Carsten Thiel

Boldly trusting your gut in a professional sense is crucial to garnering professional successes, and developing leadership.

Over the course of his two-decade career, biotech expert Carsten Thiel has worked for some of the biggest names in the pharmaceutical industry across the globe. However, as he has transitioned from position to position, he has sought out jobs in increasingly smaller and more niche companies. This is because Thiel is a people person — his desire to help those most in need has been the main driving force throughout his career, propelling him towards specializations in rare diseases and oncology. Rejecting the idea that working in the pharmaceutical industry must mean negating ethics in favor of profits, Thiel has made patient-first care the cornerstone of his professional trajectory.

Listen to our interview with Carsten Thiel as a podcast episode.

Born and raised in Berlin, Thiel’s parents both worked in the medical field and encouraged him from a young age to find the beauty in science. After graduating from secondary school, Thiel initially attended the University of Marburg in Germany for his undergraduate degree before transferring to the more research-intensive University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. Earning his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, Thiel then enrolled in the prestigious Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science in Germany. The institution is a world-renowned academy that has hosted some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th and 21st century such as Albert Einstein, and during his time at the Institute for Biophysical Chemistry Thiel researched the roles proteins play in turning healthy cells cancerous.

After earning his Ph.D in molecular biology Thiel’s was presented with the opportunity to continue his career as a researcher, being offered a position in Harvard University’s post-doctoral research program. Although he had always enjoyed academia, after consideration he decided that his true drive was derived from being able to bring innovations in medicine to the benefit of patients, and spending ten to fifteen years working on one molecule was a pace too slow for his preference. Instead, he accepted a position in the marketing and communications department of the pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-la Roche, where he made waves within the industry for staunchly ensuring a new weight loss drug was marketed towards those who would benefit from it most rather than a wide general audience the company desired.

From there, Thiel continued to accept positions with larger leadership roles in increasingly smaller companies, hoping to work as closely with patients as possible while also making the biggest impact. Moving from positions at massive pharmaceutical companies like Eurofins Scientific, Amgen, and Alexion Pharmaceuticals to smaller niche brands like Abeona Therapeutics and his current company EUSA Pharma, Thiel ensured that he was taking jobs in which his assistance would have the biggest impact. EUSA Pharma is a relatively small pharmaceutical company that specializes in oncology and rare diseases, and as president of European operations for the company Thiel is able to adeptly apply his decades of experience within the pharmaceutical industry to those who need it most. For Thiel, getting to see firsthand the difference his work has made in people’s lives is all he needs to persevere.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

In the beginning of the day, I take a few minutes to connect with my family over breakfast, and coffee. This time is a wonderful way to start the day on the same page, and have a few moments together before the day becomes hectic. Then, I spend a few minutes checking email, and viewing the newest international headlines. Not only does this keep me abreast of any relevant news, but allows me a few moments alone before heading into work. These two daily activities are sacred, and have become second nature throughout my day.

Throughout the standard work day, it is very easy to become bogged down by a calendar, and to have too many outstanding commitments that take one away from the portions of the “job” that will create long-term effects, and build a legacy. Thus, I try to prioritize my time in a way that accomplishes not only daily operational tasks, but focuses on long-term change as well.

First, I spend roughly 20-25% of my time with the board of the company, as well as investors. Spending this time with key stakeholders is imperative to successfully maintaining a cohesive unit, and ensuring that each key player is on the same page. As an estimate, I would be confident to state that I spend roughly 10% of my time directly interacting with customers, doctors, and the individuals who will actually be utilizing my product. At times, the travel associated with these face-to-face tasks makes the day stressful, but it is crucial to be well involved in the milieu of things in order to understand the way in which a product is being received.

Staff engagement is also important as a leader, and thus, I try to spend as much time as I can devote to checking in with staff, maintaining a pulse on the current happenings of all employees, and generally being involved with the people who are responsible for the success of the company.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Early within my professional career, I began to understand the potential positive effects of a collaborative effort, and the power of encouraging team members. Within my first position leadership position, I was essentially spearheading market assessment, and medical marketing, for various high-profile products. Though I was leading a team of various peers, employees, and researchers, I quickly learned that the best way to garner long-term respect, and bring new ideas to life, was through a collaborative effort. As all of the individual members of the team were passionate about their role within the company, their efforts, and ideas, were vastly important to them. By listening to their findings, opinions, and insights related to a specific aspect, I was able to not only maintain a positive professional relationship with each team member, but also jump start various ideas.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Growing up in a family of medical doctors, I naturally had the inclination that I would follow in the footsteps of my parents. At school, I was interested in science, biology, and gaining medical knowledge. However, I can still recall the exact moment that I recognized what drove my intellectual spirit. When I garnered real understanding about the ways in which DNA works, and ways in which it is responsible for so many facets of existence, I knew that I wanted to devote my professional career to further exploring this riveting topic.

