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Hansjoerg Haas: Shaping the Tools of Scientific Discovery

SLAS Americas Council Chair Hansjoerg Haas, Ph.D., was thrilled by the opportunity to move abroad. It was 1996 and the new father was offered an incredible position from a company that would eventually become part of Thermo Fisher Scientific. The job would lead him and his wife from their native Germany to Canada. He knew this move was a life changer.

 

"It was the biggest risk of my life," recalls Haas, who is currently product line director and site leader of Thermo Scientific laboratory automation product line in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. "I was responsible for building the laboratory automation portion of the business from the ground up, from establishing the infrastructure, hiring and motivating new talent, to visiting prospects and securing customers."

While this was not necessarily how he saw his life unfolding, Haas is thankful for the opportunities and grateful for mentors who encouraged him. "I would not have believed it if someone had told me that I would move to Canada and run a laboratory automation business," he comments. "What makes the difference is people you meet in your career who believe in you and offer support."

It also helps that Haas launched his career during a dynamic time in laboratory automation. The market was rich with small players and big opportunities. "Setting a trend that continues today, customers became open to collaboration and that created the unique environment of our profession," Haas comments. "Companies need to form partnerships that develop solutions together."

This collaborative spirit, according to Haas, runs in the roots of SLAS. "The Society has such a strong connection among members because people built that bridge between science and technology back to the early days of the professions. You had to get in one boat," says Haas, whose first experience with the Society goes back to his first days in North America.

"In fact, when I started my position here in 1997, the first thing I did was fly to LabAutomation to exhibit with my new company. Life in North America started with SLAS," he says. Since that time, Haas has held several positions for both SLAS and one of its predecessors, the Association for Laboratory Automation. He served as a member of the board, on the finance and nominating committee, and last year was appointed chair of the SLAS Americas Council, a group of seven life sciences research and development professionals representing both technology users and providers that is chartered to provide leadership and guidance to the Society's activities and operations in the Americas.

"The Council is exciting. Its goal is to research more region-specific content and determine what drives the interests and concerns of the region. What we want here in the Americas may be entirely different from Europe and Asia," says Haas. He calls serving on these committees a fluid experience. "People from our industry are not limited to one discipline, they move between pharmaceuticals, biotech, academia, agro-sciences, genomics, proteomics or other related research fields where automation is applied. It's unique when you have such close relationships. There's not much of that 'he's a vendor and we are scientists' to separate us."

A Ready Risk-Taker

He discovered laboratory automation during his Ph.D. work at Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen. "I connected with a former doctoral student in the lab in which I worked who was employed by Pharmacia. He brought in 'seed units' to be tested out before they launched on the market, and I used them for my studies as well as providing demonstrations for interested customers. That's when my love affair with automation started," he laughs.

When he finished his own Ph.D. in 1993, he was again contacted by the aforementioned colleague. "He had just moved to Zymark and asked me to join him," Haas says. "These were the early days of primary and secondary screening utilizing robotics."

A few years later, the offer came through from CRS Robotics (now Thermo Fisher Scientific) when it bought its German distributor and integrator for robotics system. The plan was to transfer the knowledge of automation for drug screening and research from one company to the other, so CRS Robotics contacted Haas to establish this new arm of their business. "They asked me to spend 18 months establishing the business, and at that point, I was supposed to return to Germany and take on a European management position for the organization," says Haas. As his career rapidly progressed, an 18-month post became an 18-year career abroad.

While Haas agrees with those who would say the greatest challenges to starting a life and a career in a new country include the lack of a network, operating in a foreign language and business culture, he doesn't consider any of that a strong reason to fold up and move back home at the first sign of distress. "When you are young, take some risks. Not everything works out, but that gives you a learning opportunity. It makes you more grounded. The process of making decisions is what sharpens your skills."

A Changing and Fluid Market

Haas reflects on the evolution of robotics in the laboratory. "What has changed the most is how people view and cope with automation on an ongoing basis," he says. "In the early days, you had to be an automation expert – typically a software engineer or a mechanical engineer. Companies had internal automation groups to support the technology, and scientists came to the engineers to discuss what they wanted to test."

