Distinguished Alum, Scientist, and CEO Thomas Butler
Like many of his peers, Thomas Butler wasn’t sure about what he wanted to do after college during his first year at Chico State. He liked numbers and enjoyed science. He wanted to understand why things are the way they are. He also loved hanging out with his friends, disc golfing at Peregrine Point, or taking advantage of the cutting-edge technology in his dorm room—the ethernet cord.
Butler’s purpose came more into focus when Professor Dave Ball invited him into his summer research internship to do organic chemistry in a lab setting.
“I felt like a fish in water. I was so happy,” said Butler. “I really thought that I’d spend the rest of my life in a lab doing organic chemistry because it was so much fun. It’s rare to be able to test out your theory in real time with your own hands. It’s powerful.”
Butler (Chemistry, ’03) is still swimming, but in deeper waters. He is the founder and CEO of Biomea Fusion, Inc. (Nasdaq: BMEA), a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company dedicated to discovering and developing novel covalent small molecules to treat and improve the lives of patients with genetically defined cancers and metabolic diseases.
“We started cancer trials last year and started the diabetes trial last month in the US,” Butler said. “We’ll start to get initial proof of concept this year in cancer and diabetes, so it’s a really exciting year for the company.”
Butler has been on a search for answers since he was a child—and this has helped lead him to where he is. He learned how to build small molecules in his first job after graduation, at Gilead Sciences, where he worked on life-saving treatment for Hepatitis C, HIV, and COVID-19. But after six years, he wanted to understand why some programs had three chemists while others had 75. He went to UCLA to get his MBA and then to work at Pharmacyclics where he managed investor relations and became an expert in the business side of the industry: what happens in development, what happens in the regulatory process, and what happens in the commercial setting, for example.
When Pharmacyclics sold in 2015, Butler decided to take all that he had learned at the bench as a chemist into the boardroom as a businessperson to start Biomea Fusion, along with his former boss at Pharmacyclics, Ramses Erdtmann.
“I felt like we were just scratching the surface on covalency. We needed to have a bigger effort,” Butler said.
Butler followed through on this effort and still feels like a fish in water today. “Completely. I have way too much fun.”
What does it mean to you to be receiving this award from Chico State?
I was shocked. I was stunned and completely honored. Chico State really represents a pivotal juncture in my life. I loved math and science, but that’s all I really knew. And I didn’t have this forecast of what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
Dave really took me under his wing. At the time, I was taking a lot of accounting and economics classes because I just wanted to learn, and I didn’t really know what my path was. Dave brought me in and showed me the world of organic chemistry in the lab and it was amazing.
What unique experience did you have at Chico State that you might not have gotten somewhere else?
The one-on-one time with the professors. I think the student-to-professor ratio is phenomenal. When I went to UCLA and other places, for grad school and an MBA school, that ratio was very different. It’s more like 50 to one or 100 at some of these UCs, and I think that one-on-one, closer relationships are so important. At the younger age of development, you’re asking questions like “what’s my path,” and “who am I?” My professors provided such great guidance and I thought that was so special.
Also, because I was the eighth of nine kids, there was no money left for me to go to college, so I had to do it on my own. You want books? Go get a job. You want gas for your truck? Go make it happen. What Chico provided for me was an affordable option, and then it taught me that if you want something, you’ve got to work to go get it.
What advice do you have for students today?
Success can have many different definitions. But the path to happiness and joy is through doing something that you’re passionate about. If you stay on the road of passion, only good things come. When you’re always involved in something that you’re passionate about, everything else falls into place. And the daily routine becomes no longer a routine. It just becomes life.
How do you shake things up and create positive change in your work today?
I always put myself in other people’s shoes and ask big questions. What kind of research facility would I want to be a part of? How would I want to be treated? What drives me to want to be a part of this team? I’ve learned that if you have a very flat and inclusive organizational structure, there’s no “your fault” or “my project.” It’s our project. I’m constantly asking myself why someone would want to be a part of this company.
What are you most proud of when it comes to your career?
Number one is helping others. It sounds like a cliche, but it’s a willingness to serve others. And what makes me so happy is that I am bringing in people who are like-minded and want to serve patients. We’re working together and creating medicine that can change someone’s life. I think that’s so powerful.