I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and work for Genentech, the first biotechnology company ever started (in 1976). I did my Ph.D. at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), but decided early on that I wanted to work in industry. Living and working in the United States was a must for me, so a postdoc in a biotech company sounded like the ideal transition to industry. With help from Prof. Joseph Martial (University of Liège) I applied to a few labs in the US and was very lucky to get a postdoc offered from David Goeddel, the star scientist at Genentech who was behind all their early products; insulin, growth hormone, tPA. I left for California with my wife 9 days after defending my thesis for a 3 years contract at Genentech.
Two and a half years later, Genentech offered me a permanent scientist position with my own lab. As an independent scientist I decided to go after something big: clone Thrombopoeitin (TPO). This is the protein that regulates platelet production. Labs across the world had been chasing TPO for decades but could not find it. We cloned it in less than 2 years. I pretty much worked in the lab 7 days a week during that time, staffing the lab 24-hours a day at some crucial times. This really launched my career and I never looked back. May 1st is my 25th anniversary at Genentech. I am now the Vice President of Research Molecular Oncology.
You seem to love your work?
I have a fantastic job. I lead one of the largest cancer research discovery efforts in the world. We are at the cutting edge of science in a fascinating field and have the opportunity to go from basic research all the way to clinical trials and drug approval. The best was to have the opportunity to go through the entire process successfully once with a project from my own lab. From a very early discovery project that I initiated in my group, looking at the role of a signaling pathway called “Hedgehog” in cancer, we developed a medicine, vismodegib (Erivegde®), that has remarkable activity and is approved for the treatment of a form of skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma in the US, Europe and many other countries. The most rewarding was to meet patients that benefited from the drug. It was an incredible feeling.
And what about California?
I love it. California is beautiful and you cannot beat the weather. Well maybe you could send us some water, we need rain. But the outdoor is fantastic. The only inconvenience is that we do not have much free time to enjoy it. But at least I can bike to work pretty much all year round!
Do you miss Belgium?
My wife and I have large families and many great friends in Belgium. We miss them very much. That is pretty much the biggest drawback for us. We come back at least once a year to visit them. We have made plenty of friends in the US, but you cannot replace family and childhood friends.
We would also enjoy more free time – It is hard to beat the amount of vacation you have in Europe! And being an hour or two from all the great European cities to visit maybe. But the rest is probably a myth. I never worked in Belgium and I go there only on vacation so I get the impression that everyone is so relaxed and available. They tell me that it is only when I visit.
How do you spend your time when you’re not at work?
As I said, that is not very much time. But I am really into sports: lots of road biking. I am signed up this summer for something called the “Death Ride” in Lake Tahoe (altitude 2000m). It is 130km with about 16,000 feet of climbing. I have to train for that. But my new love is backcountry skiing. I hope to do the “Haute Route” within a few years.
What do you like most about the place where you live now? What makes it so different from Belgium?
Of course I love the weather and the outdoor. But beyond that, there is also an incredible positive spirit in California. A feeling that everything is always possible. There are hundreds, thousands of these startups.
If you have an idea, you just set up a company and pursue your dream. Start the next Apple, Google or Genentech. Work around the clock to make it happen.
Do you hope to return permanently to Belgium at some point?
Nothing is permanent. Plus I have 3 kids. They are spread out in the US now. One is in Washington DC, one in Seattle and one is still with me in San Francisco but not for long unfortunately. So it is unlikely I will be back permanently. But I could see myself spending a lot more time there.
What dreams and future ambitions do you still have?
So many and so little time. Developing another drug would be high on the list!