From the Top: Rohan Thakur, Bruker Daltonics

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DDW’s Megan Thomas shines a spotlight on Rohan Thakur, President of Bruker Daltonics, as part of the first episode of the From the Top vodcast series. This interview took place while attending the opening of Bruker Corporation’s new production facility in Bremen. 

MT: What has you career path looked like? Were there any key moments or milestones that led you to where you are today?

RT: I think I would never, ever have imagined that I would end up being a President in a company that is headquartered in Germany, at least my division. So, I started in R&D, and I was a scientists that could articulate. Then they wanted me to move over to the business side and it’s been a wonderful journey as far as I’m concerned. I met some of my idols and heroes during my academic life, and now I collaborate with them, and I can only be thankful for where I am today.

MT: What do you wish you had known when you started your career?

RT: I wish I had known, during my PhD, the value that understanding basic finance has. So, as you see Silicon Valley has taken off, but when I was graduating with a science degree, seldom did they teach you what a PnL looks like, or how to manage a business. So, I wish I had a little bit of learning there to help me decide which opportunities to invest or monetise better.

MT: Do you think that’s improved since you were starting out, or do you think there’s still a bit of a gap?

RT: It has definitely improved. You can see all the stories when I was a peer are now movies. How Facebook started, Google, Apple. They were entrepreneurs, but they had a learning – a basic understanding of what the market wanted. So few people have that. But then the financial machinery behind that is what would have been nice to be exposed to, to some degree. However, knowing myself then, I would have ignored that class. You don’t know where you’re going to end up.

MT: Who or what inspires you in your field of work?

RT: Making a difference in human health is inspiring to me, and then I collaborate with luminaries in the field. [Professor Matthias Mann, Director of the Department of Proteomics and Signal Transduction at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, Germany and Director at Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, University of Copenhagen] has always been an idol of mine. I learned a lot from him and learning continually is something that keeps me going. I do get nervous when I stop learning.

So, the field has evolved. I think we’re 10,000 times more sensitive, and never imagined we would look at proteins within a single cell. To me, it’s just amazing. I feel I’m lucky in life, because when I got my university admission, it came in through the mail. It was a letter. I was right at the cusp of when everything became digital, so I remember both sides – mailing people birthday cards, waiting for the mailman to arrive to see if I got admitted in the college that I wanted. So that transition, I think I’m lucky to have gone through that.

The question is how to satisfy younger scientists who want instant gratification nowadays – they push us to get complex data analysed quickly, and there is some benefit to that. It’s just the rigour – that onus has moved slightly, I would say, away from the user who expects it to be embedded in the instant gratification that they need.

MT: Do you have a solution as to how to bring that back?

RT: My philosophy has always been under-promise and over-deliver. I’d rather be more conservative in what we show than be more optimistic. We help people tackle some real difficult challenges that are not easy to begin with. So adding noise into where there’s very little signal to noise is not what I like to do. Rather enhance the signal.

MT: What drives you professionally and personally?

RT: In my line of work, sensitivity in the instruments matters. The reason it matters, as I learned by working with and listening to oncologists, is they can only harvest a few cells. So that’s the drive. We can do anything we want with the mass spec, pretty much… Just make it massive, and we can achieve a lot of things. But is it practical? And does it solved the problem? Harvesting few cells is important. So that’s what drives sensitivity. So, I think that’s the excitement. Making a real difference in the larger scientific community, we play our part.

MT: What excites you most about the work that you’re currently doing?

RT: We’ve got two approaches. We’re in a unique position where we can look at tissue analysis, and we can look at cells, and we can look at body fluids. All that impacts human health in one way or the other. Every year, we talk to lots of professors, collaborators, pharma companies – we want to help make drugs more efficacious. Are they hitting the target safer? Do you have off target effects? As we understand the complexity that’s driven by the advances we make, that’s the drive. Are we helping human health in a broader scale?

It’s always been something that I wanted to do in my life, either as an academic, or now that I’m on the business side. It’s the same except you’re not teaching students, you’re just managing different types of scientists and a variation of people.

MT: Based on what we’ll be learning today, and the capabilities of Bruker’s new facilities, what does the future of the mass spectrometry industry look like? And what role will Bruker play in the future?

RT: If you look at the cell phone evolution, that’s how I compare it to the layman. We started with rotary phones: you show that phone to a two-year-old, she won’t know what it is. But you show an iPhone, they immediately know how to scroll. That’s where we need to get with mass spectrometers.

It’s been about forty years, it’s a nascent field – it’s a very difficult field. But we need to make it simpler for broader adoption. So, how to make something that’s very complex, simpler to use so that it finds broader applicability. I think I would say that’s our goal: to make it more applicable. Like a grandma using a phone to take pictures.

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