Where’s the Can-Do Spirit in Biotech? It’s Alive, Deep Down
How many people in the biotech industry today really feel like they are part of something special, something bigger than themselves? How many people feel such camaraderie with their co-workers that they’d show up to meet them at a reunion five years from now? How many people in biotech feel the task in front of them is challenging, but that nothing is impossible?
I’ve been ruminating over these questions the past week, since I hosted a reunion for the alumni of Bothell, WA-based Icos. This biotech company is largely forgotten now, but it made waves when it was founded in 1990. Icos brought together three superstar founders—George Rathmann of Amgen, Bob Nowinski of Genetic Systems, and Chris Henney of Immunex—and they raised a then-unprecedented $33 million Series A financing from a cast of rich people that included the young Bill Gates. The idea: develop drugs to fight cardiovascular diseases and inflammation.
After the auspicious beginning, Icos sustained all the usual ups and downs. It burned through huge sums of investor cash—more than $850 million over the next 16 years. It suffered regulatory setbacks. But it ended up developing a multibillion-dollar molecule in tadalafil (Cialis), and spun out a cancer drug that was the founding jewel of Seattle-based Calistoga Pharmaceuticals. Icos made money for investors when it was acquired by Eli Lilly for $2.3 billion in 2007.
Those are just the basic facts we in the business press and financial community use to keep score, but there was something bigger going on here. At its peak, Icos employed 500 people in Washington state and a total of 700 nationally. Many in the early days were young turks fresh out of academic research labs. As anybody could see at the reunion this week, many of them felt they were embarking on the most exciting and challenging journey of their careers.
These Icos vets told stories about how Rathmann memorized the names of every employee, and even their spouses, to show how much he cared about them personally. One scientist recalled how great she felt that Icos invested in a company-supported day care center to make it easier on parents pulling long hours in the labs. People were expected to work hard, but they wanted to, because they felt they were recognized and contributing to something larger than themselves. There was a spirit of egalitarianism that didn’t exist in hierarchical academic labs. There was a respect for everyone’s ideas. It was possible for anyone with smarts and ambition to advance from secretary to high-powered positions in human resources or investor relations.
The story, as many people know, didn’t end well for these people who invested so much of their brainpower and energy at Icos. The vast majority were given pink slips by Lilly. But people weren’t there to dwell on the ending. They remembered the company culture they were a part of—its values, its habits, its ways of working.
And actually, this team spirit was pretty common among the first generation of biotech companies. I personally witnessed this extraordinary spirit twice last year, when I organized similar events for the alumni of Genetics Institute in Boston and Immunex in Seattle.
After thinking about what I saw at those events, I can’t help but wonder where the spirit has gone. Christopher Henney, who attended both the Immunex and Icos reunions in the past year, has as good a perspective as anybody on what stirred that spirit back in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“The people who came to Icos, they mostly came out of academia, and certainly that was true of Immunex,” Henney says. “For them, it was part of that era where people said, ‘Wow, this is a whole world that I hadn’t known existed where I could practice my trade or my art or science, and work toward a common good.’ When you are doing things in an academic setting, the end product is always the glory of the guy who runs the lab. But when you’re in a company and you’re a shareholder, and you own part of the business, you could receive material benefits too. In many ways, their lives were changed. Most of them were more or less carrying out the same job they had in academic positions, but their sense of self-importance and self-worth was much more recognized. It was a great way to do science.”
Henney, like all first-generation biotech entrepreneurs, helped create that culture and seized upon the positive team energy to build valuable companies. And he’s also been around long enough to see the biotech model, and culture, go through some wrenching transformation.