Hoang Ha Thi: A journey to belong

Hoang Ha Thi: A journey to belong

Even to the Vietnamese ears, the name “Hoang Ha Thi” might sound a bit uncommon and quaint. The reason being the one who gave it to him – his mother –is a writer and teacher who inspired Ha Thi to develop an ethos of purpose and diligence from an early age. Originally trained to become a doctor, over the years Thi’s adventurous spirit has seen him spearheading a career in research that’s keenly dovetailed with entrepreneurship. Now the journey has taken him to Fulbright University Vietnam, where he joins as Lead Faculty for Entrepreneurship at the YSEALI Academy and Undergraduate Faculty Member in Integrated Science.

Hoang Ha Thi’s family left Hanoi for Germany when he was five. In this new land, both his mother and father had to give up their lifelong professions as a literature teacher and a physicist respectively, and adopted jobs whose hardships and struggles are no exception to any immigrant story. Having witnessed their tribulations first-hand, Thi aspired to “be good” in his own life. “I’m extremely impact-driven. The moment I feel I don’t do anything meaningful, I get really depressed. It’s like I don’t finish my bowl of rice and everything,” he says over Zoom one recent afternoon from Berlin. But before your mind might stray to the typical image of tiger parenting, Thi assures us that his folks let him do anything he wanted, nor do they ever tell him what to do: “They said to me ‘The world is your playground. But whatever you do, think hard on the effect it has on people.’”

And so, when it was time to choose, Thi decided to study medicine at the Free University in Berlin. It’s in a sense a familial trade as his grandfather was a descendent of Hai Thuong Lan Ong, an 18th-century physician celebrated in history as the “Father of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine”, while many relatives on his mother’s side also work in health care.  “[At the time], I got very much interested in the brain,” he says. “Because I somehow thought for myself that to understand humans, you have to understand the brain.” Yet, while working in the hospital, he became frustrated by the fact that understanding of many of the brain diseases is still frail. That was why he turned to research. At the University of Cambridge, Thi did his Ph.D. in Neuroscience & Molecular Biology at the world-renowned MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, home to 11 Nobel Laureates over the past 60 years. There, his discoveries have laid the foundation for novel drug discovery efforts by big pharma.

M.D., Ph.D. Hoang Ha Thi at his graduation from the University of Cambridge

“Going into it, I thought my work would cure Alzheimer’s disease, which was very naive,” he quips. “Then I realized how hard it is, and how disconnected and removed research often is from the actual patient.” Built on his previous clinical experience, Thi’s next move was a foray into business when he founded two biotech companies – one in London, now defunct; the other is in Austria and running well; which reflect the classic narrative of any entrepreneurs out there who embrace, learn and get up from their failures. “I wanted to carve out a niche in my career that would be at the intersection between research and application,” he says. “I didn’t just want to do research, but also translation of research into commercial products that ultimately created impact for the patient. That could be anything starting from a meditation app all the way to a drug that cures a disease.”

Harvard Medical School came after. As a research fellow, Thi was able to look into the potentiality of commercialization in research findings and projects, while consulting venture capital companies in Boston. “To be honest, oftentimes you don’t have to be very smart to do research, you just have to have a lot of resources that allow you to do things that others can’t,” he remarks. “But they also could be wasted on research that has no application altogether. Instead of being passive and waiting for things to happen, what you can do is to actually take an active role.”

That mindset was perfectly matched when he joined Flagship Pioneering, a venture capital company that builds world-changing biotech companies starting with revolutionary scientific ideas. Of many projects the company’s built over the last 20 years, it’s compelling to mention Moderna, best known these days for its vaccine against the coronavirus among other significant breakthroughs. “Flagship Pioneering brings scientists from all different disciplines together to brainstorm things that people would feel probably too stupid to voice in other scenarios, where we can just dream big even though it sounds naive sometimes,” he says. “But eventually, through this process, we came up with really great company ideas. I’ve contributed to the formation of two companies within that framework.”

The journey home

Looking back on his professional career, Thi admitted to a certain streak of unconventionality. While most of his schoolmates from medical school now have their private practices and a pretty stable life, he is embarking on a new adventure at Fulbright University Vietnam.

