Final ThesisNever take no for an answer
This is the story about my final thesis. I never wanted to write some bullshit piece of research nobody would care about. I wanted to write for a company, simply to get a foot in the door and become more attractive for future employers. Little did I know about the journey this was going to take me on.
Darmstadt, summer of 2011. I’m at university studying for one final round of exams. Soon, 45 minute sessions with my professors in physiology, biochemistry and business are coming up. Like everybody else, I believe this set of exams is likely the most important event in my entire life so far. They’re going to determine, if I will end up with a good job after uni. And a good job is important, no more than that. It’s super important. At least that’s what my parents had drilled into me. I intensively think about my after-uni-plans. I don’t see myself in research at all. I have never been fond of lab work. I very much enjoyed my time as a business analyst for Macquarie Capital, though. I have been told to possess very strong analytical skills on multiple occasions. And my goal is to analyze markets and develop business strategies. And I don’t want to do some academic piece of bullshit research that only one or two people will ever read. I want to create something with meaning. Plus, I believe it will certainly help raise my chances at future employers. Not for a second could I have imagined the journey that lay ahead of me, though.
Chapter #1: Finding A Company
The first step was to find a company that was willing to supervise me. I wrote down a list of companies that I believed would be great to work for (or at least sound great on my resume). Then I checked out their career sites. The problem was that none of them had listed topics that were anywhere close to where I saw myself. So I prepared unsolicited applications and sent them out. At the same time, I researched key people in all of the companies on my list and contacted them via email and social networks such as Xing (the German equivalent of LinkedIn). Responses were discouraging. HR departments simply referred to their career sites and the people I approached directly referred me to their HR departments, except for one person from Bayer who was willing to discuss my plans over the phone. Even though the conversation went well he couldn’t offer me what I was after. It was stuck in a dead end. Nothing seemed to work. But I wasn’t ready to give up. Not quite yet.
So I started to talk to family, friends and acquaintances about my endeavor. I hadn’t done that before, simply because at home I’m kind of an odd bird in my social circle. There’s hardly anyone with a university degree and to the day, nobody works in pharma or biotech or anything close to that. I did not place a lot of hope into that initiative, but what other options did I have? So, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, I spoke to a couple of people at the local soccer club. Everybody was celebrating that our team had won the game. Over a beer, my friend Markus asked me about how uni was going and what I wanted to do after. So I told him all about how I was preparing for my final exams and trying to find a pharma or biotech company for my final thesis. I’ll never forget the words he said next: “I’ve got a cousin who is some sort of Head of R&D at Qiagen in the US. I can send him an email, if you want.” I was stunned. Not in a million years would I have picked Markus as the person with the right contacts for my undertaking. He introduced me to his cousin who then forwarded my application to HR. A few days later, I got an invitation for an interview with Qiagen’s Innovation Management unit.
My interview went well, the Head of Innovation Management hired me. I was asked to choose from one of two topics for my final thesis: “Open Innovation – Opportunities for Qiagen” or “Bio-Economy – Opportunities for Qiagen”. I chose the latter. Luck seemed to finally be on my side. I was going to write a final thesis in the innovation management unit of Germany’s leading biotech company. And on top of that, the department had only recently won a “Best Innovator” award from A.T. Kearney and Wirtschaftswoche for Germany’s best innovation management. Could this have turned out any better? Not really!
Chapter #2: Battlefield Of Corporate And Academic Thinking
I went back to university in order to find a supervisor for my thesis. It didn’t make much sense to speak with my biology professors, though. I had already done that months earlier and everybody I had spoken to had declined. They argued they wouldn’t be able to mark my work properly. That made sense. So, I looked outside the biology department and found one professor who focused on innovation management. He seemed to be a great fit. So I pitched my thesis to him and he agreed to supervise me. He took the time to discuss the topic as well as Qiagen’s and his role over the course of my thesis. Everything went as planned, until my supervisor found out that Qiagen wanted the final thesis to be labelled confidential for at least five years. Over the course of the next few weeks, I found out first hand what it’s like when corporate and academic thinking collide. Neither Qiagen nor my supervisor were willing to move an inch. While Qiagen insisted my thesis had to be confidential (due to corporate policy), my supervisor insisted that it had to be in the public domain. It was his deep conviction that corporations didn’t have the right to exploit university students. While I do partially agree with him today, I was quite happy with the trade-off back then.
Sure, Qiagen would get a piece of research that potentially helped them make more money. And of course it only cost them a tiny, tiny, tiny amount of money. But in return, I was actually going to get paid for writing my thesis, I was going to get work experience in a corporate setting and I was going to be able to stick yet another company name on my CV. Uni offered none of these. But reasoning didn’t help. At no time was taken into account what the student wanted. I hadn’t written a single word and yet my thesis was under heavy fire. I knew I had to act. So, I spoke to the Dean of the faculty of economics. He had proven to been very supportive of my endeavor in the past. The confidentiality issue was no big deal for him. He understood that a penis-size contest (excuse my language!) between industry and academia threatened my chance of getting a foot in the door of Germany’s number one biotech company. Even though he was no expert in innovation management, he agreed to officially supervise me. The workaround we were looking at was that a colleague of his would do the actual supervision work. A few days after I had told Qiagen about my achievement, I was officially introduced to my new supervisor. Everything was back to square one.
Chapter #3: Colletaral Damage of Corporate Restructuring
In October 2011, Qiagen’s Head of Innovation Management and I finally put a start date on my thesis: the second of January 2012. December is holiday season and that would have made interaction with colleagues at Qiagen quite difficult. Thus, it didn’t make much sense to start in December. What made sense though, was for me to attend a bio-economy conference in October. It helped me by getting exposure to the topic I was going to focus on soon and by spending a day with one of my future colleagues. The four hour drive to the Belgian border where the conference was being held didn’t bother me at all. I was happy everything was in place for me to start soon.
