Alumni Stories | 05 Thomas Boillat
From Delémont to the Desert of Dubai
Thomas Boillat knew what he wanted to do in life. He had a knack for cars and wanted to become a mechanic, but three months into his apprenticeship, Thomas found out that he’s allergic to chrome and nickel. He needed a plan B. What followed was a daisy chain of coincidences, which lead him from the bucolic Jurassic state capital to the center of the Emirates.
What makes Thomas’ story so unique is that he actually never planned for any of it. After it became clear that he couldn’t pursue his original dream, he just went with the flow. His father found him an internship in IT – and that’s what Thomas did. He completed an apprenticeship and went on to study Information Systems at the University of Lausanne.
One of his professors at Uni Lausanne was setting up a collaboration with the swissnex Network in North America and encouraged Thomas to apply for an internship in San Francisco. “Of course I was interested. But the deadline was short and I was in a relationship, sharing an apartment with my girlfriend. It wasn’t really a decision I could take on my own.”
A few weeks later, the same position in Boston opened up. This time around, Thomas couldn’t say no.
The Fishy Business of Apartment Hunting
For someone who grew up in Delémont, where the streets turn quiet by nightfall, relocating to Boston was a bold move. “Before that, I hadn’t really left Switzerland for more than two or three weeks in a row,” Thomas concedes. He and his girlfriend had a bullet-proof plan: They’d book a hotel for a week and then find an apartment from there. “Obviously, things don’t work like that in Boston. We sent out 25 messages on Craigslist in the first three days and did not get a single response,” he laughs. “As soon as we understood the whole apartment hunting game, things got easier. In the end, we found a nice flat share with a couple of Harvard guys, 200 meters from the swissnex office.”
Degrees of Separation and Doors of Opportunities
According to network theory, any two given people on earth are, on average, connected by six degrees of separation. Listening to Thomas’ story – the world seems infinitely smaller. “I ended up spending a lot of my time in Cambridge with a childhood friend from Delémont. We haven’t seen each other since kindergarten until our mothers met at the local supermarket in Switzerland and found out that we’re both now based in the Boston area,” he smiles.
Thomas explains to me that he just tries to keep an open mind and take an opportunity whenever it presents itself: “I always see these doors opening up for me and I just step through them, without overthinking.” I made a mental note that this is an excellent metaphor for an illustration.
One of these doors opened up in Cambridge and paved the way for the next step in Thomas’ career. Before relocating to the East Coast, Thomas wasn’t really immersed in the world of research. “My master’s degree was rather applied, so I never knew what it actually meant to conduct research and engage with other academics.”
Pascal Marmier, who was the CEO of swissnex Boston at that time, sat down with Thomas on a regular basis to discuss his thesis and introduced him to local academics. On one of these occasions, Thomas met a professor who encouraged him to apply for a PhD position in his department – back home in Switzerland.
What followed was remarkable. Through his PhD thesis, Thomas got in touch with a professor in Stanford, who invited him to work with him on the West Coast. A few years later, after Thomas finished his Post Doc at the University of Lucerne, this same Professor called him with a proposal: “I’m moving to Dubai. And you should come with me.”
From Theory to Application
Although Thomas says of himself that he never really planned his life – there’s a reason why he is where he is. With his applied background in IT and the immersion in the research world, he is able to identify real-life problems and develop technological solutions – a skill that he first learned to apply when writing his master’s thesis at swissnex.
“In the beginning, I found it hard to find a topic for my thesis. I was supposed to work 50% on my thesis, 50% on swissnex projects. It took me a while to fully understand the unique environment that is the swissnex network,” Thomas admits.
He was given a lot of responsibility, organizing the annual “Venture Leaders Pitchfest” with 300 guests and up and coming startups from Switzerland and across North America. “I talked to many of my colleagues to pick their brains and realized that there isn’t a standardized process to plan events – one of the core activities at swissnex Boston.” And there he had the topic of his thesis. Applying a method called ‘Design Science’, Thomas analyzed the status quo, developed a digital application and process documentation that he left as his legacy at swissnex.
This unique skill of connecting problems with technical solutions is what brought Thomas to the Emirates. Since January 2019, he’s been an Assistant Professor in Healthcare Innovation and Technologies at the Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dubai. “I never imagined that I would land here. I like Dubai, the university is amazing. I’m not in the IT department of the school but integrated in the faculty of medicine. Who would have imagined that an aspiring mechanic from Delémont would one day land here?”
Time in Boston: March 2011 – September 2011
Position: Junior Project Manager
Interview conducted & story written by Daniela Chiani (Content Manager, October 2018 – June 2019)
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