Remembering James L. Vincent, Longtime Biogen Leader

12/31/13

Are they making innovators quite like James L. Vincent any more? This question, spurred by Vincent’s death on Dec. 5, has more edge these days as we worry how Americans are going to keep inventing, making, and selling new things to earn a good living in a sharply competitive world. More bluntly, do the innovators of today have the fire in the belly to build and lead a major company?

Vincent, a big guy from a small town in Pennsylvania with experience of independent command at three big companies, who believed that you have to drive your career, not just let it happen to you, turned science-focused Biogen into an integrated, global, self-standing business. Under Vincent, Biogen began building its dominance of the array of drugs for multiple sclerosis through close and direct contact with tens of thousands of patients. And Biogen, founded in 1978 and led by Vincent from 1985 to 2002, through the launch of interferon-based Avonex for multiple sclerosis and beyond, is the oldest free-standing biotech company. Today, it offers three treatments for MS, including a newly introduced oral drug and two injectables.

In developing lasting independence for Biogen, now Biogen Idec, Vincent stands almost alone in biotechnology with another hard-driving big man from large companies, George Blatz Rathmann, who died in 2012. A son of privilege who helped develop Scotch-Guard at 3M and later worked with Vincent in the diagnostics arm of Abbott Laboratories, Rathmann put in 10 years as the inaugural CEO of Amgen. Armed with a gene patent on the blood protein erythropoietin (EPO), Rathmann defied Wall Street’s nervous advice to settle a crucial suit with Genetics Institute. Victorious, Amgen achieved dominance in the market for EPO. With an array of products, Amgen is the largest free-standing biotech company.

How did Vincent’s and Rathmann’s earlier experiences in tech-built firms shape their strategies in biotech? Interestingly, they each decided to focus on a single new product—EPO for Amgen and beta-interferon for Biogen.

As is well known, most biotechnology startups have ended up within such larger enterprises as Roche and Johnson and Johnson (widely regarded as the most successful of the biotech absorbers). And the spectacle raises concerns. How can we maintain the kind of innovation that springs most naturally from a driven tribe of 150 in one large room, each with a voice but under a visionary leader, where the direction can change in a single day? Is it decreed in heaven, now that Bell Labs is dead, that big companies can only innovate by buying?

Biogen CEO Jim Vincent receiving 1998 National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton.

Biogen CEO Jim Vincent receiving 1998 National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton.

The disappearance of large, vertically integrated companies in recent decades, while the number of smaller, innovative firms has multiplied, is a striking change across the world of business. Clearly, Vincent and Rathmann anticipated the trend in pharmaceuticals. Now, the companies they built are becoming large and vertically integrated. Will they continue to innovate?

The story of Jim Vincent, an engineering graduate of Duke with an MBA from Penn’s Wharton School, who stepped determinedly from Texas Instruments to Abbott to Allied Signal before leading Biogen, shows a more complex relationship between big and small enterprises.

He knew he wouldn’t be CEO where he was. And science-driven Biogen, operating competing research groups in Geneva and Cambridge, burning through cash, pulling in licensing revenue but not yet marketing its own products, was making its big investors, Schering-Plough and Monsanto, nervous. It was clear the company needed a new direction. The directors spent 10 months in 1985 searching for a new CEO. A strong voice in the process was board member Lou Fernandez, chairman of Monsanto, which had put $20 million into Biogen in 1980, helping start the Cambridge lab. This bet was part of Monsanto’s long search to shift from fossil hydrocarbon-based chemistry, commoditized products of ancient life, to complex proteins and nucleic acids produced by organisms living today. Interviewing leaders like Rathmann, the board eventually settled on Vincent.

Jim arrived with a figurative sign on his back: “I’m boss. Follow me.” He laid it down that the company was in crisis mode. Everybody was going to count every dollar, and everybody was going to squeeze into economy class seats—even him. He knew he had to know enough science to participate meaningfully in the priority-setting decisions. He firmly believed that teams were more efficient than individuals. But, with a lot of practice, he was totally comfortable making a command decision.

He sold off the European operations, boosted revenues from intellectual property, slashed the burn rate in half, and got Biogen into the black in three years, opening the path to raising funds through new offerings of both preferred and common stock. Injectable Avonex provided multiple sclerosis patients with a serious defense against relapses.

Jim Vincent retired in 2002, having led Biogen for more than 15 years. When he died at the age of 73, his daughter Aimee spoke his epitaph: “He was very proud that Biogen maintained its independence as a company.”

Phil Sharp and Vic McElheny are both Xconomists. Both work at MIT. Follow @

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

  • Bill Ghormley

    Great tribute to a great leader — Jim Vicent was the right guy and the exact right moment for Biogen. He can rest in the peace earned by serving all of the company’s constituents — MS patients first, then employees, shareholders, and the innovation community — all boats lifted through his good works!