“You need to have this crazy idea that you believe enough to put your whole career on it” – Interview with Tomás McKenna

Blog Post + Podcast Episode – Part 1

Tomás McKenna, former KI post-doc, left academia to create his own company.

Have you ever had a colleague in the lab whom you thought was so crazy and creative that you wish you had half of his ideas for your projects? This is what I always admired Tomás for.

When he couldn’t reconcile more of his post-doc work at KI with new research questions that he passionately explored in his free time, in collaboration with neuroscientist Bjorn Merker, he knew he had to quit his position at KI. After 3 years of research work in the Katajisto lab, Tomás moved on to dedicate himself full time to his dream topic – neuroscience and mental health. His goal was to create a company to develop virtual reality-based approaches to help people with mental health disorders. We were all surprised and sad but, simultaneously, happy that he had the courage to follow what he wanted and believed in, even if there was nothing telling him it would work.

We started our post-doctoral periods at KI with a few months apart in 2016 (he was the first to join the newly formed lab by Pekka Katajisto and to help him setup everything from scratch). On the day I met Tomás after my interview to join the lab, I was inspired by the way he seemed to think about the world in an unconventional way, by the way he would talk enthusiastically about what he liked, by the fact that he carried a small photo camera to our lunch place, just in case he would find something interesting to photograph. Crazy about microscopy, Tomás was that guy who took all kinds of things to the microscope to observe their tiniest details and then make posters of them to hang above his desk. Despite this “crazy” and not so apparently grounded character, he also showed a lot of interest in knowing about me and my background. He was able to listen and was also very welcoming to me and the other postdocs who joined the lab at that same time. With time I confirmed that Tomás had within him what I considered to be the spirit of a scientist: someone deeply curious and unquiet, who wishes to understand the world around him by asking unique questions. And these were not only related to our research on stem cell biology and ageing but also linked to the brain and human behavior, the mind and the physical realm. These were the topics that really agitated Tomás’ mind in his free time and started gaining space in our informal conversations. In particular, he was intrigued on why the brains of Buddhist monks are different than those of “common” people. He started wondering about the molecular and physical changes that occur in the human brain as a consequence of meditative practices. And he started exploring how virtual reality experiences were being created to influence mental states.

Almost one year later, in December 2019, I invited him for a chat where we talked about his journey in academic research, the decision to leave academia, and how it was to navigate the world of starting up a company in Stockholm with little knowledge and experience. He talked about how courses, including those offered by KI Innovations, and new contacts helped him along the way. He mentioned the aspects he still likes about academia and how he wants to incorporate those in his company, while avoiding what he calls the “toxic side” of the start-up world, “often too focused on the profit and lacking a stronger focus on the purpose”, he says. Tomás named his company Mother due to its meaning as a verb (to nurture, to look after someone kindly and protectively), related to how Tomás wants to run the company – “a caring, regenerative place to work at”. Besides this, when he read that a mother’s voice causes a very special effect in her children’s brains as measured by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) (Abrams, PNAS 2016), it made even more sense to choose this name.

Listen to all of this and more in the podcast above, part of a series of two episodes where we talk about the journey towards creating the company (Part 1) and how much it evolved during 2020, including the challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic (Part 2 – to be published next week).

With this I hope all of you who are curious about entrepreneurial adventures in life sciences can learn and be inspired by Tomás’ example and perhaps take the first step towards your dream.

Cover Image by fancycrave1 from Pixabay 

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