A conversation with our experts abroad is an extension of our popular Meet our expert series! Here, you will get the chance to meet our talented colleagues that are based in Switzerland, France and the US and are driving Solvias' success. In this interview, Alexander Beck (Head of Large Molecules Services at Solvias, Switzerland) reveals what triggered him to study science, describes Solvias' growth over the year, paints an honest picture of the workplace culture and shares some his team's biggest achievements!
What initially piqued your interest in science?
When I was 10 years old, I watched Telekolleg Chemistry on German television. They showed and talked about electrons, orbitals, water molecules and so on. I had no idea what it was about, but it impressed me so much that I just wanted to understand it. I think that was the reason I had decided to become a chemist.
Can you tell us a little bit about your educational journey?
I did a PhD in analytical biochemistry and my background is in protein characterization. During my doctoral studies, I focused on the analysis of post-translational modifications, mainly by mass spectrometry. So, bioanalytics accompanied me throughout my professional career!
How did your transition to industry come about?
I had a permanent position at the university and had the needed publications to pursue an academic career. At that time, however, I already had some collaborations with industrial partners. One of these partners then asked me if I could take over the establishment of a laboratory for their spin-off and support them in their financial expansion. With this opportunity, I switched to industry and have never regretted this decision!
When did you first join Solvias and can you describe how it evolved over the year?
I joined Solvias in December 2010. At that time, the company did not believe there was a market for biologics as a CRO. I, on the other hand, was convinced of the opposite due to my previous experience at the spin-off. We had raised several million euros for the expansion, and later the company was merged with another and is now one of our biggest competitors.
Solvias originally focused on small molecules, but then, with my support, wanted to expand into biologics. For me, the potential of Solvias in the biologics area was clear. The technologies, the employees and the know-how were there. So, we built up the area of biologics and ATMP and became the growth engine for Solvias.
What do you find most fulfilling about working at a CRO/CDMO?
What makes Solvias special is that we are involved in many different projects. We currently have 30-40 different types of molecules in our laboratories. Our experts can therefore, transfer a lot of know-how from one project to another and gain new experience with each new project. Many of our customers do not have their own GMP laboratories, nor do they have all the required analytical capabilities in-house. In addition, the importance of quality control analysis is often underestimated by our customers.
Our customers greatly appreciate Solvias' solid and extensive experience in GMP and QC analytics, as well as its tremendous scientific expertise in molecular characterization.
If you work at a large pharmaceutical company, you most likely work on 1 to 2 drugs in your career that eventually reach the market. At Solvias, we are seeing 35 to 40 drugs come to market! I think that's the biggest difference between a pharma and a CRO company, and that's what makes working at Solvias so fulfilling.
Can you shed more light on your role and responsibilities?
A new divisional structure was introduced about 15 months ago. I took on the position of Business Unit Head for Large Molecule Services (LMS). I oversee parts of the activities at our sites in Kaiseraugst (Switzerland) and Hombourg (France). In Switzerland we mainly carry out physical chemical (HPLC, CE, MS) and molecular biological (ELISA, PCR, qPCR, Sanger sequencing, cloning) tests in France microbiological, molecular and cell biological and virological tests. In total, more than 300 employees belong to the business area.
In short, my main tasks are on the one hand ensuring quality and economic success, strategy, especially further growth, P&L, building and providing the analytical portfolio to our customers based on their current and future needs.
Are there any other specific accomplishments or projects that you're particularly proud of?
An important work we do at Solvias is to bring assays and technologies into the GMP-regulated environment. We have contributed to the approval of many biological products for the commercial market.
Most recently, we assisted an innovative biotech company with the approval of an antibody-drug conjugate. For many cancer patients, this is the last hope for a therapy. Years ago, we were able to contribute to the approval of a monoclonal antibody for oncological treatment by a pharmaceutical company. Today, many patients benefit from this, as it can be used to treat even very aggressive tumors.
The most recent examples are the support of 2 biotech companies in the development of innovative gene therapeutics. This was a completely new territory for us. Both involve autologous, patient-specific therapies. It was a huge learning curve, as the underlying processes here are completely different. There is also no clear pathway for approval of such a drug, so our customers were in constant contact with the authorities. This required a high degree of flexibility and constant knowledge building, a crazy journey and yet an extremely rewarding experience.
These examples are probably some of our proudest achievements at Solvias. In terms of personal contribution, characterizing molecules with mass spectrometry and other technologies, the scientific approach in general, has taken Solvias to the next level.
How does Cergentis’ offerings complement Solvias’ portfolio and more specifically, what opportunity does this bring for both customers?
I think the key impact areas of Cergentis have already been well identified. The next challenge is to move these services from a non-regulated environment to a regulated environment, such as batch release testing, copy number determination, etc.
Given the surge for viral vectors and the accompanying demand for transgene insertion characterization for ATMP manufacturing, the added value of Cergentis becomes clear. I think the whole market is getting bigger and bigger and we will identify more and more fields of application.
How would you describe the work environment?
Our core values at Solvias are: respect, reliability, and responsibility. I think the organization has a very sound feedback culture, which is very important because we’re a scientific-driven organization. Also, Solvias is a highly compliant organization. People here are very analytical and highly intelligent. Even if some might be more introverted than others, everyone reflects on things and is very committed. Above all, they all really enjoy what they do. People here also have a strong sense of teamwork and the interaction among colleagues is such that it feels like a flat organizational structure. And my kind of principle is that when I leave the building after work and see the cleaning lady, I talk to her. If I'm here on the lab floor, I talk with the lab people. There is no hierarchy. Our entire LMS division works as a team. This is only possible because collaboration is strongly embedded into the culture. It is the fundament for it. And I have to say, Solvias has a healthy culture, and everyone supports one another and always goes the extra mile.
Outside of work, do you have any hobbies or interests that you enjoy pursuing?
My wife is a doctor and runs a practice in Freiburg, in Germany. We therefore live between Freiburg and Basel and have practically the Black Forest in our "backyard". Besides traveling and cooking, I like to read. I used to be a long-distance runner and also participated in triathlon competitions. Today, I go out on my mountain bike about two or three times a week and enjoy being in the forest, riding up the Black Forest mountains and looking down into the valley. That relaxes me a lot and gives me a lot of energy!