Dhiren Thakker’s Entrepreneurial Spirit
A look back at his 33 years with the School, building the research enterprise, pioneering global engagement, and beyond
Story by Zach Read | Published April 4, 2023
In the mid-1990s, Dhiren Thakker had a decision to make. A merger and acquisition had recently occurred at Glaxo, Inc., where he served as director of Drug Metabolism. The change promised to occupy much of his time, pulling him away from what he enjoyed most about his leadership position with the company: developing scientists, teaching, and mentoring.
An entrepreneur whose work focused on pharmaceutical sciences, Dhiren called UNC School of Pharmacy dean Bill Campbell, who had offered him a position at the school two years earlier. He asked Bill if the offer still stood. The answer was yes, and a new position was created: Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education.
“That was the beginning of our concerted effort to grow the research portfolio at the school,” Dhiren recalls. “We applied for more grants by providing the space and support to write them and creating the support structure to manage them. Our research enterprise and a graduate program with it began to grow.”
Over the next several years, Dhiren helped guide the school’s emphasis on research. Eventually, he supported the transition of leadership from Bill Campbell to Bob Blouin, who committed to accelerating the trajectory of growth with respect to research.
Dhiren was one of the first people Bob met with when interviewing for the position and later arriving as the new dean. Bob immediately recognized Dhiren as a forward-thinker who saw the potential of the School. But Bob acknowledges that the two didn’t always see eye to eye, which may have been a good thing.
“We often disagreed, and we had a unique way of challenging each other, but it was always done in a very mutually respectful way, with the best interest of the institution in mind,” Bob says. “I always worried a little bit when I was on the other side of an issue with Dhiren because I know he was a very thoughtful, conscientious individual and a person who cared a great deal about the institution, and so he always made me think deeply and often rethink my own position because he had an ability to make very compelling arguments in his favor.”
Dhiren admired Bob’s entrepreneurial approach to leadership, which, in his experience, was rare among academic leaders. The expansion of the School’s research endeavors, among other components, helped chart a course for the School that would propel it to new heights in years to come. Dhiren, who never liked to stay in one role too long, saw the position of strength the School was in and thought it might be time for a change.
“Individually, I stop growing,” admits Dhiren. “And more importantly, my contribution will level off. I like to think of these roles as fixed-term, not lifetime.”
In 2008, Dhiren offered to resign from his position and allow Bob to select a person who would bring fresh ideas to research and graduate education. Bob agreed, but only after the two brainstormed a new position that would bring structured approaches to entrepreneurial development and international engagement, two areas of continued growth and opportunity for the School. These areas of focus were merged into the Office of Entrepreneurial Development and Global Engagement, or EDGE, led by Dhiren.
“Our goal was to get involved in translating research into technologies, patents, and company creation, and create more impact than just publishing,” Dhiren explains. “We started a structured approach to developing international partnerships to create a more global footprint for the school, which led to some very impactful partnerships for the School.”
One of those partnerships was with Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “Dhiren Thakker is a citizen of the world – he has an in-depth understanding of peoples, cultures and countries,” says Bill Charman, Dean, Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at Monash University. “He has been a visionary and exemplary leader of the global programs that have become a distinguishing feature of the pharmacy program at UNC Chapel Hill.”
In 2017, as University leaders looked at the success of the School during Bob’s tenure, the chancellor called upon Bob to serve the entire University as provost. Bob asked Dhiren whether he should accept the position.
“Bob said, ‘We’re doing so well—I’m not sure it’s time for me to leave,’” Dhiren recalls. “I told him, ‘Bob, you have to. The University needs you to do for it what you’ve done for the School.’”
Bob accepted the new role but asked Dhiren to serve as interim dean in his place. Dhiren agreed, putting off plans to retire from the University and start his next career move—launching a global nonprofit to bring access to high-quality medicine to low-resource countries. But he committed to one year, and he would not lead like an interim dean.
“I would not stand still, as an interim dean might,” Dhiren says. “I would keep us moving forward and put things in place for the next dean to decide to continue or not.”
One year turned into two, but Dhiren helped lead the search process for the next dean, Angela Kashuba, and make investments to continue the School’s progress and growth.
In 2019, Dhiren retired from UNC and shifted his focus to the launch of Medaditus (‘Med’ for ‘medicine’ and ‘aditus,’ Latin for ‘access’). The nonprofit is currently building a full-scale pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in Kenya, attempting to demonstrate that high-quality medicine can be produced and distributed at low costs in low-resource settings.
As investors have lined up to support Dhiren’s efforts, the work bridges his entrepreneurial mindset with his passion for helping others. As a young student in India, Dhiren had planned to become a doctor so that he could directly help patients. Family interests led him to pharmacy and brought him to the United States, where he focused on drug absorption and metabolism research as well as his interests in start-up entrepreneurship. Through Medaditus, he hopes to see lives saved and suffering reduced.
His former colleague, Bob Blouin, is one of many Medaditus board members who believes in the possibility of its impact—and that Dhiren’s approach to partnership will serve the company well.
“He is a relational person,” Bob says. “He really counts heavily on developing a personal connection with other human beings, and he does that in every aspect of his work.”