Leveraging Diverse International Talent

Fulbright Award recipient Roy Zwahlen uses what he discovered in Australia to address global challenges

Story by Ryan McDaniel | Photo credit Danny Alexander | Published July 25, 2023

Roy Zwahlen outside headshot

Roy Zwahlen was walking through the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, Australia when he saw a Muslim hijab designed with an Australian footy logo of the Essendon Football Club in the team’s colors.  As an American that grew up in the Middle East, he was fascinated by this innovative combination of cultures. In the Museum of Chinese Australian History, Roy learned about innovative mining techniques the Chinese brought to Australia, adapted from agricultural practices in mainland China. It seemed even in his personal time, the threads of larger professional conversations he was having were woven into the fabric of Melbourne society.

Roy, the Chief Strategy Officer of the Eshelman Institute for Innovation was there working with Monash University in Melbourne as a 2022 Fulbright Award recipient. His aim was three-fold: 1) to study the innovation and entrepreneurial culture in Australia, 2) to understand the cultural diversity landscape of the country, and 3) discover how the country can better leverage its diverse talent for better innovation. Between April and May 2023, Roy explored these questions, talking with leaders in Australian academia, venture capital, industry, NGOs, and government.

What surprised Roy most about his work in Australia was how focused the country’s pharmaceutical industry is on the US market. In part, this makes sense – the US population is more than ten times that of Australia, the approval pathway is relatively clearer, and pharmaceutical companies can recover their investments faster in the US than by launching in many other countries. But, as Roy points out, there is another market with perhaps even more potential for Australia.

“They’re literally on the doorstep of Asia and Australian society is constantly searching for ways to engage Asian markets to help grow their economy,” he explains. “One of their biggest exports is talent. The best talent from across Asia is coming to Australia to be educated, but the Australians are still trying to figure out how to fully leverage that talent in their labs and in the marketplace. Many of these graduate students go back to their home countries to work in government, pharma, hospital systems, and a lot go into international pharma companies. Yet, the connections with this talent are not fully fostered while in-country and often lost once they leave, which makes it difficult to make in-roads in those markets.”

Roy notes, for example, that one of the biggest databases companies use to determine the market potential of new drugs pulls data almost exclusively from Western Europe and the US. “I was shocked to discover that the reason that it appears to be so is because they simply haven’t translated the necessary scientific papers into English,” Roy observes. “Here is a clear opportunity to provide an educational opportunity for master’s students to go and get, for instance, prevalence rates of various diseases across Asia that most people don’t know or understand because it’s published in a different language. Faculty can use this information to explore research opportunities and develop technologies for clinical needs in Asian countries that have global relevance. Practitioners can then leverage these insights and technologies to improve the health of populations in Asia and Australia.”

Leaders at Monash University are aware of the opportunities to leverage the diverse talent they attract, but don’t have a clear path forward to capitalize on these opportunities. Roy has observed some of the same issues here in the US. “We typically have conversations in the United States, and Australia is very similar, around representation of diverse communities,” Roy says. “But we struggle, I would argue, with really leveraging the difference . . . How do you actually fully engage diverse communities once you include them to bring out that innovation and overall increase in performance the research tells us is possible?”

With these learnings from Australia, Roy is working with the PharmAlliance – a partnership between Monash University, University College London, and the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy – to leverage the differences of the three institutions by thinking through some big-idea initiatives the universities can partner on to scale for meaningful patient impact. One of those possible initiatives is substance use disorder and mental health. Each university appears to have unique and complimentary expertise in substance use disorder. By aligning strategy across education, research, and practice around a big problem, the PharmAlliance partners hope to improve the global environment for substance use disorder in ways that impact patients globally and at home.

“Innovation doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game,” Roy notes. “If we can truly leverage differences on our teams, in our communities, and around the world, we can create the innovations we need to improve the lives of the patients right in front of us.”