The Best Biotech Graduate Schools in Real Life

9/23/13Follow @xconomy

[Updated 2 pm ET 9/30] Let’s imagine, for a second, you are someone in your 20s or 30s, getting started in the biotech industry. You want to work somewhere you can acquire a well-rounded set of experiences over the next five to 10 years so that you will have what it takes to be qualified for a senior management role in a startup. You can even imagine yourself someday building something from scratch as a startup CEO.

Where should you go today to get those skills? Put another way, what are the best training grounds for the biotech entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow?

There is no obvious answer to this question in biotech, like there is in other industries where companies like GE and Procter & Gamble have long been magnets for future business leaders. Several of biotech’s most storied real-life graduate schools—Genentech, Genzyme, Millennium Pharmaceuticals—have seen their famous cultures, and executive ranks, disrupted in the last five years by acquisitions. One recent candidate to enter that class, Onyx Pharmaceuticals, also chose to be acquired. Other companies throughout biotech history, like Amgen, Chiron, and Immunex, have become successful without spinning out many entrepreneurs.

So without the benefit of historic hindsight, which companies are doing the best job churning out industry leaders today? I put this question, last week, in front of Vicki Sato during a visit to her office at Harvard Business School. I figured she’s as well-positioned to answer it as anybody. She’s a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, a professor of the practice of molecular and cell biology at Harvard University, and a former president and chief scientific officer of Cambridge, MA-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX). She’s also sat on many boards of directors for companies in different sizes and stages of development.

Vicki Sato, professor of management practice, Harvard Business School

Vicki Sato, professor of management practice, Harvard Business School

Before naming names, Sato has some general advice to her students at HBS who have these types of aspirations. A lot of students are drawn to the classic “three guys in a garage” startup with a big dream. While some might be able to do that, by essentially jumping in at the deep end of the pool, most are better off gradually working their way into it, Sato says.

“If you go to one of these 3-4 person operations, sure there’s a lot to do, but no one has the bandwidth to sit down and help you through things,” Sato says. “If you learn well that way, it can be a terrific experience. But I tend to send students to companies where there’s more ‘there’ there. It’s people with enough experience, and the bandwidth to mentor. There’s also enough growth happening that the individuals can reach for things and have an opportunity to grow. It’s not just having someone say ‘sit at this desk, handle this problem, and send it back to me when you’re done.’”

The translation I took home: Big enough to have a real roster full of major league talent, but not so huge like Big Pharma that people tend to carry out a set of tasks so narrow that they don’t see, or feel responsible for, the big picture.

When I walked into Sato’s office, I went in with a working idea that a biotech training ground needs to provide exposure to all the key experiences that define life in the industry. The business is based on a meaty stew of disciplines that just don’t come together under any one roof in college. There’s hardcore science, clinical trial design and conduct, regulatory affairs, intellectual property strategy, legal affairs, investor relations, and public relations. An able leader of this kind of enterprise needs to be someone who can connect all the dots and inspire the troops to achieve a lofty goal. This is a set of experiences and skills that whole companies really can’t get until they are at least five, and probably at least 10 years old, and have been through the inevitable ups and downs.

“To be a fully integrated training ground, you need a certain amount of [wine] bottle age,” Sato says. Even among companies that have had staying power or financial success, many companies just don’t make the cut as training grounds. “It is hard to find the management team that really dazzles. That has always been true,” she adds.

With that, here are the companies Sato singled out as the best biotech training grounds for the future, with some brief explanations from her. Some of the names, I suspect, will surprise you. I’d love to hear some more voices on this subject, so if you have any names or commentary to add, please send me a note at ltimmerman@xconomy.com or leave a comment below.

Weston, MA-based Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB). “I still send people to Biogen. I thought the old team was good, and the new team is good, in different ways,” Sato says. Biogen has enjoyed a resurgence the past couple years under CEO George Scangos, who has two other former biotech CEOs on his staff, including Steve Holtzman and Doug Williams. Notable Biogen alumni in top executive roles today include Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY) CEO John Maraganore, Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CBST) CEO Mike Bonney, and Syros Pharmaceuticals CEO Nancy Simonian.

Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. Cambridge-based Alnylam was a pick that surprised me, because it’s still in the development stage, and doesn’t yet have any of its own marketed products, meaning it can’t offer a fully integrated set of experiences. Sato also notes that she once served on Alnylam’s board of directors. But she stuck with this pick because of the quality of people it has brought together, and the way it is structured to challenge people to grow. “John (Maraganore) has a very distinctive leadership style,” Sato says. “His people matter to him, and people come out of there.” Notable alumni include Epizyme (NASDAQ: EPZM) president Jason Rhodes.

