A Swiss globetrotter
May 2013He is a scientist, founder of a company, businessman and currently CEO of the biotechnology company Cytos. He lives in Switzerland, the USA and Germany. The Biozentrum alumnus Christian Itin leads the life of a globetrotter. ALUMNInews was interested to find out whether and how he remains connected to Basel and the Biozentrum.
You travel much professionally. Where do you feel at home?
Where you grow up has a big influence on your perspectives and values, values you take along on your way. A big part of what defines home for me though is family and friends, I met along the way. Today I feel at home when I am in California, in Munich or in Zurich.
Why do you travel so much?
The biotechnology business is very international. People we work and share ideas with are spread throughout the world. There are many first class academic and company research and development centers in the USA along with a particularly high concentration of investors supporting the industry.
What does the biotech company Cytos produce and what are your tasks as CEO?
We develop our lead product candidate to help patients better control their asthma using an immunological approach. As CEO of this small biotech firm, I am closely involved with the projects. One of the most exciting things for me, is to be able to move between so many levels – from research and clinical development across to finance and company strategy.
What is your daily routine?
I don’t have a routine in the real sense of the word. The question that I must ask myself each day is: What can I do today to ensure future success of the company?
What does it take to head a company? Where does one learn this?
There are a few simple but essential things. As a company leader you have to clearly define the focus of the company. In biotech this is typically the development of innovative new medicine. New mechanisms of action are typically at the heart of innovation and carry a lot of uncertainty. Any new data from experimental work, or from clinical trials require a re-examination of the approach taken and potentially changes to adapt to the new situation. We need a data-driven culture and build on scientific excellence to succeed. Equally important we have to realize that we do not only lead by setting goals, but how we personally interact and work within the company. Successful R&D is built on team work. Being part of such a team is fun, challenging and a great opportunity to learn from each other.
What keeps you connected to research?
A lot, it is the foundation of what we do. Our lead product has been completely developed by Cytos. We carried out research in the fundamental biology and mechanisms of action here in our labs. Currently we are at the stage of clinical trials. At this point we are a development team with a focus on clinical research and development. At Micromet, where I worked before, we had built a fully integrated research and development team. Our focus was on a new class of therapeutic antibodies, T cell engaging BiTE antibodies, for the treatment of various cancers. We developed a completely new and highly potent mechanism of action and worked from basic biology to successful clinical studies. At the time of acquisition by Amgen last year, we were grown from a private German company to a public US company with 240 employees in Munich, Germany and Rockville in Maryland.
In what research were you involved at the Biozentrum?
I was as a graduate student in the early 1990’s, in the Department of Pharmacology in Hans-Peter Hauri’s group. We were working on the early secretory pathway between the endoplasmic reticulum and the Golgi apparatus.
Why did you choose a career in industry after you completed your postdoc?
I eventually realized that building a company fascinated me more than continuing on the academic track. The entrepreneurial environment of Silicon Valley certainly facilitated the decision. What got me comfortable to take this decision was the realization that what I could learn on this path, I couldn’t learn anywhere else…
…that’s why you started the company Zyomyx, in California 15 years ago?
We were a group of four postdocs who founded the company in 1998. It was an amazing learning experience. We started out without any relevant experience on how to build a business and had to get on a very steep learning curve. What was terrific about starting in the San Francisco Bay Area was the easy access to people, who had successfully built biotech companies. The advice we got was incredibly valuable.
How did the company develop and why did you leave Zyomyx?
The company focused on developing protein chips for analytical and diagnostic purposes a new approach at the time. My passion though was always on developing new therapeutics and if any possible working through immune-based mechanisms. I had met the future chief scientist of Micromet when he still was working in the Bay Area and that personal relationship was the trigger for me joining Micromet end of 1999.
How straightforward did your career develop?
Looking back careers typically look straight forward and logical. But I can assure you I did not have a master plan starting out. Important for me was to be open for opportunities and act upon them. The one thing I knew was that I wanted to build and shape a company, creating an environment for innovation.
What setbacks did you have to accept in your career?
The biotech business while overall successful is marked by setbacks. Research and development are very complex and there is always something that does not go according to plan. You have to learn to deal with these situations. Focus on the data and what they tell you. Keep your eyes on the goal and work with your team to resolve the issues.
How was the time you spent at the Biozentrum significant for your career?
There was a very strong emphasis on scientific excellence, working on fundamental questions and a will to be a world class institute. This drive was also reflected by its international appeal. Having had the opportunity to work as a student with colleagues with international backgrounds was important to me.
Have you kept in contact with the Biozentrum or with former research colleagues?
Now and again, I have met other Biozentrum alumni at conferences. On occasion, I gave a talk at the Biozentrum. Over the years, I had regular contact with my PhD advisor. Establishing an alumni organization is a great idea. The Biozentrum alumni organization can become an important networking platform for new and former students alike.
Is there a particular anecdote from your time at the Biozentrum that you fondly remember?
I think it was for the Biozentrum’s 25th Anniversary celebration. The whole department performed a rap together. It was pretty cool and great fun for all of us.
The Biozentrum alumnus Christian Itin is CEO of the biotechnology company Cytos in Schlieren (CH), since November, 2012. Subsequent to completing his studies in Biology at the University of Basel, he carried out his PhD thesis in the Department of Pharmacology at the Biozentrum under the guidance of Prof. Hauri. Following postdoctoral fellowships at both the Biozentrum and in the Department of Biochemistry at Stanford University (USA), he became a co-founder of Zyomyx. In 1999, he joined Micromet (DE/USA), taking on various management functions and headed the company as CEO from 2004 until its acquisition by Amgen in 2012. Born in Basel, he currently lives as a weekly commuter in Zurich, his family lives in Munich (DE).