Currently, I find myself continuously enthralled by the ways in which evolving technology can be utilized to help patients. As technology continues to forge ahead, things that were previously thought of as impossible are becoming the norm. Thus, it is difficult to ever stop being excited by the notion of technology merging with wellness, as this field continues to evolve at rapid speeds.

For example, it took decades to decode the human genome, which provided unparallelled insights. Now, it takes roughly four days. Major advancements have taken place within the previous few decades, responsible for so many new ways treat various ailments, prevent certain diseases, and look at biological intervention to circumvent disease. One of my colleagues, who runs a biotech venture fund in California, often refers to the present day as the “Golden Age Of Biotechnology”. We are probably in the most exciting decades, and I predict that people in future generations will remember the present as the most transformative time in history, where we use science and biology not only to understand, but actually to treat, and eradicate diseases

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Though this may sound counter intuitive, I truly believe that continuously asking questions, and remaining inquisitive, is a great way to be productive. For example, when working on a complicated project that involves a large team of professionals, I would rather ask various specific questions throughout the process, rather than coasting along until the project is almost completed, only to find out that the team may have left a stone unturned. In the medical field, this could very well result in a product not being allowed to move forward to market. Thus, not following any intuition, or asking questions, could lead to a loss of time in the end. Though it may initially take additional time in order to cross all of the potential obstacles, and complete the due diligence needed to move forward, I truly believe this practice to be more productive on a long-term basis.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Though there are many thoughtful quips that I would love to tell my younger self, the most important lesson would be to trust your gut. In conjunction with research, facts, and insights, boldly trusting your gut in a professional sense is crucial to garnering professional successes, and developing leadership. Early in my professional career, I was solely responsible for the marketing of a product called Xenical, which was intended for weight loss. At the time, I was confident, and well-versed, in the subtle nuances of marketing for medical professionals. However, this was the first product that was marketed to the general population. I was concerned with the prospect of creating a splash via making lofty promises and claims, which would have undoubtedly garnered a high initial revenue stream, but could have resulted in potential loss of reputation for the company.

Through conducting vast research, I have come to understand the unique hardships related to weight loss marketing. Within this niche, customers who ingest the product may not be committed to creating positive lifestyle changes in conjunction with the product, but often continue to expect a certain weight loss outcome. Naturally, this is counterproductive, and thus, customers sometimes inaccurately consider this to be a let-down on the part of the product.

In this situation, though still in the earlier years of my professional career, I urged the company to market the product initially to a particular subset of customers, medical professionals, and industry individuals, in order to organically grow the reputation of the company. Though this undoubtedly meant that initial revenue wouldn’t be as strong, I firmly believed that the long-term revenue, along with maintained positive reputation, would be significantly more impressive with this approach. I remained steadfast in my belief, and approach, and in the end, the product proved to be a huge success, due in part to this marketing approach.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Though I would not state that nobody agrees with this sentiment, it is certainly commonly lost within the realm of business, medicine, science, and a professional atmosphere. Throughout my career, I have come to understand that in order to gain success within any professional venture, one must find the human element in everything. Within the world of medical research, biochemistry, and business, numbers and facts often lead the way. Often times, empathy doesn’t exist, and human connections aren’t at the forefront of the work day.

In my experiences, however, I have found greater successes in every scope of business with the integration of humanity, empathy, personality, and understanding, even within business transactions. For roughly one year, I became a GP Sales Rep, selling therapies to practitioners in London. Though I was well educated, and well experienced, I rapidly began to understand that my accomplishments didn’t necessarily matter. A resume wasn’t enough to even get a foot in the door. By finding something relatable, personable, and human in each interaction, rather than solely focusing on the task at hand, I was able to successfully break down the barriers that sometimes exist in this field, and garner the interpersonal relationships needed to succeed.

Thus, though many business people, scholars, or scientists may not always agree, I thoroughly believe that the importance of empathy, and human connection, is crucial within any professional atmosphere.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

