Harold De Vladar was at IST Austria from 2009 to 2013 as a postdoc in the Barton Group. He is now CEO and founder of Ribbon Biolabs GmbH. In an interview with Daniela Klammer and Kathrin Pauser which took place during the Science and Industry Day 2017 he talks about what he likes about his research but also about his career and about his time at IST Austria when IST Austria was still very small.
Harold de Vladar, my position: CEO and the name of my startup which is Ribbon Biolabs GmbH.
The essence of my job is to develop the technology to secure the IP of the technology and also to consolidate and make sure that the team is on a good track to develop the technology.
The limitations is that once you start with your own startup you have less freedom to do other things and when you come from an academic background you are probably excited about so many things and then you find yourself restricted doing stuff that you didn’t want to do in the first place like financial sheets or business plans. Which you have to do but what you want to do is just do experiments and equations’ stuff. The cool thing is that you are working for something that is entirely yours. It’s not like working for an institute for two years and after the two years that’s it. It is money you get and you construct your own stuff so it is yours. You develop it as you want you do exactly what you want it is your decision what you are doing and that rocks.
I want to develop this company obviously and I want to be in a position where I am developing new ideas new products or solving new problems related to science. So tech transfer if you wish but real problems and I want to do things that are a bit non canonical, not the standard things. I know it sounds a bit abstract but biology is very vast. There are many interesting things there that you can actually take and make a product out of it for a specific purpose. This is the things I like to make. I would also like to keep a bit of research going like basic research or more explorative research in order to allow the serendipity factor to come to new possibilities.
It’s a complex one. I started as a cell biologist and statistical physics at the same time. Then went into applied math’s only to get more formal tools to work with my stuff related to genetics and evolution. Then I did my PhD in evolutionary ecology, actually I did my PhD in evolution in a group of evolutionary ecology which is what let me to Nick Barton and that is how I ended up at IST Austria. And I also have a degree in art and science which sounds very disconnected to all this but it is not.
First of all the connectivity how I connected to the people here which are now in different places either because they were postdocs or because they were exprofessors from here in some other places this allowed a lot of connections directly or indirectly. That was something very important.
And what was also crucial. Having worked with someone like Nick Barton this was an amazing endorsement. We did great job Nick and I, what we did was awesome. It was not on the side of being extra productive but more on the side of taking very challenging problems and solving them. So it was not like salami slicing papers and that created a very idiosyncratic way of seeing science for me because I always gave more importance to this aspect than to publish many papers something that many universities don’t like.
So IST Austria determined my career in these two ways in the way I see it but also which options do I have but not by restricting them but by me realizing what is it what I want to do. I always felt more comfortable in Institutes of advanced studies small places where you can think of new things rather than the big shot universities where people go mad with the latest nature cover and you have to race with them. That’s not my style.
For the postdocs of IST Austria: Things have probably changed a lot since I left IST Austria but I think there are two levels of things that you have to learn as a postdoc. First of all you have to do your work project as it means of learning maturing etc. but you also have to keep a close eye on what you want and what are the next career steps. You can get very distracted with your project and forget that there is a future that you have to fulfill. And I saw many postdocs forgetting these things.
Second, I feel like there is a lot of gab between what is a postdoc and what is a professor and IST doesn’t give this feeling of continuity between one and the other. I think at least in my time it was great to be here as a first postdoc but not as a second because you won’t have that much independence you won’t have that much support beyond your project.
I think it was one of these barbeques and we went into the pond, swimming in the pond. I don’t think Tom Henzinger was so happy with us the next day. This was when IST was relatively small. We could have staff meetings of the whole institute every week and these meetings didn’t get to more than 20 people. None of the building existed. That was very fun.
Very simple what kind of problems do I really want to solve and how.