Who inspired you to get into the life sciences?
My interest for life science was nurtured by my father, who was both a chemist and a photographer; he took me along on hikes and then to the lab where I spent hours staring through a microscope, examining the things I had just picked up on the trail. It instilled in me a deep fascination for all things ‘Nature’, from patterns of life that repeat regardless of scale, to endless curiosity for – simply put – why things are the way they are! So, in many ways, my career choice was inevitable – when the time came to go to college, I enrolled as a chemistry student without thinking twice. But just as important as what got me there, is what kept me there. My postdoctoral work with Nobel laureates Drs Brown and Goldstein at UT Southwestern in Dallas TX was a key experience, and my advisor Prof David Russell remains a role model to the present day.
Your amazing career spans several decades in the industry! What are the top 2-3 things that have been guiding principles for your journey?
First and foremost, the many wonderful people I have met along the way, many of whom have inspired me to keep, or sometimes change my trajectory. Second, an open mind for the connections and patterns that emerged between the many different scientific problems I have been working on. From every drug discovery project I initiated and led through the start of clinical development, there were lessons learned that could be applied next time, regardless of scientific focus, modality or indication. I feel privileged to have experienced the bench-to-bedside journey with the discovery and development of Repatha, a therapeutic antibody against PCSK9, launched commercially by Amgen in 2015. The principles and lessons learned – specifically, the importance of human genetics and a strong link between protein function and disease phenotype – are universally applicable. We applied these lessons later on when we advanced three molecules into clinical development for CKD at Boehringer Ingelheim, and when we built a pipeline of RNA therapeutics for liver diseases at Genevant.
How did your choice of completing an MBA midway through your career influence your path?
This was simply driven by a desire to get out of my comfort zone. The business of science is driven by complex factors – actually sometimes much more complex than the biological pathways we were studying – and I felt I didn’t know enough about it. The MBA work challenged my thinking in many unexpected ways. The most important takeaway, apart from the value of teamwork across diverse backgrounds, were the lectures on Strategy at Columbia University. If one wants to stay competitive, it’s critical to only focus on high impact activities, conserve time and resources and get to a go/no-go decision early on in the life of a project.
What are you currently working on?
The diverse life science startup ecosystem in Europe is keeping me busy. I have the privilege to serve on multiple boards and support young companies as a start-up coach and mentor. There are also some early-stage projects in stealth mode that I hope to be able to talk more about soon!
How was the transition from pharma into joining startups and entrepreneurship?
Looking back, I am happy I did not spend too much time thinking about the challenges of that transition – it was pure curiosity and enthusiasm for the many possibilities that I saw in the startup world. I did not immediately appreciate how well prepared I was in some ways – the global biopharma industry was an excellent training ground – and how unprepared in many other ways. The ability to network is a valuable skillset always, but much more so once you’re on your own. At this point, I truly enjoy these challenges and the knowledge that any conversation, at any time, with anyone, or anywhere, has the potential to jump start or change the direction of any project in totally unexpected ways.
There’s a lot on your plate. How do you manage time?
Actually, the worst thing that can happen to me is not having enough on my plate. I enjoy the challenge of sorting through options and priorities, and discovering synergies in the process. There are always deadlines that I wish I could push out by a few more days, but overall, it all amounts to what I would call positive stress that keeps you on your toes.
How is the biotech startup scene evolving?
The Basel area is truly developing into a central European hub for life science, but also for AI, tech and quantum computing, and its many applications for drug discovery and development. Truly disruptive innovation always lies at the intersection of disciplines. I am currently involved with multiple startups that develop AI based approaches for accelerating drug discovery. Some of these technologies truly have the potential to fundamentally change the way our industry works, and this will not be in the distant future.
What are the typical pitfalls that founders and young teams face?
The last couple of years have been a challenge for fundraising, not just for young teams. We see signs of that environment improving, which would be great news for the many innovative projects and fantastic teams that lie in waiting. On the operational side, once funding is secured, the most important thing really is to maintain focus on high impact business goals. There are so many distractions out there, some of them in the shape of new science that, at first glance, has the potential to affect a project’s trajectory. There is always a right time and place to pivot, but focusing resources towards reaching impactful milestones is key for building a strong foundation for the company. I am also a believer in building a strong company culture right from the beginning, and in recruiting in alignment with those values.
Outside of work, you are a photographer and an artist. Tell us more.
My creative practice has been central to maintaining mental and emotional balance throughout my career. Rather than diverting my focus, working in the darkroom or taking my camera on a field trip is my way to focus, and to recover my energy. And then there’s the inspiration I get from interacting with other artists – often times, a completely different perspective and breaking all the rules is what’s needed to get unstuck with a particular science problem. There is so much overlap and synergy between art and science, there’s an elegant simplicity in how nature builds its systems that is reflected in works of art and biological pathways alike.
Any final remark/advice to share?
My favorite quote from the intersection of art & science,
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed.”– Albert Einstein