“I am passionate about working with great minds…”
With effect from September 1st, Dr. Thomas Rückle started at BioMed X Institute in the newly created position as Head of Research. In this position, he will be mainly responsible for mentoring and guiding BioMed X’s research teams and the overall project and portfolio management of the various research projects. We took this opportunity to ask him a few questions about his life’s journey, his motivation, his enthusiasm for natural sciences and what actually drives him…
BioMed X: “Thomas, why did you study chemistry?”
Dr. Thomas Rückle (laughs): “Oh, that was nearly 30 years ago but I actually do remember it: I have always been attracted to natural sciences. Already at school, I thought studying chemistry is a good means to getting into natural sciences because it is a very detailed science. Very quickly I ran into bioorganic chemistry. This was mainly a choice for a certain professor and the topics bioorganic chemistry offered: Understanding natural processes, putting pharmacology and biology together etc. I also did my PhD in organic chemistry in a field that was rather academic but interesting enough for me to keep in the field of organic chemistry. As a parallel track during my PhD I had the opportunity to study toxicology in a pharmacology department. This way I got exposed to the manifold components of organic molecules and this was my first true academic experience.”
BioMed X. “What were your plans after you received your PhD? Why did you go to Lausanne as a postdoc?”
TR: “This was an absolute conscious decision. Based on two points: First of all I wanted to learn another language – I didn’t speak French at that time – so it was a real challenge for me to dive into a completely new language and of course Lausanne is a very nice place – but first and foremost I had the privilege to meet Professor Dr. Manfred Mutter at a congress at that time. He gave a talk at that congress and I was impressed by his creativity, the science he conveyed and investigated. So I applied for a postdoc position with him and we came together and it worked out very nicely. In collaboration with Debiopharm, a Swiss Pharmaceutical Company, I was working on Cyclosporine-analogues in antiviral therapy and we were pretty successful in these two years. We synthesized complex molecules that later on went into clinical trials up to Phase III. I learned a lot and really got into the mode: You make a molecule, you test it, you get a feedback, you make another molecule and by doing so you get in that spindle of optimizing molecules. I really like that…having a true meaning behind the molecules you are making and the science that you are doing.
BioMed X: “But then you left academia and worked for a pharmaceutical company in a corporate environment. Why?
TR: “After my second fellowship at the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies where I mainly worked on combinatorial chemical libraries – I think I made something like 150.000 molecules during my time in the States – I went back to Lausanne where Prof. Mutter offered me an assistant professorship at the EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne). I was honored but not at all attracted to writing grant applications (smiles). So he said to me: “One of my friends is consultant to a biotech company, they just started a chemistry business. Why don`t you apply?”
In late 1997, Serono, at that time a Swiss biotechnology company started to invest in small molecules and I joined 1998 as the fourth chemist in the company. Two or three years later we were like 250 chemists. This was my first job in a corporate environment being involved in the complex game of improving pharmacologically active molecules. It was very exciting and interesting to me because you learn that there a so many different functions coming into the game. Working there for a couple of years showed me that project leadership – leading a cross-functional team at a discovery-research level – is something that really attracts me.
Then the German Merck Group acquired Serono and I thought this is a great opportunity to come up with new ideas. Project management (PM) for Discovery Research appeared to me as an uncharted territory. This would help teams to streamline their activities to have a better understanding across teams.” Nothing of that kind was existing thus far. I got an ok and shifted a bit away from science more into project management and processes, meaning building up structures, budgets and timelines.”
BioMed X: “So by that time you had sort of established yourself at Serono. Why did you then start in a completely different position at an NGO?”