Many companies that decided to phase out automation support groups made it easier for vendors to take over the service. However, Haas observes, the vendor had to make certain that the solution they offered really worked for the scientist. "The scientist is more interested in running the method, gathering data and interpreting results," he observes. "They are not as interested in software scripts or robotics moves – that responsibility falls on the vendor and the vendor's support group."

What this meant was that automation technology had to become easier to use, says Haas, who adds that the upside of this was that the technology could be applied to a broader audience. "This brings us to more advanced robotics, and a time when people are willing to use automation technology more as a tool," he explains. "The device is becoming almost like a partner to the scientist, and it is opening a new era that is even more adaptive and collaborative. There are a many opportunities for the future."

To provide access to those opportunities, Haas points to the Thermo Scientific iAutomate website, a portal that allows customers to construct their own virtual systems. Users can pull in any instrumentation – including competitors' – to develop individualized business solutions. "We use an integration interface to unite different robotic technologies and software that are available. The site offers 2- and 3-D views as well as camera shots from various angles," he explains. "Customers in remote locations can educate themselves about what they want and get a quote before they contact a sales representative."

Haas describes collaborations as a strategic edge. "If we know that vendor has a great product, we want a partnership with them," he explains. "It's a unique part of the business. One day you are competitors, the next day partners." He adds that many of these relationships are forged at SLAS events.

"SLAS is at the heart of my profession and the business I run. For us, it's where we live and breathe. The SLAS Annual Conference and Exhibition is the major event for us to release products, meet customers, network and hold customer appreciation and user group meetings," Haas says.

He also appreciates SLAS' forward thinking. "I like that the Society brings in new technology and keeps its presentation of ideas fresh," he says, pointing to recent developments such as making the events more than a physical meeting. "There are many possibilities for people to connect with the event when products and programs are streamed live online and after the conference using website areas such as SLAS On-Demand," he comments.

Self-Powered Recreation

Whenever weather permits, Haas pedals his way through the new dawn on his road bike. Burlington offers a great cycling environment. The town is situated along the Niagara Escarpment, a long cliff formation in the bedrock of the Great Lakes basin. It not only forms a portion of Lakes Ontario, Huron and Michigan, but also is the cliff over which Niagara Falls plunges.

"From Niagara Falls the escarpment runs 500 miles north to Tobermory, Ontario, and creates both flat and steep climbs that are perfect for cycling," Haas says. "For me, cycling is the closest thing to flying. When you are on the escarpment, you can see the sun rising from Lake Ontario in such a beautiful view! I always take photos back to my wife."

The bike crew was born when Haas shared his desire to get back into road cycling with a fellow father who also had a busy schedule. That dad offered to meet Haas at six o'clock for a ride. Haas thought he could make that work, but "then I found out he meant a.m., not p.m.!" They started slow and added friends as time went along. The 5:30 a.m. group grew to 12 members, but a typical day is two to eight riders who tackle a 25- to 30-mile ride before work.

His all-time favorite tours include Majorca, Spain, a trip that he took with his cycling friends, and a leisurely 260-mile route closer to home from Burlington to Niagara Falls to Port Dover and back. For those less vigorous cyclists, Haas recommends a relaxing trip on the Lake Niagara Wine Trail. "You can take a bike and go from one winery to another on a 43-mile circuit. I haven't taken it yet. My wife says it's too slow for my pace!" says Haas, who logged more than 2,500 miles on his bike in 2014.

Time with family is an important aspect of his life, as well. His oldest son, a freshman at the University of Toronto studying mechanical engineering, enjoyed frequent pre-college salmon-fishing trips with his father. Haas and his younger son spend more time below the water's surface. The pair took up diving and embarked on an expedition to a shipwreck site in Lake Ontario. "He is going on a dive trip to observe marine life in Madagascar next year," Haas reports.

The two younger Haas are no strangers to travel and adventure. Like their parents, they enjoy frequent trips back to Germany and just about anyplace else. "When you leave your country behind, like my wife and I did, it reflects in the kids. They are so used to travel. They see the world as big and full of potential. I think that's the most important thing you can give your kids is that sense of possibility," Haas concludes.

February 9, 2015