Meet Mario Henke, Head of Pharmaceutical Production at Europe's largest biotech site
Since his school days, Mario Henke has always been enthusiastic about discovering new things. After many eventful years at home and abroad, he now holds a management position at Roche in Penzberg, Germany.
I was born in 1973 as a genuine Sauerländer. In Niedersalwey I had a carefree village childhood and was constantly outside. The hours in the nature awakened my interest for animals and plants early on and laid the foundation for my enthusiasm for biology.
After my high school graduation, I first applied for a medical degree and was immediately accepted – however, in a place that was still too "exotic" for me at that time. So I had to wait for another, supposedly more attractive place to study medicine. So I completed my training as a Biological Technical Assistant (BTA). Looking back, I find this time very valuable. Today I can talk to my colleagues at the bench at eye level. This training also aroused my interest in biology, but also in technical topics – the desire to become a physician receded into the background.
So my BTA training was followed by a degree in biotechnology in the field of food technology at the Lippe University of Applied Sciences in Lemgo, which I successfully completed in 1998 as a graduate engineer for biotechnology. I remember my university days very positively and I was fascinated by the bioprocess engineering lectures – cultivating cells in a bioreactor was exactly what I always wanted to do. The winter beer brewing with a fellow student, the practical semesters and the diploma thesis at Novartis in Basel were absolute highlights. I also gained my first professional experience through internships in various companies. It was always important to me not to become a theorist or "one-track specialist". I have always tried to be "hands on" and try things out for myself.
Due to the merger of Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis, unfortunately, there were no vacancies after my diploma thesis, so I first moved from Basel to Wuppertal. What followed was an instructive year at Bayer Healthcare in the biotechnological center. It sparked my interest in this area of biotechnology. So I started at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biotechnology in Aachen as a research engineer and cultivated almost everything that can be cultivated in various bioreactor systems – plant cells, animal cell cultures, yeasts, fungi and, of course, various bacteria.
However, I confess that I was waiting all those years for something specific. Namely, for the announcement by my former boss at Novartis that there were vacancies in Basel. And that's what happened. In April 2001, I started as the head of a production laboratory for tool proteins. I was also able to help set up a similar laboratory in Cambridge near Boston – my first important international experience. In 2003, I enrolled for a part-time second degree in industrial engineering in Zurich, with the aim of expanding my knowledge of business administration.
After finishing my studies, I wanted to get to know real biotech production and was sent to Austria. There I was production manager of a larger biotech plant near Kufstein for three years. Back in Basel, I took over a smaller biotechnological production site as the site manager from 2009 to 2012 and thus, for the first time, a larger team and significantly greater budget responsibility.
At almost the same time as my wife's first pregnancy in 2013, Novartis offered me an interesting challenge: managing the construction of a biotech production site in Singapore. It was there that the company's largest biotech site was to be built for over USD 700 million. It was a fantastic and unique opportunity. Fortunately, my wife thought the same and so we decided to go to Asia. Initially, I managed this mammoth project in Singapore from Switzerland. Five months later we all moved to Singapore together. Looking back, the project was very successful - the construction with more than 1,200 construction workers was a real experience. After three fantastic years in Singapore, it was time for us to think about the next station – now four of us – as our second daughter was born in Singapore in 2015. Despite the positive experiences and numerous opportunities, I left Novartis at the end of 2016 after 16 very good years. I love change and just had to discover something new, a different company and a different corporate culture.
In January 2017 I joined Roche in Basel, the world's largest biotechnology company, as the head of a biotech production site with around 450 employees.
Roche is a highly innovative company that is a world leader in oncology in particular and always places the patient at the center of all its activities. It was and still is fascinating to experience how different corporate cultures can be - learning that and immersing oneself in the new culture keeps people agile in my opinion and highlights the importance of always trying something new.
After ten months in Basel, Roche sent me with my family to beautiful Bavaria – as the head of pharmaceutical production at Europe's largest biotech location: Penzberg. There I was expected to work on a wide variety of production lines and again in technologically innovative development laboratories with more than 1,000 employees. In addition to ensuring the production of important oncological and other active ingredients, my daily work also includes strategic issues. Of course, it's also about keeping this important Roche site attractive, making it fit for a digital future, developing our talents and tackling problems of a technical, scientific, financial or interpersonal nature.
I may say very gratefully that I have found and may pursue my absolute dream job. So that as many biologists, biotechnologists or career changers as possible can say the same thing at some point, I advise everyone to always remain curious and be prepared to take on bigger risks and adventures - that's exactly how you grow. In addition, it helps to ask yourself at an early stage whether you would prefer to work scientifically or technically as an expert, or whether you might even be looking for a vocation to lead people in the biosciences - both have different requirements that you should be aware of early on. I wish everyone good luck and success!
Author: Mario Henke