TR: “At some point I figured out for myself that I had to get the full picture. My former boss at Serono gave me the advice to look for a position in clinical sciences. He was absolutely right because this was exactly what I was still missing in my career. I was honored to join Medicines for Malaria Venture which is the world’s leading NGO in antimalarial R&D. Working for Medicines for Malaria Venture was a true clinical experience. I worked with high-performing teams far away from commercial interest. There are a lot of drive in those organizations, and spectacular dedication to serve the poorest of the poor. I was very motivated to bring my knowledge of drug developer into medicines that are for the poor, in particular children. During these three years, I conducted clinical trials around malaria research on all five continents of this planet. I learned an awful lot about clinical sciences.”
BioMed X: “What were your tasks in your last position before BioMed X (at GeNeuro)?”
TR: “My Job at GeNeuro was translating the challenging science of human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) into meaningful clinical trials. To my knowledge, GeNeuro is the only company, which develops medicines against HERV proteins. The science of HERV is not very tangible and it requires special skills to tackle that biology. In addition to translational medicine, I was in charge of preclinical development and CMC aspects of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.
BioMed X: “What was your motivation to start at BioMed X?”
When I got approached end of last year and was discussing that job offer with a couple of friends and colleagues of the pharma industry, I got a unique answer: Yes, go for it!
My own working experience taught me how difficult it is to align the two worlds of academia and industry. I remember when I last year tried to set up a collaboration with a university. It took months to get a contract for very simple experiments and this was really frustrating for everybody who was involved.
I think that BioMed X offers an unique business model that fills up exactly the gap that pharma and academia have created for a long time. I am actually wondering why others in the business haven’t come up with it before.”
BioMed X: “How do you see your role as the new Head of Research at BioMed X?”
TR: “Building up on Christian’s success thus far, stepping in shoes of someone who is truly a high-performer is not an easy task… I will have to learn! I see my role in three pillars: Offer my experience as mentor to teams, act as a conductor orchestrating BioMed X’ portfolio and be the liaison between the BioMedX teams and our Pharma partners. I will certainly try to unite all existing forces, also addressing all the different stakeholders to bring BioMed X to the next level. There are plenty of good ideas how to shape the future of BioMed X but ideas need to feed into the market and reach our target groups. It is a tightrope walk, because in all our efforts we should aim for not losing what the core asset of BioMed X is: Tackling the unmet needs in biomedical research & development for the benefit of patients.
Right from the start I was impressed to see how sustainable the BioMed X business model is. I want to build on that. On the other hand we need to find ways and models to shelter ourselves from competition. As a scientist you always need to anticipate what is next. So from that perspective the next level for BioMed X is to be not only sustainable but a solid and strong brand.”
BioMed X: “What do you see as your greatest challenge at BioMed X?”
TR: “I am passionate about working with great minds. I truly enjoy working with highly gifted people and step in the back and do my humble work to support them the best I can to let them do their great sciences. It’s fascinating to work with them and to orchestrate their talents. It requires a lot of human soft skills to just tick them in a certain way and make sure the teams are on track, because in the end the head of research, as the overlooking entity, has to put the whole thing in the right channels to get tangible results. One of the challenges I see is that the teams are handpicked, they have gone through a very tough process to work at BioMed X; they are shaped and affected by Christian, by his knowledge and way of working. Meeting their expectations will be a key challenge for me.
BioMed X: You lived in Switzerland for a long time and have now moved to Heidelberg with your family. Was it a tough decision?
I am German and sharing and living my culture with my family now here in Heidelberg is again a conscious decision of mine. I have been speaking to our daughter in German all the time and now she can put into practice what she learned for the last nine years. My wife and my daughter are both excited to live now in Heidelberg. It’s such a beautiful city. BioMed X put a lot of effort into getting the right home for me and my family and we were welcomed like we had never experienced before.
Personally, I look forward living in Germany again. Having lived abroad, I have learned a couple of foreign languages and sometimes wonder who I am , how I feel? … like a German or more like a French? Friends asked me, in which language do you dream?” And I answered: “I dream in French, I yell in Italian and I think in German. Going back to Germany is really like going home and settling. I am very much looking forward to becoming part of the BioMed X family!”