Throwing in the towel has never crossed his mind, despite some severe setbacks. A failure is not the end of the world. And so Santhera CEO Thomas Meier has never had a plan B tucked away at the back of a drawer. He was the very first researcher at the Biozentrum to start up his own company. At full risk and with success. Thanks to his persistence, the once nearly sunken ship Santhera is now back on course.
You were a research group leader at the Biozentrum and now you are the Chief Executive Officer of the biotech company Santhera. How did this happen?
15 years ago I founded my first company MyoContract. This was the first start-up company at the Biozentrum. An absolute novelty. The idea of starting a biotech company there was well received. My friend and colleague Prof. Markus Rüegg offered help and support and Prof. Joachim Seelig and Prof. Urs A. Meyer were extremely pragmatic. There were no rules to follow. I rented a lab on the 7th floor, which I initially paid for by giving lectures. The fact that lectures were accepted as a form of currency for the company’s lab space was quite exceptional.
And how did the current company Santhera emerge from MyoContract?
MyoContract grew so quickly that in 2002 we had to move to Liestal, where the government had offered us some low price lab space in an old Ciba-Geigy barrack. Although the building was not very pretty, it provided all we needed. In 2004, MyoContract merged with a German company and Santhera was born. We soon grew to almost 80 employees, with about half involved in research. The projects were then at an early stage of drug discovery; we had chemistry and biology labs and even a mouse facility. Sadly, we had to completely close down our research department in 2010 because, in the end, basic research had become too expensive for a company of our size and financial resources.
As a researcher, wasn’t it hard to decide to take this step?
Yes, it was bitter. But from the cost-revenue perspective, it was a logical and necessary decision. Basic research and early drug discovery are very difficult to finance because investors don’t see an immediate value in this. Research that is not at least in the clinical development phase is merely seen as a cost factor, so it is very difficult to find investors for early stage research projects. We are talking about several millions per year. Now we focus solely on clinical research. This is different, but just as expensive (laughs). However, it is easier to find financial support for the clinical phase because the time to market is much shorter and the risk for investors is smaller.
You have just received EU approval for the drug Raxone. What does it mean for Santhera?
We have come a long way and now a milestone has been reached. With Raxone, we are bringing a drug on the market, which can stop vision loss or restore vision in patients with the hereditary eye disease known as Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. We have shown that this drug can be approved and that even a company of our size can achieve this. For us this is a huge success.
As the CEO, how much can you steer the destiny of Santhera?
I’m committed to our shareholders and the Board of Directors. Of course, I have a say, but in a publicly owned company, the final decision lies with the shareholders. As the CEO, I‘m in charge of looking after the shareholders’ interests, the benefit of the company and it’s employees. And I have to keep these in balance.
Did you ever imagine founding a company one day?
When I came back from the United States, this idea was very concrete. In the US, it is much more common to set up a company than it is here. When I qualified as a PD here, the BioValley hype was in full swing, and I was interested in starting a company in the field of neuromuscular research. I had an idea, a business plan and a concept. But if I had known then, what I know now, I might have had second thoughts (laughing).
There were many stumbling blocks. Firstly, the start-up was not easy. In the early years, we often struggled to survive. And there were, of course, many setbacks. Our first pilot study was positive, but the two subsequent clinical trials showed negative results. At that time we had to entirely restructure the company twice. And in 2013, we suffered a major setback again. Our first attempt for drug approval failed and we shrank to just twelve employees. We knew what to do in order to reach a positive decision but we had practically no money left. We were on the verge of liquidation!
Didn’t you want to throw in the towel during the hard times?
I’m not that kind of person. Once you begin to hesitate, you have already lost. When the company hit its lowest point, I started playing the drums. I even have a set of drums in my office now. During this time I also lost three teeth, due to grinding my teeth at night, triggered by stress. It is really hard to master such difficult situations, especially when you constantly encounter negative articles in the press that seem to predict the end of Santhera: "Can CEO Meier rescue the company?" or "Is this the end of Santhera?" During this time it would have been better not to read the newspapers. But you cannot hide from it.
Did you ever think about doing something else during the times of crisis?
No! Once you begin to develop a plan B, you forget your plan A – working on a plan B clearly is a mistake! In case of panic, do not panic.
What advice would you give young scientists who are playing with the idea of starting their own business?
Definitely, give it a try and don’t be afraid to fail. Unfortunately, in Switzerland you can be easily stigmatized when your business idea fails. So you must have a good business idea, and should seek the support of experienced mentors. And be prepared for a crisis – which will inevitably turn up. Actually, the reason for crisis is always the same, namely, the lack of a critical resource. This could be money, the market or a product, but also employees. This is the moment to be relentless and fight for the resource.
How important are spin-offs for universities?
In my opinion, spin-offs are not a burden for a university but rather an enrichment. It is not enough to carry out cutting edge research in an ivory tower. It is a consequence of being a leading institution that spin-offs are constantly being established. This is also an important economic factor and an excellent track record for the university.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to share my experience. When I eventually slow down, I can imagine acting as a mentor for interested company founders. I have also benefited from this. In the USA, there is a much stronger sense of giving something back to the Alma Mater, either in form of money or service.
And finally, as a PD, did you ever consider taking on a professorship?
Yes, I did think about it – for about half an afternoon (laughs).
Since 2011, Thomas Meier has been the Chief Executive Officer of Santhera Pharmaceuticals AG located in Liestal near Basel. After studying biology at the Universities of Erlangen (Germany), Geneva, and Basel, he earned his PhD under the supervision of Prof. Heinrich Reichert. He then worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado, USA. After his habilitation at the University of Basel, Thomas Meier became a research group leader at the Biozentrum in 1999, where he founded his first company MyoContract in the following year. After merging with a German company in 2004, the pharmaceutical company Santhera was born. The company is specialized in the development and marketing of drugs for the treatment of rare neuromuscular and mitochondrial diseases.