Tillman Gerngross, the Scientist Turned Scientific Businessman
Tillman Gerngross came to Dartmouth College 15 years ago desperate for a new start. A biochemical engineer in his mid 30s, he’d just watched seven prime career years go by with little but wasted time, a narrow set of skills, and a few tough life lessons to show for it.
As it turns out, it wasn’t too late for Gerngross to find his calling. He’s used his Hanover, NH, perch to go from an assistant professor to one of biotech’s most respected and successful scientific entrepreneurs. He did something no one thought he could do—make protein drugs from yeast—and turned it into a $400 million payday from Merck. He followed that up by creating a self-sustaining, privately held, dividend paying biotech, Adimab. And now, with the same fearless, in-your-face gusto he’s become known for along the way, he’s taking on university politics and trying to upend decades-old tech transfer practices at Dartmouth.
“People have said of me that I don’t suffer fools lightly,” he says. “I’m sure some people dislike that.”
But Gerngross wasn’t always so self-confident. He stepped onto MIT’s campus as just another youngster wondering if he could hack it with the best engineers in the world. As a young scientist, he can remember the humbling days when he couldn’t get peers to approve his grant requests. Like many entrepreneurs, he also ruefully remembers what it was like to pour his heart and soul into his first startup, GlycoFi, taste success, and then watch his baby get suffocated by the Big Pharma machine.
The mistakes made, the obstacles overcome, the lessons learned all contribute to the irrepressible biotech entrepreneur Gerngross is today. Gerngross, at 50, has become the linchpin of a small, but growing biotech network out of New Hampshire. He still has his academic lab at Dartmouth that does research into biochemical engineering. He does some venture capital consulting. His antibody drug discovery shop, Adimab, was valued last year at more than half a billion dollars.
The Adimab story, though, hasn’t yet reached its climax. The company is still private, so Gerngross doesn’t have to disclose its financial performance. He won’t say how much each pharma customer is paying for antibodies from Adimab. He has grandiose-bordering-on-absurd goals for Adimab, like one day seeing 80 percent of the antibodies in the pharmaceutical industry’s Phase III pipeline with his fingerprints on them. But despite that kind of bluster, Gerngross tends to get the benefit of the doubt inside biotech. High-profile biotech investors like Polaris Partners, SV Life Sciences, and OrbiMed Advisors have backed his first two startups, made millions, and are willing to gamble on what amounts to three additional Adimab spinoffs—Alector, Arsanis Biosciences, and Avitide. Dartmouth officials asked him to reshape its tech transfer office to help more New Hampshire biotech entrepreneurs succeed like he has.
“From the first day I met him I was convinced not only is this guy super smart, but he had just phenomenal energy and if he took on an issue or a problem, he was going to make it happen,” says Charles Hutchinson, the emeritus dean of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, who hired Gerngross some 15 years ago and later co-founded GlycoFi with him.
“He takes on very difficult challenges without seeming to blink an eye, and then makes them work,” says Michael Ross, a partner with SV Life Sciences who backed Gerngross at GlycoFi.
It’s a world away from where Gerngross started. His father was an Austrian architect, his mother a German sculptor. He changed schools five times before college, growing up in America’s second-largest city, Los Angeles, and a small city called Graz, in southern Austria. He had to learn early on how to quickly make new friends, and adapt.
Gerngross’s parents didn’t push him to be an overachiever. It was more of an unspoken expectation for Tillman and his younger sister that independent thought and education were paramount. Conversations around the family dinner table were about artistic, philosophical, or historical subjects.
“In the hierarchy of information at the bottom there’s gossip, the middle is facts, and the top is ideas and concepts, and we were sort of in that bucket a lot,” Gerngross says.
Still, the family fractured. Gerngross’ parents divorced when he was 12, and he moved back from Los Angeles to Austria with his mother. He says the divorce didn’t devastate him, but it did create a forced independence, a realization that he had to rely on himself if he wanted to achieve anything, he says.
As a teen, when many kids desperately want to fit in, Gerngross wasn’t afraid to be different. He did mainstream things like play squash and ski, but when he was 17 he also … Next Page »