Building bridges between the clinic and the lab has been Paul-Peter Tak’s main mission throughout his career.
What is your academic, research background?
My background is a mix of clinical medicine and research: two subjects that I think go hand-in-hand. Having a medical degree and a PhD gave me a strong position from which to build a career that spans these two fields.
During my medical training, I got more interested in research, and how to bridge that gap between clinical medicine and basic science. That gave me a springboard from which to get involved in translational science in immunology, rheumatology and geriatrics.
This translational approach has been the basis of my career ever since, which involved a spell doing research in the US and more than a decade at the Academic Medical Centre/University of Amsterdam – where I became Professor of Medicine and Chair of the Department of Clinical Immunology & Rheumatology; and was proud to be elected ‘Toparts’, the best rheumatologist in the Netherlands according to my peers.
Since 2011, I’ve been global head of ImmunoInflammation at healthcare company GSK. I lead research and development (R&D) in this field from basic discovery to clinical trials, to regulatory approval.
Why is it a natural thing to bridge academia and the clinic?
Firstly, continuous education is crucial. As physicians, we should always be looking to sharpen our knowledge and skills so that we can look after patients to the best of our abilities. Secondly, getting involved in academic research helps you to think systematically and gives you a deeper understanding of science which is invaluable in a clinical setting. Whether you’re a doctor in the clinic, in academia, or working across both, we’re all striving to better the lives of patients.
Why did you make the move to industry?
I never planned my career or planned to end up being a rheumatologist until I became involved in research – and I had not really expected to get involved in research until it sparked my interest at university. I also never planned to join the pharmaceutical industry or GSK until I saw the positive change that these opportunities could bring.
I had been in Amsterdam for 12 years and was ready for a change. Although there was ample funding in academia, I felt I could do something radically different for patients and on a much larger scale if I could access the scope and resources offered by industry.
Since moving to industry, I’ve found the talent and capabilities here are mind-blowing. When I first joined I felt like a child in a candy store. There is access to the most amazing technology and there’s a hugely collaborative atmosphere and focus.
How important is having a mentor during your transition?
Hugely important. Making the move to industry is not always easy. For me, it was a step into the dark as I left behind a very established position. It was a new culture and way of working. I was used to autonomy; in industry, there is a hierarchy.
But I was also surprised by the level of co-operation in industry. During my transition, I was fortunate to have the support of Patrick Vallance, president of pharmaceutical R&D at GSK.
When I was first approached to join GSK, Patrick took the time to meet with me. I didn’t think that industry was for me – it was an unknown quantity – so maybe foolishly I told him that I wasn’t interested in working for them. But having spoken to Patrick, I saw similarities with myself – he had also made the jump from academia, and I trusted his vision for R&D.
Patrick made it clear to me that I could achieve my ambitions, and abide by my values, at a company such as GSK. Meeting someone who had followed a similar career path – and with whom I could identify – gave me the confidence to make that leap to industry.
What skills did you transfer from academia into industry?
My scientific training has stood me in good stead, as has the systematic approach to research that academia instils in you. Having clinical insight helps me to develop strategies to address unmet medical needs. Alongside my career in academia, I also established a biotech company specialising in gene therapy. That entrepreneurial experience together with leading a large academic department gave me an important insight into managing people and running a company, which has proved useful in industry.
What new skills have you learned in industry?
Working in industry has helped me take a more systematic approach to leadership. I’ve been taken aback by the level of resources on offer in industry and the sheer professionalism. I’m learning to take advantage of these support networks. Also, I have learnt more about developing people – my organisation really does invest in ensuring its people become the best they can be – and focused project management.
What advice do you have to young clinicians who are thinking about transitioning?
Think about what really motivates you and drives you on. You must do what you find interesting, not what is most financially rewarding. What’s the best job you could imagine yourself in? Now go for that and follow your heart. For some people, that might be purely clinical; for others, it might be a mix of industry and research. It may be different during different stages of your career. Don’t be afraid of combining different skills and bringing different worlds together. Industry offers opportunities to still be a physician – putting all your clinical skills to good use – and some physicians working in industry still see patients too. But industry also brings the potential to benefit patients on another scale altogether through groundbreaking research.
You are currently hiring for your team at GSK – what are you looking for?
We’re always looking for talented individuals who can bring different skills and a different slant to our research. We need people with an insight into clinical care as well as those who have experience of leading game-changing science.