Infinity Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: INFI). Cambridge-based Infinity, like Alnylam, is a mid-sized public company that has big dreams, but no products on the market. It has spent a lot of money, and insists on building a great company for the long run. Sometimes those facts irritate its shareholder base. But Sato says Infinity, a cancer drug developer, is a great place for people to gain skill in the industry. “[Infinity president and CEO] Adelene Perkins is a very good mentor,” Sato says. Notable alumni include: David Grayzel, the managing director of Atlas Venture Development Corp., and Nora Therapeutics CEO Jeffrey Tong.

Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG). The Summit, NJ-based company gets rave remarks from HBS students who have interned there, according to Sato. “They have come away from summer experiences very well trained and curious. Many get hired back. Celgene has been a magnet for HBS students. Students often report back they’ve had challenging and supportive experiences,” she says. Notable alumni: Sarepta Therapeutics (NASDAQ: SRPT) CEO Chris Garabedian.

Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD). The Foster City, CA-based biotech company has long struggled to diversify beyond its core HIV drug franchise, but it has broken out of that box the past several years through its acquisitions of Pharmasset and Calistoga Pharmaceuticals. Gilead also has three senior managers—CEO John Martin, COO John Milligan, and CSO Norbert Bischofberger—who have worked together so long they can probably read each others’ minds. “They are innovative and aggressive in a Gilead sort of way,” Sato says. Notable alumni: Garabedian, and Andrew Hindman, CEO of Tobira Therapeutics. [Updated 9/24 to add Hindman]

[Updated 9/23] Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Millennium has always been controversial in certain quarters of biotech as one of the companies that helped inflate the genomics bubble of 2000. But while that was going on, Millennium attracted lots of smart, ambitious people to its science and patient-driven culture. It has spun out many strong industry leaders over the years, and a few readers who have worked there tell me it remains a great “graduate school” for biotech, even five years after its acquisition by Takeda. Notable alumni include: EnVivo Pharmaceuticals CEO Deborah Dunsire; Syros Pharmaceuticals CEO Nancy Simonian; Moderna Therapeutics CSO Joe Bolen; Third Rock Ventures partners Mark Levin, Kevin Starr, and Bob Tepper; Infinity Pharmaceuticals president of R&D Julian Adams; Bluebird Bio CEO Nick Leschly, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals president and COO Barry Greene.

[Updated 5 pm ET 9/24] Alkermes (NASDAQ: ALKS). CEO Richard Pops has been driving for years to get Alkermes into the class of Big Biotechs, and a lot of graduates have gone on to bigger jobs after getting critical early experience at Dublin, Ireland and Waltham, MA-based Alkermes. Notable alumni include: Duncan Higgons, COO of Agios Pharmaceuticals; Katrine Bosley, an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Broad Institute and former CEO of Avila Therapeutics; Jim Wright, chief scientific officer of Bind Therapeutics; Keith Murphy, CEO of Organovo; and Trevor Mundel, president of global health, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

[Updated 2 pm ET 9/30] Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CBST). Sato wrote a follow-up note to add the Lexington, MA-based antibiotics developer to the list. She recently recommended Cubist to one of her students. “Of midsize companies that do the commercial/regulatory/reimbursement thing thoughtfully…and of companies with thoughtful exec teams…they are a strong player,” Sato wrote. Cubist also has plenty of interesting work on its hands, as it recently acquired a couple smaller antibiotics companies.  

South San Francisco-based Genentech: I’ve heard many comments lamenting the demise of Genentech’s famous science-first culture. Others are more sanguine that the best days aren’t all in the past. “The jury is still out,” Sato says. “I’d like to think Genentech will continue,” to be a training ground for biotech leaders. There are a lot of notable GenenExers, but one notable recent grad is David Schenkein, the CEO of Cambridge-based Agios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AGIO).

Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX). The Cambridge-based biotech company attracted lots of smart, ambitious people when it was getting going in the early 1990s, and quite a few have graduated to leadership roles in other companies. I actually wrote a story about top Vertex alumni in 2010 that you can look to for a list of names. Since then, Vertex has gotten two FDA approvals of new products. “If they’re doing it right, it should be an even better place because there are more experiences to get,” Sato says. One notable Vertex alum, Eric Olson of Kalydeco fame, has recently moved on to be the chief scientist of Watertown, MA-based Syros Pharmaceuticals.

San Rafael, CA-based BioMarin Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: BMRN) and Tarrytown, NY-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: REGN) didn’t make Sato’s list because she said she’s not familiar enough with them. But BioMarin has hatched a couple of entrepreneurs recently in Emil Kakkis, the CEO of Novato, CA-based Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical and Matthew Patterson, the CEO of San Francisco-based Audentes Therapeutics. Carlsbad, CA-based Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISIS) also gets what you might call an honorable mention from Sato, even though it is more of a training ground for industry scientists than it is for executives. “Excellent science types have come out of Isis to fuel this RNA generation. Everyone looks to Isis to poach talent,” Sato says.

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  • Chris

    Maybe append the story title “According to an HBS Professor!”

  • Bumejecy

    Good to know about that kind of people. That kind of course is really hard especially if you only have a little amount of interest on that kind of course.