Interview with Dr David Tapolczay

19 Jan 2011

Dr David Tapolczay has been in R&D management since the late 1980s. His past roles include joint worldwide head of chemistry for Zeneca agrochemicals and senior manager of chemical development for Glaxo. He was responsible for the rapid growth of Cambridge Discovery Chemistry and was a key figure in two successful sales of the company, initially to Oxford Molecular and then Millennium Pharmaceuticals. After this last acquisition, Tapolczay was VP of pharmaceutical sciences with responsibility for over 230 scientists. On leaving Millennium, he was a founder of Pharmorphix, which was acquired by Sigma Aldrich Fine Chemicals in 2006. He has also been involved with the start up of five companies, all of which are still trading and one of which is AIM listed. He was most recently VP of technology development for GSK pharmaceuticals and is currently the chief executive officer of the Medical Research Council Technology Group (MRCT).

Dr Tapolczay has an international reputation in pharmaceutical chemical development, as well as an outstanding academic track record with a considerable number of patents and publications. He was a visiting professor at Sussex University and has previously held the position of visiting lecturer at Nottingham, Reading and Durham Universities. He is a member of SCI's Biotechnology and Fine Chemicals Groups, as well as the Cambridge and Great Eastern Regional Group.

What does your current job involve?
I am the CEO of the technology transfer office of the Medical Research Council (MRC) in the UK. The aim of the company is to translate basic research findings made by the MRC into healthcare and economic benefits. As CEO, my responsibility is to make sure that the company is well governed and fulfills its objectives as laid out in our ten-year strategy.

Did you have an interest in science from childhood? How did you decide that you wanted a career in the field?
My mother was a pharmacist in an old fashioned pharmacy where there was a dispensary at the back of the shop. I used to go there after school and do my homework while she made up medicines and dispensed tablets. I remember being fascinated by all of the bottles and different smells, and thought it quite exciting to be able to make up various cough remedies. Having enjoyed chemistry from an early age, by 16 I knew I wanted to do a PhD if I could.

What motivated you to pursue postgraduate studies?
The sense of discovering something new, perhaps even something nobody else had made or seen before. I always found organic chemistry challenging but extremely rewarding.

What has your experience ascending the career ladder been like?
I have been very lucky to have had a diverse and successful career. I have enjoyed each new challenge as I have risen through organisations and learnt many new skills. Perhaps most importantly I have made many friends along the way.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
Work hard, but make sure you have time to think! Do not be a slave to your diary, but rather make it work for you. Build a large network of friends and colleagues and trust them. Enjoy what you do or stop doing it.

What would you have done differently?
It took some time for me to believe in myself and what I could really do. I guess if I had developed that self-confidence earlier I may have got to where I am faster, but then you never know.

How have you set goals for yourself and managed to achieve them?
I set goals of varying degrees for myself. Some are reasonably easily achieved, others more difficult and a few almost impossible ones. I review how I am doing on a regular basis.

What would you say have been the key milestones in your career?
First, doing postgraduate studies in a really excellent group. Second, being made redundant from my first job in a big pharmaceutical company after only six months when they closed the site. Third, having access to the training and support facilities that a large company can provide, and last, having the courage to leave a good job in the relatively safe environment of a large company to start my own company with friends.

What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved so far?
Work hard, learn from everyone around you and believe in the saying by Henry Ford: 'It doesn't matter if you believe you can do something or if you believe you can't. Either way you are probably right'.

How do you achieve work/life balance?
This is very difficult, and is perhaps the hardest thing to achieve. It is even tougher when you really enjoy your job. It needs concentration and a sense of fairness to your family.

What is your leadership style? How do you keep a team engaged and motivated?
I strongly believe that the collective intelligence and ability of a team is greater than that of its individuals. Therefore, I always try and get my team to find answers to the difficult questions or challenges we face. I may have strong views on a particular path to follow, but have been proved wrong often enough that I have learnt the importance of listening. Getting people collectively involved in a problem or activity is a great way of achieving engagement and motivation

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