It wasn’t until 2019 that Thi went back to Vietnam as an adult. Growing up in Europe, he was used to the diversity and enjoyed the company of friends all over the world who brought out in him a fuller, well-rounded perspective on life, especially when compared to his family’s traditional Vietnamese mindset. “Back in the days, the Vietnamese student community in Germany was very much closed up and rarely opened up to other cultures, which was difficult for me to relate to,” he says. “As a result, I thought maybe I don’t belong there.”

The trip, however, rekindled a part of him that had been previously untapped but ever still, tethered to the land – be it the spirit of the young people he connected to, or the way the Vietnamese language is spoken among fellow countrymen, or the delicious authentic food they shared. “I left Vietnam completely shocked,” he says. “Because I was so, in fact, in love with it. I was sitting on the plane crying like a baby when I left Vietnam. Passengers and the stewardess turned around to ask if I was ok.”

Since then, Thi has been working on projects that he believes are of meaningful value to Vietnam and its people. One is a scholarship called “Vietnam my homeland” for disadvantaged children to continue with school and/or study abroad. The other is facilitating collaboration between the Institute of Genome Research in Hanoi and a genome company in Seattle to construct genetic maps of rare disorders found in ethnic minorities in Vietnam. It aims for the country’s advancement of genetic research and in the long run, the development of new cures and treatments.

“Over the past two years, I’ve been thinking how I can possibly go back to Vietnam and reconnect to that part of my identity,” he says. “It’s just insane to me that the opportunity at YSEALI and Fulbright came up, which suits me professionally and also allows me to explore and add another puzzle piece to my identity.”

A playful approach

At Fulbright University Vietnam, Thi plans to divide 80% of his time to the YSEALI Academy, and 20% goes with undergraduate students. What he hopes to establish is a framework for teaching and learning in which processes are streamlined, preformed structures are challenged, and the curriculum is open to the broader public one day. Furthermore, the student-teacher relationship is one that’s developed from a place of listening to and empowering each other.

The idea echoes something he once shared: The best way to be innovative is by being playful and breaking things (and fixing them afterwards). “I’m the kind of person who questions everything,” he says. “You try out something, you break it. And if it fails, you laugh about it. You have to do that a lot of times to get to this one iterative idea – a concept that works out eventually. That’s where the playfulness comes from. You have to trust your gut and go for it.”

Thi believes the entrepreneurial mindset – of taking risks, venturing into the unknown, generating new hypotheses – can be the key to approach anything in life. In other words, one can’t learn just by watching YouTube or reading books. “It’s not what you need to know, but rather, you need to know how to learn it,” he says.  “I think I can do a lot in teaching students how to take risks and how to be comfortable with uncertainty. The world has become so complex, and it’s very important to navigate uncertainty in their professional lives, whether they do business or not. What essentially matters at the end of the day is how the students will lead their lives in the real world once they leave school.”

The YSEALI Entrepreneurship Seminar

As Lead Faculty for Entrepreneurship at the YSEALI Academy, Thi is overseeing the upcoming “Navigating the Startup Ecosystem” seminar, which is now open for applications and will take place in November. One of the highlights of the curriculum that he developed with the YSEALI team is a Hackathon, in which fellows will work in teams to present conceptual business solutions to the most pressing challenges of society. A panel of experienced entrepreneurs will mentor the teams during the Hackathon, which culminates in startup pitches and an award ceremony.

“The idea behind it is to have people work together in a playful manner, and hopefully bring those concepts into life in the future,” he says. “It would be a dream scenario if we have people from different Southeast Asian countries now becoming friends, forming a team to actually build a company based on the ideas they have for the Hackathon at the seminar.”

YSEALI Academy is also a place for Thi to learn. He views it as an opportunity to get to know the landscape, and build capacity for ASEAN to become the next Silicon Valley with companies that create their own innovation and intellectual property. “I dislike the fact that Southeast Asian countries are oftentimes viewed as manufacturing outposts only,” he says. “There’s so much human capacity to create our own proprietary products. I hope to find people with a disruptive mindset, to discuss and work with them through this seminar.”

As such, the ideal candidate that he’s looking for in the selection process is someone who’s open to new people and topics, and sees themselves as an agent that can move easily between worlds. “I don’t care so much about their past experiences, what they’ve been trained in or where they went to study,” he says. “I want to see someone who wants to do something meaningful. Why do you want to do entrepreneurship? It’s oftentimes because you care about a problem, right? If you can convince me that you care, then you’re really a good person to join the seminar.”

Bao Quyen

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