Montana fellow William (Pim) Stemmer missed the Nobel prize by a heart beat

Oct 08, 2018

Well, a heart beat is a bit exaggerated as he died in 2013 at the young age of 56, but yesterday the 2018 Nobel prize for chemistry was awarded to Frances Arnold, George Smith and Gregory Winter for their work on gene shuffling a.k.a. as evolution in a tube. If Pim was still alive, he would surely have replaced either George or Gregory as he is the founding father of the technology, in parallel with inventions done by Frances Arnold.

This is not the platform to elaborate on details of the technology, suffice it to say that it has a world-wide impact not just on fundamental science but on every domain where biotech is active (medical, industrial or agrotech).

Pim Stemmer (left) & Frances Arnold (right)

Like the first time you realise the full potential of blockchain technology, there have been a few moments in my live where I was really blown away by new inventions. I have sharp memories of the first time a PCR machine was demonstrated to me – the Polymerase Chain Reaction technology that is best known for the advancement in forensic science but has many far reaching consequences in other fields – and I realised what was happening in those little tubes. I had a similar experience when I was in the garage of Pim’s home in San Diego in the early nineties. Unlike in most European countries, where everything you invent while you are employed is owned by your employer by default, in the US anything you invent in your own private time is yours. To my astonishment, the 2 car garage did not house any cars but a complete molecular biology lab with state of the art equipment. Pim had had an inheritance and was able to pay for top-notch equipment. At the kitchen table he explained to me the basics of gene shuffling he had developed in the garage and I was absolutely stunned. He had already filed a few key patents and was about ready to quit his job at Hybritech and was taken in by Affymax where he could develop the technique further. When he wanted to venture out, he was fortunate to be guided by a few top biotech investors who helped him raising a whole series of new companies that had major impacts in the industry. They also realised that Pim was not CEO material, no matter how brilliant his mind and teamed him up with the best management he could wish. After going public several times, eventually he came up with his own way of financing new companies and allowing technology to be available for a wider community besides just making investors rich.

The Draper Award

Pim was a Dutch scientist by origin but went straight to the US for his PhD work and stayed there for the rest of his life. On one of his infrequent trips back to the Netherlands, we (fellow students from the 70ties) were having dinner with him in 2010 when he received an email that he had won, together with Frances Arnold, the Draper Award from the American Academy of Engineering, a prize worth 500.000 US$ each. He first thought it was a hoax from some Nigerian prince but when we all dived into our mobiles to check who the f*ck was Charles Draper, we quickly realised that this was a very high honour indeed. We recognised a few names of previous years (Tom Berners-Lee, inventor of WWW, Frank Whittle for the turbojet engine, inventors of satellite communications, Fortran, GPS, fiber optics, the list goes on, see the Wikipedia link below). We decided on the spot that we all wanted to be there and soon after we booked flights to Washington DC.

Early 2011 we were all dressed in tuxedos in a grand hall close to Capital Hill where the ceremony took place. There was a long line of chauffeur-driven limo’s at the entrance, senators and other Washingtonian big-shots abound and we were surprised to see so many military gala uniforms amongst the attendees. It was not until the chairman commemorated the achievements of past winners when I realised that many of these inventions had military applications (and were probably financed by the MoD or Darpa). We had landed smack in the middle of one of the most powerful lobbies in the world; the industrial military complex where of course, engineers play important roles. So the AAE annual do was a major opportunity to rub shoulders and network. Pim and Francis were both “molecular engineers”, so a bit of odd balls in this spectrum but nevertheless, we were impressed to see them in this line-up of prize winners.


The Genetic Lottery

It was unfortunate that Pim fell victim to the lottery that genetics is and developed an aggressive braintumor a few years later. Even though he was in the epic centre of biotech and had access to the best technology on the planet, he could not survive this. He of all people understood best that genetics is a numbers game and he drew an unlucky number. Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously, but the committee mentioned his work explicitly. His work will live on.

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