Employee interview- Meet Ronald Knox

“Tell us your story- how did your path lead you to Nanion Technologies?”

Growing up in the West of Scotland (near Glasgow), football (aka soccer in North America) was everything to me. I loved to play, watch, talk  and dream about football, and I still do today; just ask my friends and colleagues.

However, when the penny dropped, and I realized I was not going to become a famous professional footballer, I headed off to the University of Glasgow and earned my B.Sc. (Hons) degree in Pharmacology. Those were glorious days for me, where I fell in love with two things; the concept of cellular and molecular mechanisms of drugs actions, and how these molecules could be used to treat so many diseases (ranging from cancer, neurological disorders to pain) and the girl I would marry! Before starting my final year, I completed a summer internship in Basel, Switzerland, at Novartis. This opportunity was a game changer for me, because it opened my eyes to the complexity and reality of the monumental scientific collective efforts it took to bring new therapeutics to the doctor’s office and operating theatre! My memorable experiences in Basel would eventually shape a huge chunk of my future professional career.

At the time of my graduation from Glasgow University, my favorite uncle Robert, who brought me to professional football matches (including my very first Celtic v Rangers “old firm” derby match) was tragically dying from complications originating from the shingles virus (herpes zoster) invading multiple branches of his facial nerve. It was devastating for me to watch my former 6’ 5” uncle Robert succumb to the ravages and excruciating pain caused by this disease. Obsessed with learning as much as I could about the cellular mechanisms of pain pathophysiology culminated in my enrollment at University College London (UCL) to study in the lab of renowned world leader in pain research, Dr. Anthony (Tony) Dickenson, where I earned my PhD in opioid receptor modulation of central pain mechanisms.

Looking back, it was a profound privilege to study in UCL’s Department of Pharmacology, which was and remains a global powerhouse of ion channel and pain research. The professors, post-docs and students represent a “Forbes-like List” of researchers, and whose publications have scintillated the world of ion channels and cellular excitability for decades.

While I was thinking about post-doctoral possibilities, I attended a two-day conference in London sponsored by the Sandoz Institute for Medical Research, and I was blown away by the research being done by Professor Leonard Kaczmarek from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. His lab was studying how post-translational modulation of different ion channel classes specifically altered the excitability of neurons, and by extrapolation, behavior. I was hooked, and reached out to Dr. Kaczmarek, who was conveniently on Sabbatical at Cambridge University. Fortunately for me, we hit it off instantly, and I was later thrilled to be offered a spot in Len’s lab at Yale. I remember having to pinch myself. It seemed incredible to be moving from one major contributor to the field of ion channels at UCL, to another giant at Yale. Of course, I told my wife we would probably be in the States for a couple of years, but things did not quite work out that way.

Like all postdocs, the inevitable question becomes your next career move. Assistant professor route to tenure at a top University or a move to what at the time was called by many academics, the “dark-side,” otherwise known as industry. I chose the “dark-side” and still believe it to be the best career decision I ever made. Earlier I mentioned that my summer internship at Novartis in Basel was a game changer for me; so here it was! I had come full circle when I was offered the opportunity of joining a very exciting and up and coming high throughput screening (HTS) division at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), led by a charismatic Scotsman from Glasgow, Dr. John G. Houston, who was putting together a team to prosecute ion channel drug targets. Because the expertise in electrophysiology and fluorescence microscopy I developed at Yale was a perfect fit, I accepted a job offer from BMS, and my new career in drug discovery was off and running!

When I began working at BMS, planar patch-clamping was in its infancy, and unbeknownst to me at that time, a very talented trio of physicists, ion channel experts and engineers were developing and pioneering their own specific brand of planar glass-based automated patch-clamp technology to measure ion channel activity! They are of course, Niels, Andrea and Michael; co-founders and owners of Nanion Technologies Gmbh, headquartered in Munich.

Fast forward a few years at BMS, where the global landscape of automated patch-clamp (APC) for ion channel drug discovery was evolving quickly, and part of my job as HTS technology platform leader was to be aware and assess any new developments that could increase productivity and reduce costs associated with ion channel drug screening. A talented member of my team, Dr. Adam Hendricson, identified a novel 96-well based instrument called the SyncroPatch 96 by Nanion, which was the very first APC robot that enabled classical “giga-seal” based measurements in 96 wells at a time! The rest is history, and my purchase of the SyncoPatch 96 for BMS was the start of my personal and professional relationships with Nanion Technologies.

Over the next decade, Nanion continued to develop and launch highly innovative electrophysiology technologies, and I always kept an eye on what they were doing! I attended their 2015 Nanion HTS user meeting in Hoboken, NJ and saw live demos of the SyncroPatch 384PE and the CardioExcyte 96. In my group at BMS, we were now working on human iPSC-derived cardiomyocytes, so I was immediately drawn to the CE96, which I also purchased! As you know, people vote with their pocketbooks, so you could say I was definitely a huge fan of Nanion’s instrumentation for our discovery platforms at BMS 😊

After an amazing run of drug discovery success, the BMS Wallingford site in Connecticut where I worked for over 18 years was closed permanently as part of a global restructuring in BMS R&D, so I was in the job market again after a long time! When you go through a large corporate site-closure, it is a life altering event, so you inevitably reevaluate personal and professional priorities. It was this process that finally led me back to Nanion as an employ this time, rather than a customer. As I was wrapping up my role of executive director of lead discovery and optimization at Bioasis and planning my next move I saw job openings posted by none other than my good friend, Rodolfo Haedo from Nanion. So, I called Rodolfo to catch up and talk about potential opportunities within the organization, and to mutually determine if I might be a good fit at Nanion. After a couple of months, we got together to talk some more, and I also visited with and participated in the team booth at the 2018 SPS meeting in Washington DC. I had an exhilarating time, loved the team, the whole company vibe, and within a month or so, I proudly started as an Account Executive at Nanion.

“Knowing what you know now, what 3 pieces of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?”

1. Be kind to everyone you can, not just your friends and loved ones. If you do so, it can bring true happiness and joy to your life and others 😊
2. Have courage to follow your own dreams and ambitions (not the ones other people have for you!) and ALWAYS make time to smell the roses and coffee and be humble along your journeys.
3. Save and invest a significant amount of your earnings from when you get your first job, and you will be amazed at what compound interest will do for you in the years to come!

“One Last Question- what’s the coolest thing about your job?”

It is the same reason I accepted the job in the first place- it is the amazing spirit, quality, and integrity of all my colleagues who make it an immense joy to work at the Nanion organization! Also, in my role, I get to travel (well I did until Covid-19 struck) and meet today’s top scientists at conferences all over the world, and I especially love the personal relationships and collaborations I have with my clients here in North America.