My Journey From NU to CEO

Former MyoKardia CEO Tassos Gianakokos (MBP '95) reflects on the lessons he learned at Northwestern and how they influenced who he is today.

Tassos Gianakakos (MBP '95)

By Tassos Gianakakos (MBP '95)

It's amazing how transformative an academic experience can be. Take my career, for example.

I did my undergraduate work at MIT, where I got my degree in chemical engineering and economics. Even back then, my eyes were set on using science and technology to improve human health. When I started graduate school in Northwestern's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP), my focus was on research. But then, something happened.

One of the unique things about MBP was the combination of thinking about science and business. We had courses in the engineering school, courses in the medical school, and courses at the business school, all giving an integrated, comprehensive view of how things fit together to bring novel medical technologies to patients. MBP expanded my perspective and got me really thinking more about the big picture outside of just the lab work, which I had been focused on up until that point. 

My first job after Northwestern was as a process engineer in Merck & Co.'s vaccine division, but from there I went on to hold leadership roles in four different Bay Area biotech startups. I spent the past seven years as CEO at MyoKardia, where we were dedicated to revolutionizing treatment for genetic heart disease. (Editor's note: In November, Bristol Myers Squibb acquired MyoKardia for approximately $13.1 billion.)

The integrated thinking I learned at Northwestern was instrumental in the work I've done these past 25 years. I saw how different fields come together to create a product, and I also witnessed the power that comes from having people with different viewpoints work to solve a common problem. I witnessed what happens when you bring people with different skills and backgrounds together and trust each other’s expertise. That really solidified my thinking and catalyzed me down a path of understanding that to have success in this field, yes, it's about the science, but it's first and foremost about the people.

At MyoKardia, I wanted to build an organization based on great science that prioritized the deep development of people and culture. One of my first hires was actually the senior vice president of HR, which was curious for some people given the early stage of the company’s development. But for me, it was critical, as it's the people who drive extraordinary success. Northwestern helped teach me that, too.

For those of you in MBP or considering the program, embrace everything it and Northwestern have to offer. Get really curious about the depth of scientific expertise that exists on campus. If your inclination is to say, "I'm not a scientist, I have more of a business perspective," get out of your comfort zone and take advantage of the breadth of what the school has to offer and learn from the experts about what they do scientifically. You're not necessarily going to be an expert in science, and that's absolutely fine. There are very few people who are, but you really need an appreciation for it. The more you engage on that front, the better you're going to be.

Now, if you're coming into the program with more of a science background, which was my entry point, really embrace the business strategy. Marketing classes felt like they were in a different language early on for me. You just have to dive in.

Get curious, take advantage of everything that's there, and really supplement your wheelhouse because the school and the program has that breadth to offer you. I can't guarantee that you'll become a CEO, but I know if you take the program seriously, it absolutely can transform you.

McCormick News Article