I had just aced the last of my oral exams when I got a phone call from Qiagen that was going to change the course of my final thesis again. A senior staff member farm Qiagen was on the line telling me that: “Qiagen will undergo an extensive restructuring. In the course of this initiative, the innovation management unit will be dissolved. The Head of Innovation Management is no longer a Qiagen employee.” In my head I was like “Are you fucking kidding me?”. The person on the phone went on: “We’ve heard a lot of positive things about you. So, we got you a new supervisor. She is our Head of Business Development and will be in touch soon.” Phew! Not all was lost. Although I instantly knew that I would probably have to start all over again, that didn’t worry me. I mean, at least I didn’t lose my thesis at Qiagen. Uhm yes, but no! Reality caught up with me soon.
To the day, I’m not sure if the Head of Business Development was actually that busy or if she just tried to let me know that she wasn’t interested in my thesis. But the way she acted when I suggested that I’d go back to uni to write my final thesis makes the latter quite likely. After one initial phone call in which we discussed two ideas of how to restructure my thesis, I couldn’t get through to her anymore. Emails were left unanswered, so were voicemails. Just before Christmas I was getting a little tense. I was supposed to start at Qiagen in only a couple of days, but I had not got a hold of my new supervisor to discuss details of my thesis. So I outlined the basic structure of my thesis and sent it to her. Nothing happened for days. I was ready to bid farewell to my engagement at Qiagen. I was now seriously worried that indifference on Qiagen’s side would have a negative impact on my thesis. And I just couldn’t allow that to fuck up my degree. In the new year I got a phone call from the Head of Business Development. After the typical exchange of nice words, I proposed to go back to uni. She agreed. It didn’t even take two minutes to make my thesis collateral damage of corporate restructuring. Months of constant efforts, endless reasoning with university staff, numerous discussions with Qiagen. All was rendered unnecessary in the blink of an eye. I had to go back to uni to do what I never intended to do in the first place.
Chapter #4: Never Take No For An Answer
I took a couple of days off. I had to clear my head. Then I went to see my professor and pitched two new topics to him. We decided on Success Factors Of Pharma Corporate Venture Capital (CVC). He gave me two of his books and I got straight to work. I outlined my thesis, he approved. For a couple of weeks, everything was on track. I did a lot of reading and endlessly scribbled down ideas. Then I got stuck. I wanted to work with data to analyze CVC success. The few data providers which actually featured sort of data on pharma corporate venture capital deals in Europe, however, were terribly unreliable. Not one set of data even lasted a five minute cross-check. I went to see my professor. He explained that there were two options. I either work with faulty data sets or I find another source of data. By then I was well aware of the fact that in Europe, there were only four pharma companies that had strategic CVC units, or at least they were the only ones talking about it: Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck Serono, Novartis and Roche. I proposed to do interviews with them. And in order to get a complete picture, I would also interview the counterpart: founders. I sent out interview requests with CVC units, but all of them were declined. But I’m just not the kind of person who easily accepts a “no”.
So I went to a biotech conference in Heidelberg. I knew that the boss of Merck Serono’s CVC unit was going to be there. After his talk, I approached him and asked for a 30 minute interview. He agreed. One down, three to go! One of the conference media partners was “Venture Capital Magazin”. Before I left the conference, I decided to talk to the Venture Capital Magazin guy. I told him about my thesis and asked, if he was able to perhaps talk to the three CVC units. He offered to talk to one of his colleagues. A few days later, I got a phone call from the Chief Editor of the Special Edition Biotechnology of the GoingPublic Magazin, Markus Hofelich. For about 20 minutes we talked about how I, biology student, had spent time in investment banking, was now writing about CVC and where I saw myself career-wise. At the end of the phone call, he offered me a deal: I would get my interviews, if I helped out with the upcoming biotech issue of the GoingPublic Magazin. I agreed.
Chapter #5: Finally Finishing It Off
I moved to Munich in July. By then I had already conducted interviews with the boss of Merck Serono’s CVC unit and two founders. Boehringer Ingelheim and Novartis had confirmed my interview appointments. Roche declined, but that didn’t bother me. Three out of four was good enough. From then on, everything went smoothly. I continued to interview exceptional people, investment managers from CVC units and founders. GoingPublic Media’s network really opened a
lot of doors for me. And they got something in return, too. I did the project management of the information brochure “Healthcare in Bavaria” for them. I did editorial work for the special issue biotech and another magazine. It was a classic win-win. Of course, working a full-time job kept me from writing on my thesis, but my professor was very understanding. In October, I handed it in. A few weeks later, I got my grade. What can I say, I was very pleased with the outcome.
Let me make some further remarks. A long time ago, someone I deeply respect told me: “Son, everything in life happens for a reason.” Up until my final thesis, I had great difficulties comprehending what it was he meant. But I guess, there is a certain amount of truth to what my dear friend said back then. I wouldn’t be where I am today, if it hadn’t been for the journey my final thesis took me on. Without all of that Qiagen mess-up, I wouldn’t have written about CVC. And I wouldn’t have conducted the interviews. These interviews however, led to three job offers. One of them was from Autodisplay Biotech GmbH, the company I still work for today. While almost all of my fellow students had difficulties finding a job (unless the decided to do their PhD), I was all set. My desire to build my own businesses was sparked in that time. And I believe that’s one of the best things that have ever happened to me!