How an MBA helped Derrick Sim fight a global pandemic
Helping to organise the world's largest vaccine program in record time put Derrick Sim's people management skills to the test.
Derrick is a Full-time MBA graduate and the Director of Vaccine Supply and Demand at Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, a global health partnership with the goal of increasing access to immunisation in developing nations, which was established in 2000.
In the first 12 months after COVID-19 vaccines became available, Gavi delivered around 1.5 billion doses.
"We were operating, and are still operating, in uncharted territory," says Derrick, who is based in Geneva.
"Something of this scale, and multilateral effort at such speed, hasn't been done before. I think we in the global community can all be proud."
The vaccines that Gavi delivered in the wake of COVID-19 benefited people in more than 140 countries, requiring an unprecedented level of coordination and stakeholder management.
"It required a public-private partnership of manufacturers, governments and donors coming together to make all that happen," he says.
"It was a complex matrix of stakeholders and considerations to get an outcome that met the needs of all the different stakeholders."
A passion for public health
Derrick's road to Gavi began with a medical degree at Monash University and an interest in new medicines that was developed while studying and working at two renowned local medical institutions.
"I spent close to seven years at the Royal Children's Hospital and time at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute doing some phase-three vaccine research as part of my paediatric training," he says.
"I enjoyed medicine but always had this ambition to have a bigger impact, to work with bigger teams on bigger projects, and wanted basic business knowledge and experience to supplement my degree in medicine."
That passion led Derrick to enrol in the Full-time MBA program at Melbourne Business School, which he completed in 2002.
After that, Derrick joined global pharmaceutical giant GSK as Regional Director, Medical Affairs in Singapore, and was soon helping deliver GSK's pneumonia, swine flu and other vaccines across Asia.
He then moved to GSK's London headquarters and its vaccines division in Brussels, where he filled vice-president roles and was responsible for the US$1-billion global rotavirus and pneumococcal vaccine businesses, which operate in more than 100 countries.
Derrick's vaccine experience and passion for public health won him his current role at Gavi in early 2020, just as COVID-19 was beginning to spread around the world.
World's largest vaccine portfolio
Derrick's first challenge was to help Gavi expand its focus from lower-income countries to include middle and high-income nations who wanted COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible.
"With Australia, for instance, some of the vaccines they wanted, like mRNA vaccines, they couldn't get early enough," he says.
"Because of Gavi’s capabilities, we were tasked with hosting the COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) facility in partnership with the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations."
"The portfolio we signed with manufacturers is the world's largest, and we raised $10 billion for procurement and delivery. On top of that, we created innovative financing mechanisms to buy from manufacturers now and allow donor governments to trickle in payments over the next few years, as well as insurance mechanisms for low-income countries."
Derrick outlined the challenges he and his Gavi team faced at a special event at Melbourne Business School recently, organised by students who wanted to hear about how his MBA helped in his fight against COVID-19.
"What I value about the MBA is it's a generalist degree, which gave me a foundation in many areas that I’ve had to grapple with. For example, how to bring people and teams together to execute strategies and topics like economics and currency hedging," he says.
"It didn't make me an expert in these areas but allowed me to recognise what needs to be addressed and managed and what you need to know to talk to the right people."
Adapting to change
As an active member of Melbourne Business School's alumni community, Derrick was keen for students to hear from a graduate who didn't take the usual path into management consulting or the financial sector after his studies.
"They’re not going to hear from too many people like me, but I think it adds to the diversity of their thinking to hear about different experiences," he says.
"Recent years have taught us that anything can happen. There's an element of unpredictability now, and it's not just the pandemic. With the rate of change in technology and geopolitics, the world is going to look quite different over the next 10 years.
"Students – indeed, all of us – need to be able to pivot and adapt to change. Gaining a skill set that allows you to apply your capabilities to different situations and move with the times and the challenges presented, that‘s really the lesson to take away for me."