As a leader, and someone who is in charge of providing an example to others, I often remind myself to take business very seriously, but to not take myself very seriously. By this, I mean that I often remind myself that my role is to provide people with the tools they need for success, with the guidance they may seek to grow, and with the leadership that will instill confidence. Each member of the team is crucial toward the overall success of the operation, and thus, it is my duty to ensure that they are all functioning to the highest standards, and have everything they need to do so. I would certainly encourage all CEO’s, leaders, and innovators to follow suit, as they are not the only source of success for a company, but rather, the means to the end of success.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I believe in the “boots on the ground” mantra, where success lies in the communication with potential customers, providers, and prescribers. In the process of literally going door to door to speak with these people, one can garner the most direct feedback. In the past, I have performed this task for roughly a year, and have garnered valuable insights directly from consumers.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Though I certainly wouldn’t call it a complete failure, I would certainly say that I’ve had a few tough lessons throughout my professional career. For example, we had a new treatment for patients with colorectal cancer, and right before we were able to get the product approved and ready for mass market, we received word that there was a biomarker that you could utilize to distinguish between patients that would respond well to the therapy, and patients that would not have any discernible response. At that point, we have two choices. Led by the promise of vast revenue, we could have marketed the product for everyone, and allowed people to figure out for themselves, later down the line, whether or not the product would work for them. In oncology, that was almost the norm. Alternatively, we could have provided total transparency in regard to this biomarker in a campaign that would call for practitioners to test each patient, in order to determine said patient’s predicted response to the treatment. Of course, this method would have eliminated some potential customers, and would not have yielded the same profits.

Although the second method was not the norm, I believed that it was the right move in this situation, and was the more innovative method, providing advice, understanding, and knowledge for both customers, and practitioners through these initial testings. Of course, this meant providing practitioners with standardized testing that was widely available, introducing initial education efforts for the product, and providing customer service efforts for all involved, in order to maintain the integrity of the product’s goals.

While there were people who supported this innovative school of thought, there were also naysayers. Again, I was faced with a moral dilemma, and through sticking with my convictions, the company decided to move forward in the manner that I found to be ethically correct, progressive, and ultimately, wildly successful!

While this practice is more widely utilized throughout modern times, this example is dated roughly twelve years, and occurred throughout a time when it was much more difficult to create strategies that focused so much on factors other than profitability. So, while this example wasn’t necessarily indicative of a traditional sense of failure, it did highlight the systemic failure of the system that has long been the norm, and the ways in which innovation resolved the issue, helping millions of individuals in the process.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Though my thoughts are in the conceptual stages, I see great potential in pursuing the creation of an innovative biotech company that addresses a severe, and unmet medical need. Though there have been vast medical advancements made within the previous two decades, there are still populations that are underserved. Thus, creating a unique technology that nobody else has, coupled with meeting the needs of an affected population, is a fantastic way to continue to forge ahead within the realm of biotech. Of course, the company would deliver a breakthrough therapy, and eventually either strives as an independent company, or gets acquired.

In the realm of biotechnology, being the first to offer an innovative product, or therapy, is crucial toward garnering success. When the market becomes oversaturated with many products aimed at resolving the same medical issue, it becomes significantly more difficult to overcome various obstacles, from garnering investor dollars for a variation of a product that is already readily available, to regulatory sources not wanting to waste valuable time investigating a carbon copy of another product.

For example, in the case of the competing rideshare applications, any application made after the wild success of Uber and Lyft will have to be vastly different in order to be marketable, and successful. Individuals already have two great options, both of which are free to download. Thus, does the market really need a third rideshare application based on the same premise? The short answer is no. The same theories are applicable throughout medicine, and biotechnology. Creating an innovative product is key to market success. Essentially, innovation comes with a higher risk, but at a higher margin.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Though it doesn’t quantify as $100, I have made a continued investment in the education of others via various donations. As a firm believer in continuous education, I continuously push myself to try new things, and to continue learning, growing, and garnering experience. In the same manner, I’m fascinated by the way in which education can change lives for young people. Thus, in 2014, I sponsored a school in Kenya, which has grown from serving a population of roughly 50 children at inception, to roughly 400 children! In this part of Kenya, there are no other educational options, and so, this school has provided many local children with the wonderful opportunity to learn, and better their futures. Many children travel great distances daily to get to the school, and it is absolutely rewarding to see their dedication to education, and the ways in which garnering a comprehensive education changes the scope of their lives. In addition to being personally fulfilling, it is also a very humbling, inspirational, and educational experience for my own children. We share the concept of empathy, giving, and the importance of helping others. There’s no better means of instilling these values than by leading by example. Thus, I would consider those funds to be money well spent for countless reasons, and with various returns.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

When I check news, I like to utilize LinkedIn. Though it is not necessarily for work related purposes, the site does allow me to view the content that I wish to view in a streamlined manner. Thus, I aim to be productive even in recreational use.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Recently, I read “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, and would certainly recommend it to the community. There are many fantastic universal lessons about communication, leadership, and education. No matter what industry one is involved in professionally, there are various lessons that can be applied from reading this renowned book.

Key Learnings:

  • Within the field of medical technology, ethics play an important role, and patient care, wellbeing, and comfort must always be placed first.
  • Within any customer facing role, it is beneficial to employ a personal touch, which can impact potential customers more than an experienced resume.
  • Finding a balance between work, education, wellbeing and health, and family, is key to being successful in any realm.
  • Technology plays an integral role in propelling the medical field.