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Becoming a Successful Leader in the Life Sciences: An Interview With Karin Schmitt PhD

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Karin Schmitt is Chief Business Officer at Mogrify, where she leads the company’s commercial operations and R&D function, working to transform the development of cell therapies. After obtaining her Ph.D. in molecular biology at the University of Southern California and completing three years of post-doctoral research, Karin has since held a number of successful leadership roles within the life sciences and brought over 20 innovative products to market.

Here Karin touches on her current projects and greatest professional achievements and discusses the skills needed to become a successful leader in the life sciences.

Q. Could you tell me a little about your background and how you came to be working in this field?

I grew up in Germany and initially studied biology for a couple of years before I was awarded a prestigious scholarship to continue my career at the University of Southern California where I was able to pursue my dream: a PhD degree in Molecular Biology in California. Supported by an EMBO fellowship postdoc position in Cambridge, UK, I was seduced by the then nascent biotechnology scene in Boston and accepted a position at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, one of the great success stories of these early enterprises in biotech. From there on, I followed my heart, worked for a few more very successful start-up companies in the US and the UK, including Horizon Discovery, always at the cutting-edge of science, which took me from genomics and functional genomics, then diagnostics to now cell therapy. I was fortunate to be able to combine my deep interest in science with business development, and now I am the CBO at Mogrify, a new Cambridge-based company with the goal of transforming cell therapy.

Q. What or who have been the major influences in your career choice and direction?

I have always been fascinated by genetics, starting from the first time the subject was taught in school. I knew I wanted to master molecular biology although I had been contemplating studying Medieval German at university. I have worked very hard to pursue my dreams especially as I had been the first in my family to go to university. Fortunately, I have always had the support of my parents and various mentors, and after the completion of my PhD and postdoc, I found my calling in helping start-up companies build successful businesses. Initially embracing Boston and Silicon Valley, I now call Cambridge my home and where I would like to build with Mogrify a company that similarly imagines that nothing is impossible.

Q. Can you tell us more about the projects you are currently working on?

At Mogrify, we’re aiming to transform cell therapy and through further development and optimization of our proprietary direct cell conversion platform, we plan to produce cell types with unrivalled safety, efficacy, and scalability profiles for use in autologous, allogeneic, and in vivo reprogramming therapies. Our R&D efforts will continue to focus on identifying relevant cell conversions for diseases where cell therapies hold high potential impact to serve as regenerative medicines, and the conversion is central to finding a cure.

Q. What do you find the most rewarding aspects of your job?

I believe that teamwork is key and fully embrace the collaborative aspects of my role. Science nowadays has become very complex and only in a diverse team can you truly be successful. I have been fortunate in my current role that having been a very early employee, I was able to hand-pick a great team, with diverse backgrounds and representing many disciplines. At Mogrify, we have put a culture in place that motivates and rewards our employees. We have very audacious goals and I love the excitement that comes with entering unchartered territory in cell therapy.

Q. What would you say has been your greatest achievement to date?

I am most proud of the more than twenty products that I have brought to market. Of course, this could not have been achieved without the strong contributions of many team members from diverse backgrounds and representing different skill sets. The products are used across the world, for research purposes in academia and industry, as well as in clinical settings to help with patient treatment decisions. They include whole genome libraries, various cloning vectors, diagnostics standards, cell lines and a diagnostics test to stratify patients with chronic immune mediated disease. At Mogrify, I am now working on new cell-based therapies that will one day make a difference to many patients across a variety of disease areas. It is a great feeling to see my work translated directly into improving research and the care of the patients we serve.

Q. In your opinion, what are some of the main challenges facing the biotech industry? How has the field changed during your career, and how do you see it developing in the future?

I often think about the next wave of scientists wanting to enter the biotech industry, and their career aspirations. I hope they can find the same exciting and nurturing environment that I found in early start-up companies, allowing them to pursue their dreams and not be limited in their exploration of new ideas. I would like to create this kind of environment here in Cambridge, at Mogrify, so that we may all have the freedom to reach our potential and the means to make a real difference in the treatment of patients.

Q. In your experience, what skills are important to become a successful leader in the life sciences?

Working as a successful leader will become part of your everyday life, with many challenges heading your way, it is important to solidify your skillset and approach, in my case this meant a very strong scientific foundation and defining myself as an authentic leader. The ability to influence is also an absolute “must”, along with a consistent and high standard of execution. Another important aspect is a strong network, and here I was helped by having an international network spanning the US and UK. Recognize that you can only be as successful as your team, invest in your team and the people around you, providing opportunities for everyone and encouraging excellence. Grasp any opportunities that come your way and believe in yourself. Having lots of energy will help. Find mentors and sponsors along the way. Most importantly, you have to enjoy what you are doing, embrace the challenges and have fun.

Dr Karin Schmitt was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.