Thomas Schlumpberger is the new CEO and member of the Board of Directors at Nanomix, a leader in mobile, affordable point-of-care (POC) diagnostics. With more than 20 years of experience in the life sciences industry, Dr. Schlumpberger came to Nanomix after serving for 18 months as CEO of Pictor Limited, an international in-vitro diagnostics company focused on infectious disease management. Prior to that, he served in various leadership roles at Anixa Biosciences, Inivata Limited, Singulex, Annai Systems, and Epocal, among other companies. He also serves on the Board of Directors of DxEconomix, which provides healthcare systems and diagnostic companies with health economics and novel diagnostic and technology solutions that combine both clinical and economic benefits.
Dr. Schlumpberger received his Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology with distinction from the University of California, Berkeley, and he recently spoke with Slone Partners President Tara Kochis.
Tara Kochis: You’ve had an extraordinarily rich and successful track record in a range of diagnostics leadership roles at some cutting-edge companies. Tell us about your career path and some of the twists and turns you’ve encountered along the way.
Thomas Schlumpberger: I studied electrical engineering at the Technical University in Munich and became an electrical engineer. I started out working for BMW for three years. During that time, I became interested in biology because I did quality assurance at BMW and had to measure sensory inputs like loudness. As I was doing that work, I became very interested in biology and decided I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., so I applied to UC Berkeley, and to my surprise, they accepted me, and I was on my way.
Tara Kochis: As you embarked on your career, how did you make the move from biology and measuring sounds to the life sciences?
Thomas Schlumpberger: I did my Ph.D. in the Division of Neurobiology with a strong emphasis on synaptic transmission. The knowledge I gained from that work tied in nicely with my engineering background. While I was finishing my Ph.D. and starting to think about my next step, I was approached by McKinsey and Company, and I was intrigued because I heard that consulting can be a sort of “third education.” I had an engineering education. I started to understand biology, but I had no idea how to read a profit and loss statement of a company. I thought I would learn that with McKinsey. So, I went to McKinsey and worked a year and a half in Seoul, South Korea, half a year in Hong Kong, and then came back to San Francisco. And after that, I embarked into biotech.
Tara Kochis: The life sciences have evolved tremendously over the past 20 years. What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen?
Thomas Schlumpberger: I specialize in diagnostics, in-vitro diagnostics, either point-of-care or liquid biopsy, so I come from that perspective. One of the most significant changes that I’ve seen in in-vitro diagnostics is the way in which products are brought to market. Now, if you want to launch something, it must be better, clinically speaking, and must be cheaper from a cost perspective. The quality standards for a company to develop and commercialize new tests have gotten higher. It’s not just good enough to create a better product. It also needs to bring cost savings to the clinics, the hospitals, and the EDs and ICUs where you want to launch it.
Tara Kochis: And how did you land at Nanomix?
Thomas Schlumpberger: I’m very grateful to Slone Partners for contacting me when they had the engagement to seek a successor for the Nanomix CEO David Ludvigson who, by the way, is a great man. He’s working as my CFO right now and it’s a true pleasure to work with him. I happened to know the independent director Greg Schiffman, who is on the Board of Nanomix. I worked with him for five years at Affymetrix, so he was very familiar with me and my work. During the time when I helped build Epocal and subsequently sold it for 300 million dollars to Alere in 2010, I got an early education in point-of-care from one of the point-of-care inventors, Dr. Imants Lauks. I worked with him for five years and learned a lot from him. When I came across Nanomix and looked at the platform, it didn’t take me a long time to come to the conclusion that this is the best point-of-care platform there is. And then, of course, I wanted to join the company, and serving as CEO has been a privilege and an honor.
Tara Kochis: In that position, and thinking about the global market, what are the challenges that you think you’re going to face as CEO of a company Nanomix’s size? For instance, having sold Epocal to Alere. What do you expect to see moving forward for genomics?
Thomas Schlumpberger: There are several challenges for every small company. The first is the need to raise enough money to gain enough runway to do all the things that are necessary. I think the other challenge is developing an effective sales model. Another thing to bring up is manufacturing. We have our manufacturing in house, and we need to invest a lot of money to make it robust and to scale it up.
Tara Kochis: How has your scientific background helped you in this role?
Thomas Schlumpberger: I think it helps me to assess products and clinical situations better than those without a scientific background. To be honest, I don’t need it that often.
Tara Kochis: At Slone Partners we sponsor the ENVISION program designed for diverse students from underrepresented communities looking for their first job out of college. In most cases, they don’t have parents with big networks or with the connections to make significant introductions and provide access to internships and those kinds of things. What advice would you give to young people who are interested in STEM and are trying to figure out how to break into the life sciences? How should they dedicate themselves?
Thomas Schlumpberger: The first piece of advice I would give is to pursue your education. An advanced degree trains you in critical thinking, a skillset that bodes very well in biotech and the life sciences. Second, pick your poison. Do something that’s fun for you because you will do it for a long time. The third thing is, listen. Listen to other people and learn. That doesn’t just mean listen to your superiors. Listen to your colleagues. Listen to the people you manage because you can learn from anybody and everybody.
Tara Kochis: Thinking more about leadership and teams and learning, what is your guiding philosophy on leading teams and people?
Thomas Schlumpberger: I think there are probably three basic guidelines. The first one is to align behind the purpose; align behind the goal. The second one is absolute transparency and honesty. When things don’t go well, tell me and I’m here to help. And the third one is to treat your counterparts as true partners, pay them respect, and give them the resources they need. If you treat people as partners, they usually live up to expectations and deliver.
Tara Kochis: Who do you admire most in the field today?
Thomas Schlumpberger: I must single out Jay Flatley because what he did with Illumina was remarkable. His ability to transform that company into becoming one of the primary supporting platforms for advancing our progress in medicine is mind-boggling to me.
Tara Kochis: Is there anything that we didn’t talk about today that you’d like our audience to know about you, your career, and any advice you want to leave them with?
Thomas Schlumpberger: One thing we haven’t talked about much is Slone Partners. I believe you and your team are the best executive search firm. Your process is very thorough. As a candidate, I received a lot of support throughout the interview cycles. And your teams help fill a lot of very important leadership positions that impact biology, medicine, and all other facets of life sciences. I am very happy right now at Nanomix and I have a lot of work to do there, but I already look forward to the next interview with Slone Partners because they’re always fun.
Tara Kochis: Well, thank you. I could not have said that better.
You spoke earlier about aligning on purpose, and I took note of that. Our purpose, our “why” at Slone Partners is to make a difference – to make a difference to one another, to our client partners, and to the candidates we place who will make a tremendous impact on their companies and in their sectors. You said it and it’s true – our teams are empowered to do whatever it takes to get connected to that purpose and drive it. So, thank you for saying that.
Thomas Schlumpberger: You’re welcome. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Tara Kochis: Absolutely. Thank you.