Driven by the desire to understand the human nature, and eventually seeking to understand the physics that construct it all. Kurt Stoeckli’s road to becoming the new President of NDA’s Advisory Board may seem as long and winding as any rising mountain road in the alps in his native Switzerland, but just like them, it does follow a coherent logic and destination.
“It’s all about being curious, asking the right questions, staying passionate and being open to new inspiration”, says Kurt Stoeckli, the new President of NDA’s Advisory Board. “Because knowledge is changing rapidly, and the life cycle of innovation is shorter.”
Growing up in a rural area in Switzerland, between Basel and Lausanne, he dreamt to become a farmer and wanted to drive trucks as a schoolboy and then he became fascinated by climbing
high mountains in the alps; a seemingly unlikely background for someone who would move on to become a leader in the pharmaceutical industry. On his way there, the study of philosophy caught his attention.
“It was more of a hobby and an inspiration”, he says of his early academic career.
“In high school, I was engaged in literature and theater. I wanted to learn more about what drives humans.”
However, when the time came to aim for a professional career – “reading Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein or Heidegger can be fascinating, but epistemology is not a profession”, he points out – he was inspired by a teacher to turn his focus towards chemistry, and later on, biology..
“I loved experiments. You can set up a hypothesis and you can verify or falsify your hypothesis under defined conditions. I like it. Moving from chemistry to biology was a natural evolution in my scientific career. You start by understanding the structure of molecules which is incredibly useful to then understand their function.”
Becoming increasingly interested in physiology and pathophysiology, Kurt Stoeckli worked his way down towards the basics of immunology, fascinated by the immune system’s fundamental importance in keeping a multi-cellular organism, like the human body, in balanced and healthy state; unlike any other organ system of the body with a defined place, the immune system is more like a mobile organ system, doing its job effectively – regardless where it is needed.
When eventually entering the pharmaceutical industry, his leadership skills turned out to come in handy. He headed up the Biologics Division at the French pharma company Sanofi, later becoming the CEO of Glenmark Switzerland and the global CSO of the group.
“It’s all about being curious, asking the right questions, staying passionate and being open to new inspiration”
What are you most proud of during your career?
“Two major things. Having critically contributed to the development of at least two marketed drugs, dupilumab (Dupixent) and sarilumab (Kevzara); they are approved for multiple indications like severe asthma and RA; right now, sarilumab is also used in clinics to dampen excessive immune reactions associated with COVID-19. The other important achievement concerns the development of key talents. High potential people that could unfold their talents and grow into leadership positions, taking major decisions today, and developing next-generation talents for tomorrow. In that way, the cycle continues.”
What about your biggest challenges?
“The shutdown of entire research sites and separating from people that were completely committed to the company and gave their best. Yet I had to go through this twice during my 18 years at Sanofi, based on the company’s strategic direction. That was tough for me.”
Growing up on the border between the German- and French-speaking areas, Kurt Stoeckli speaks German, French, and a little Italian – as well as English, of course. Has the time come for a new challenge – Swedish?
“Hopefully, I will get more familiar with it. My son, who studied in Uppsala, told me it’s not so difficult.”
He calls himself an entrepreneurial scientist because entrepreneurial scientists make use of scientific innovations and must deliver results that make sense from a business perspective.
“While I was within big pharma, I learned how to work with start-ups, how to help them. I have been a co-founder of some companies as well as an investor. I built my own consultancy for start-ups, so my new role as an advisor at NDA isn’t completely new to me.”
What are your intentions for this job and for the Advisory Board?
“The NDA Advisory Board thrives on being proactive and understanding the big areas of growth and innovation. Let us take the Advanced Therapy Medicinal Products (ATMP) as an example. Gene therapies are emerging. Today’s approaches will further innovate, and fully targeted gene delivery along with controlled and precise repair mechanisms will offer new ways of treatment. It will require new regulation and development strategies. We need to know how to bridge emerging sciences and related regulatory challenges, so that new treatments can bring the benefit to patients and value to the healthcare system without delay. That is what we strive for, and that is why we have scientists, physicians and ex-regulators working together at NDA. This is what drives me.”
Where do you see yourself and NDA in the coming years?
“I see NDA offering unique value to clients by understanding the value chain for innovative medicines and providing differentiated premium services that are composed of expertise in translational sciences, integrated development, perhaps companion diagnostics, and definitely innovative regulatory sciences. My role is to set up a strategy and bring in my network to make sure we deliver on this promise.”