Dr. Ajit Shetty: breaking down barriers in the life sciences

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Ajit Shetty
A veteran of the life sciences industry, Dr. Ajit Shetty continues to have a huge impact on the ecosystem both in Belgium and abroad. Several years after his retirement from top positions in Janssen Pharmaceutica & Johnson and Johnson (as Chair and previously as Managing Director), Shetty is still actively involved in the industry. Awarded the title of Baron by King Albert II of Belgium in 2008 for his services to the sector, and the recipient of Trends ‘Manager of the Year 2004’ and the Life-Time Achievement Award by India (his country of birth), Shetty is a living legend who is still busy shaping the world’s future.

You’ve dedicated your life to the life sciences: why this field specifically?

Shetty: Because it affects each and every one of us eight billion people on the planet. Without good health, we are nowhere – it is vital to every aspect of our lives. For me, choosing to work in the life sciences is a very personal decision, motivated by my desire to have as big an impact on as many people as possible. There is a lot of satisfaction in working not just to achieve economic success, but to make a positive difference to people’s lives.

 “For me, choosing to work in the life sciences is a very personal decision, motivated by my desire to have as big an impact on as many people as possible.” – Ajit Shetty

Among your many responsibilities, you are Chair of the Board of Directors of the research institute VIB. Why is supporting fundamental research important to you personally?

Shetty: Fundamental research is so important because it’s at the basis of everything we do. To develop anything in the life sciences, we need to understand the nature of things and how they work. Paul Janssen [Founder of Janssen Pharmaceutica] used to say to me: “there is no such thing as fundamental research; it’s all just research”. And I agree: there is no dividing line between basic and applied research. There is simply the groundwork that we build upon, that is needed before we can translate ideas into practical applications.

Which is why I am so enthusiastic about my role at VIB, because the institute really forms the basis for the Belgian ecosystem both in terms of academic work and early innovation. It is a unique model, bringing together the best minds of five universities – KU Leuven, UGent, VUB, UAntwerpen, and UHasselt – in a superstructure focused on collaboration. This is how science should be done: we need to come out of our silos and work together across disciplines, institutes, and international borders. Which is what I have been trying hardest to achieve in my position as Chair of VIB: being a cheerleader for collaboration that crosses barriers and country lines.

“I think that we Belgians have to learn to share our success stories, not just with each other but also with the rest of the world.” – Ajit Shetty

One of the challenges we’ve yet to overcome is that VIB – indeed the whole of the Belgian life sciences ecosystem – is still too much of a well-kept secret. VIB is a world-class institute: by whatever criteria you use, it’s on par with internationally renowned centers like Max Planck, Karolinska, the Broad institute, and so on. But VIB is not as famous. I think that we Belgians have to learn to share our success stories, not just with each other but also with the rest of the world.

In addition to VIB, you’re also on the Board of Directors for several start-ups in both Belgium and abroad. What is the impact that you’re hoping to have in these companies?

Shetty: Nothing is more satisfying than seeing something grow successfully! I was very fortunate to start my career with great mentors like Sir Lawrence Bragg and Dr Paul Janssen, and I want to pass that on. I think youth has energy and age has experience. I’m trying to share my experience with the next generation of entrepreneurs, so they’re empowered to have a positive impact on the future.

How do you choose which companies to mentor?

Shetty: I would describe myself as a perpetual student – I’m always learning. To some degree, I pick the companies which pique my curiosity and catch my personal interest. I’ve recently become the Chair of the Board of Rejuvenate Biomed, for example, which is a company developing therapies for healthy aging. Aging is obviously a topic which will eventually affect every one of us, so the science of this company excites me to no end because there is such a huge potential for impact.

Another topic I find equally fascinating is data science, where I am involved with both start-ups and VIB’s new center for bioinformatics. The institute’s new co-Managing Director Christine Durinx has a background in the topic and is helping to increase the VIB’s focus on data, an area that I really think is key to our future health and wellbeing.

To find out more about VIB’s new focus on data science, read this interview with Christine Durinx!

Of course, I can’t take on every project that catches my eye: I am constantly being pulled in a hundred different directions, so I have to limit myself based on time and capacity. And while I like to take on projects which are moving the borders of science, I also have a financial background and know how important funding is to realizing innovation. Which is why I am involved with VC funds Newton BioCapital and Vesalius BioCapital. From research to start-ups to pharma and funding – I really try to be involved at most levels of the ecosystem.

Speaking of the ecosystem, I know you are supporting the new Solvay Advanced Master in Biotech and MedTech Ventures. How pressing is this need for C-level talent in Belgium?

Shetty: Talent is really a key requirement at all levels of this ecosystem, including start-ups. Belgium has excellent universities, but you need more than just medical doctors and researchers to drive innovation: you also need CEOs, CFOs –­ the whole gamut. And these are skilled positions that require both training and experience. When I first started working in the industry, I didn’t have a clue how to run a company. I think a program like the Solvay Advanced Master is really important both in terms of providing that basic knowledge, but also because it is supported by players from the whole ecosystem, who are coming together to provide the next generation of biotech leaders with hands-on, practical mentoring.

“The talent needed to help this industry flourish takes years to develop, so we need to start nurturing it now.” – Ajit Shetty

It’s vital for the whole ecosystem to invest in the future, and not just for the next year or decade. There is one element I haven’t mentioned yet, which is the government support that is present here in Belgium. It is fantastic that local policymakers have a long-term vision and willingness to invest in the continuation of this great knowledge economy. Because healthcare has a very long gestational period – progress in this sector requires patience and a lot of good luck. And the talent needed to help this industry flourish takes years to develop, so we need to start nurturing it now, for the sake of our future needs.

What are you still hoping to achieve?

Oh, there are so many more miles to go! I want to keep furthering the borders of knowledge and supporting the development of applications that improve people’s lives on this planet. There are all these technologies intersecting in ways that we aren’t even aware of yet: biotech, life sciences, but also things like computer science and other entirely new fields. You have to maintain an open mind and keep the doors open to allow these new technologies to flow into the ecosystem. So I aim to continue breaking down barriers, both internationally but also within the ecosystem.