Xconomist of the Week: Tony Coles’ Journey from Mass General Doctor to SF Biotech CEO

8/18/11Follow @xconomy

Tony Coles was about nine years old when he decided to become a doctor. His father, a government accountant and a minister, told him that medicine and law were great professions. The younger Coles, a fan of math and science, opted for medicine. And even when teachers underestimated him, placing Coles in a math class that he thought was too slow and boring, he kept his eye on the prize.

“I just held onto that belief that I could be a doctor,” Coles says. “It’s funny how these things can become self-fulfilling prophecies. I don’t believe things happen by accident. I was destined to be involved in some way in healthcare.”

Coles, now 51, has put himself into a position to make an even bigger impact on healthcare than a lone physician can, as the CEO of South San Francisco-based Onyx Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ONXX). The company already has developed a drug for kidney and liver cancer that’s approaching $1 billion in worldwide sales, and Coles is now attempting to pull off Onyx’s second act, by winning FDA approval of a second product with billion-dollar potential for treating a type of cancer called multiple myeloma. If Coles can lead Onyx through this journey to become a two-product company, a transition few biotechs ever complete, then it should be in position to control of its own corporate destiny for a long time.

Coles, who signed on as Onyx as CEO in February 2008, will draw on all his various experiences from his upbringing and his career as a physician and pharma executive to make this happen. Hollings Renton, who retired three years ago to bring Coles on board, says his successor has the focus it will take for Onyx to rise to a new level.

“Tony had all the right experience,” Renton says. “He’s had senior level executive positions in pharma and biotech, a heavy duty commercial background, and also a medical background. He’s a very, very clear strategic thinker. I just saw leadership. And he’s a values-based guy, cares about people, and is very empathetic. I thought he would do the right things.”

Coles also happens to be African American in an industry with very few people with his skin color. So by definition, he’s had a lot of experiences that most people in the business have only read about.

He started on his path growing up in a middle-class family in Washington D.C., the oldest of three siblings. His father, as mentioned above, was an accountant who worked for the federal government. Coles’ mother was an office manager who worked for what is now AT&T. His parents were products of the great migration, as many African Americans fled the Jim Crow south in the first part of the 20th century to seek more opportunity in major cities of the north. They instilled at least … Next Page »

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