Where’s the Can-Do Spirit in Biotech? It’s Alive, Deep Down

12/3/12Follow @xconomy

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by investors who care much more about short-term returns than long-term impact. They are lucky to employ 30 people at their peak, not 700.

These new models have forced a whole set of new cultural ideas onto biotech. No longer do people go in to a company like Icos, somewhat naively, thinking they’ll work there 20 years, be part of something really big and bold, and have financial security for their families. For those lucky enough to get full-time jobs with benefits, they’re aware that what’s here today could easily be gone tomorrow. They know that today’s co-workers could be gone in a heartbeat. So why bother getting to know them very well? Who has time for a company softball game or happy hour anyway?

Henney noted that he re-connected with a former Icos employee this week who told him she now works at Oncothyreon (NASDAQ: ONTY). This person pointed out that the company (where Henney is chairman of the board) was appealing in part because it had a decent amount of cash, which meant it could operate for at least a couple years.

It’s understandable that people would want to grasp for a branch of stability in an unstable world, but that answer from a biotech employee is a revealing one. It says that people have been burned before, and everybody in biotech now does the cold-eyed financial analysis before pouring their heart and soul into anything.

“That’s the kind of level of perception that wouldn’t have occurred to first-generation people,” Henney says.

Some of this is clearly for the better. Surely, it would be foolish to get overly nostalgic about the past. There was a huge amount of waste in first-generation biotech companies from the ‘80s. Like many others, I’ve opined here about how biotech needs to do a better job at reducing the time/expense/risk equation that’s the great bugaboo of drug development. Some of these new business models are imposing a focus and discipline that in many ways is healthy, and should better serve patients and society. Maybe it’s just part of the natural way of the world, as people become wiser and more cautious with age and experience.

But I still can’t let go of the amazing can-do spirit that I saw in that room of Icos alumni this week. It’s a powerful thing. While few people are in a position to feel so good about their current jobs, there’s still tremendous human spirit in the people who work in biotech. It was obvious in the exciting early days of the industry. And it’s still there, if you just scratch a little below the surface. The best entrepreneurs and investors today understand that. As we head into the holiday season, it’s my hope that industry leaders find a way to keep that spirit alive and well.

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  • Johnny T. Stine

    WE DID! We all felt like we were apart of something much bigger than ourselves. Every lab at Icos – whether Bermuda, Baha, Alaska, etc – produced value and every time there was a new discovery, we all heard the news and each of us fed off it. We were all convinced that nothing was impossible and that we could practice our art (discovery) and we knew that we could change people’s lives. That feeling came from our leadership. My memories of Mike Gallatin storming into our lab to congratulate us on a finding – seeing his enthusiasm. The same with Pat Gray’s lab as “we” were the first to clone so many important molecules in inflammation and HIV fields. The company meetings – watching your CMO (head of clinical) get emotionally charged from a clinical trial result. That feeling of being at the cutting edge and being excited about crossing it or even being hopeful that it would be you someday leading that charge was in virtually everyone of us.

    At the Icos Impact event – it felt incredible being around all of those OPTIMISTS again. It brought back memories and made me realize where my own sense of excitement about exploration and discovery came from. We were ALL INTO IT! I thought that was how everyone was? Maybe we were a unique group of people. I learned that nothing was impossible from Icosahedrons and the leaders from George R. to Cliff Stocks to Pat Gray. We literally kicked ass and when you look back at our decisions, history has proven now that we were on the right track – always comforting.

    I took the Icos experience to a whole different plateau when I moved to Vancouver, BC after the research world at Icos was steadily titrating down. I encountered something even more exciting and addicting when I joined ImmGenics (which became Abgenix). They all had the “eye of the tiger” and the “fire in the belly” and the technology that would change the antibody therapeutic world. But the difference here is that they were all young, no pedigrees, and just a down to earth group of people whose intentions were to get it done and change the world. It was more egalitarian as a result and the director of that ship promoted that “we’re all in this together” mindset more so than any other I had seen. Me just turning 40….I was working my ass off with a bunch of people too naive to know failure…..and therefore, it was awesome – total optimism in an egalitarian world and we all fought shoulder to shoulder.

    Fast forward to today….”Today’s companies, to the extent any are being started at all, are forced to run on extremely lean and mean budgets and to meet strict deadlines by investors who care much more about short-term returns than long-term impact. They are lucky to employ 30 people at their peak, not 700.” and “They know that today’s co-workers could be gone in a heartbeat. So why bother getting to know them very well?”.

    “….and everybody in biotech now does the cold-eyed financial analysis before pouring their heart and soul into anything. ‘“That’s the kind of level of perception that wouldn’t have occurred to first-generation people,” Henney says.

    But I also can’t let go of that “can-do” spirit that was in that room – that same spirit that permeated me in my seven years at Icos which was expanded even further with John Babcook and his unique culture at ImmGenics – that same spirit that led me to found Spaltudaq. To the “first generation people” Henney mentions I salute you for having the guts to create what you did in spite of the unknown ahead. And to the first gen’ers, that Icos can-do spirit is alive and well today – it is here in Seattle. It’s the same spirit but we’ve had to change the way we go about achieving it. Look at the pictures attached – this is a lab that produces fully human therapeutic antibodies that will hopefully go into patients one day – but look at the way it’s being done – not esthetically pleasing like our Bermuda and Alaska labs, but it’s what we have and it works. We build our own benches, take out our own trash, do the science and we are doing it this way to show that we won’t let a lack of funding keep us from discovering new therapeutics – we just adapt and change the model. This is an example of that spirit that was in the room at the Impact party and a portion of that can-do spirit is in a warehouse in the “North Lake Union Biotech Hub” in Wallingford. This shows to what extent we’ll go in this shitty investment/partnering market to do what we learned to do back at Icos – practice our art and discover at all cost.

    The proof that the old Icos spirit lives within all Icosahedrons?:
    In my recent efforts I signed on to do the impossible in antibody therapeutic discovery and treatment for a friend dying of what I thought was a very curable, antibody-treatable tumor…..I had very little time (4 months) but a fast way to get there – and I needed help to do things I’ve never done before. Everyone turned me down saying things like “it will ruin my career if it doesn’t work”, “I could lose my license”, “it’s too risky”, “the paperwork will take 9 months”, etc…. In this short notice of my request for help the ONLY people who volunteered to take on such a heroic, never-done-before risky yet attainable task with me were ICOSAHEDRONS. It wasn’t because we were close friends and they wanted to lend a hand. I haven’t seen any of these people since I left in 2001. It was because they STILL have the spirit and the knowledge and confidence that they can make it happen because they’ve done it before. And they STILL had the courage to step up and help what most would label a crazy endeavor….but collectively, we all knew we could do it. We’ve done it before…… To all of those so called professionals who said “no” – no worries, we’ll take it from here….my fellow Icosahedrons have my back.
    Excelsior ICOS!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jtstine Johnny T Stine

    Pictures for first reply……