David Schenkein, Cancer Doc Turned CEO, Aims to Build New Genentech

10/16/13Follow @benthefidler

David Schenkein is a kid from Queens. An underdog. The kid who barely eked his way into medical school. The one who had to work day and night as a young doctor to keep up with those who went to the glitzy Ivy League schools.

That same kid from Queens ended up running the cancer division at a world-class hospital in Boston, helped develop a lifesaving drug for multiple myeloma, and went on to run clinical development at the world’s most prolific cancer drug development shop. Now, at 55, he’s on another highly improbable journey. As CEO of Cambridge, MA-based Agios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AGIO), Schenkein wants to create the next truly great cancer drug development organization, the next Genentech.

To an outsider, it could easily be interpreted as a lot of hot air. Agios just went public this year with aspirations to lead the field of cancer metabolism. The idea is to fight cancer by essentially starving tumors to death. The field of research is exciting, but still in its infancy. Agios doesn’t have any FDA-approved products to validate its scientific ideas, and it only recently began testing its first drug candidate in the clinic.

Yet nobody’s laughing at Schenkein, or completely dismissing the idea. He’s running one of the most closely-watched biotech companies in the industry, an operation that is now worth over $800 million.

Schenkein says he never could have imagined himself being in this situation a few years ago. Even today, with all the responsibilities of a CEO, he still thinks of himself as a physician. He still carves out time to personally treat blood cancer patients at Tufts Medical Center every other Tuesday.

David Schenkein, CEO of Agios Pharmaceuticals

David Schenkein, CEO of Agios Pharmaceuticals

“That definitely wasn’t on the radar screen,” he says of being a CEO. “I wanted to be a great physician and take care of patients. It was very late in my career before I ever thought about doing what I’m doing today.”

Careers often unfold in unexpected ways. Schenkein’s ambition as a young physician was to be the chairman of medicine at a big academic center. After working his way up from an intern to the head of Tufts’ Cancer Center, he crossed over to industry and designed the clinical trials for bortezomib (Velcade) while at Cambridge-based Millennium Pharmaceuticals. He was recruited later to oversee the clinical development and regulatory work for several of South San Francisco, CA-based Genentech’s big cancer therapies like bevacizumab (Avastin), trastuzumab (Herceptin), and rituximab (Rituxan). Then, in May 2009, he got his shot to run Agios.

“What I love about David is his heart. There is absolutely zero pretense with that guy. There’s no smoke and mirrors. He won’t do anything he doesn’t believe in,” says Nick Leschly, the CEO of Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE), who worked with Schenkein at Millennium, led the recruiting pitch to get him to Agios when he was a partner at Third Rock Ventures, and later put him on the board at Bluebird.

Despite his lofty ambitions, Schenkein doesn’t come across as conceited, or strung out by the pressure of making his vision a reality. Quite the contrary. He’ll often throw out lines like he wasn’t blessed with the same size “hard drive” as his scientific peers, or that he makes sure to surround himself with people who are smarter than he is. He latches on to role models to learn from.

“The thing that really sets David apart is his character,” says Hal Barron, Genentech’s chief medical officer and Schenkein’s former boss. “He treats everyone—from a low level position to a chairman of the board—with the same amount of respect and integrity, and does so with humility. It’s David as a person that rises above, and made him such an excellent person to work for and with.”

The character that Leschly and Barron see today was shaped in Forest Hills, NY, a middle-class neighborhood in central Queens. The place is home to many European Jews, and as the New York Times put it recently “is five subway stops and a world away from Manhattan.”

Schenkein’s parents were Holocaust survivors from Germany and Holland. His father was a wholesale diamond dealer in Manhattan, while his mother stayed home to take care of him and his brother. Neither of his parents went to college.

Schenkein described his parents as pretty “hands off.” He and his brother were free to do what they wanted, and shape their own life experiences. Even so, Schenkein describes himself as the peacemaker in blowups between his parents and his rebellious older brother, the more artistic “Woodstock” type.

“They couldn’t understand the culture difference,” he says of mediating disputes between his parents and brother.

Schenkein didn’t have any many clashes with his parents. He channeled his energy into sports and science. He started competing in … Next Page »

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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