, which we are planning to launch in the Czech Republic next year: its clinical trials were conducted in 2015. Under normal circumstances, vaccines are developed over 5-10 years, with a certain ‘biological’ stroke of luck. When there are no circumstances creating pressure, you can choose the best combination and concentration of antigens in order to achieve a good immune response, which is always a very long story. The dengue vaccine, which was launched by our company in endemic countries several years ago, had been developed for two decades.

Part of my job is communicating with thought leaders. In Europe, the attitude to vaccination is positive.

It is clear to everyone that today is high time to get vaccinated, otherwise we will expect new waves, cycles, variants and lockdowns

All doctors are vaccinated; Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines are used, with people given the opportunity to choose. The population is completely trusting, since people in this region are used to following the obvious logic of their public officials, which correlates with social demands. For example, people who got their first dose of vaccine in Europe can travel, which is a good stimulus.

The Bright Side of Relocation

What I love about local positions is the opportunity to see other countries. Among the more than 20 countries I have visited as part of my job are Iran and Turkmenistan, countries that not everyone is able to visit. I can also meet new people and talk to outstanding representatives of my industry. This is an incredible experience! I love the Czech Republic as a place to live with a family. But I would also love to see Asia, discover new markets, and immerse myself in the traditions and the special cultural environment. Sanofi Pasteur provides such opportunities for its employees who are open to them.

In terms of internal grading, my position in Moscow was higher than today, but the focus was on commercial operations. But in order to head an area or a local office in the future, I need to understand how to promote new vaccines not only from a business point of view, but socially through building brand relations with regulators and target audiences. The company did me a favour when they offered me to lead the launch and coordination of new products in Czech Republic without any experience in marketing. It was a serious challenge for me, but thanks to my skills and the variety of experience, it didn’t take me long to become a specialist in an area that is unlikely for an economics graduate.

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