Harvard’s Verdine Blazing Trail for Scientific Entrepreneurs

10/7/13Follow @xconomy

If you’re a tenured biomedical researcher at a university today, and you have a big idea for what could be a new drug or diagnostic test, you can do a couple things.

Hand it off to someone else at a startup, keep your day job, dabble as an advisor for a couple hours a week at most, and hope for the best. Or, you can give up the security and perks of the university, risk your academic career, and dive into the all-consuming startup life. Then hope for the best.

For most people, that’s a no-brainer. Most tenured faculty keep their day jobs, and never plunge into the hard work of trying to turn a concept into a product that benefits patients.

That’s why what Greg Verdine is doing is so interesting. Verdine is a world-class chemical biologist at Harvard University. A couple years ago, he founded a startup that attracted big investment from Third Rock Ventures and Paris-based Sanofi, the pharmaceutical giant. For the first 18 months or so, Verdine did the usual thing. He kept his tenured academic day job, while overseeing science at the company, Warp Drive Bio, on the side.

Gregory Verdine, CEO of Warp Drive Bio

Gregory Verdine, CEO of Warp Drive Bio

Earlier this year, Verdine agreed to dive into Warp Drive full-time for a while to see if it can deliver on its promise to create new drugs. He needed to take an unusual risk to do this. He gave up his tenured faculty position at Harvard to run the company as CEO, for an expected period of about three years. In consultation with university officials, he agreed to keep running his 15-person lab at Harvard on a part-time basis during his stint in industry. Verdine’s plan is to then hopefully come back to Harvard as a ‘professor in the practice’ who teaches and does research, but works on a five-year renewable contract instead of a tenure deal. If things don’t work out at Warp Drive, or even if they do and he just wants a new challenge after a while, he can always fall back on that.

This kind of career path makes a lot of sense to me. It certainly comes with its complications. Any university that grants a long leave to a faculty member will need to find someone to pick up the slack on research and teaching. People will also inevitably wonder about whether a faculty member’s business interests will get in the way, and tempt them to exploit the resources of the university for private gain. It’s a legitimate concern, but universities have been dealing with this tension for a long time, and there are ways to manage conflicts of interest so that each side can get what they want.

To be sure, Verdine isn’t the first faculty entrepreneur who has sought to play in both the worlds of business and academic research. Elias Zerhouni, the president of global R&D at Sanofi, says he did a similar thing earlier in his career when he was at Johns Hopkins University and felt compelled to ask for—and get—a two-year leave of absence to pursue an entrepreneurial dream. Zerhouni, who helped create Warp Drive Bio with Verdine, sees a lot of potential for other entrepreneurial faculty members to follow this kind of career path.

“You can point to the ‘purity of this, or the purity of that’ in going to industry, but for him to advance his idea, it might have taken him 15 years at Harvard,” Zerhouni said, during a recent Sanofi event in Cambridge, MA. “Here [at Warp Drive Bio], it will take him two years to see if it will work. He can recruit grad students, postdocs, and others fast. He doesn’t have to go through all the things you have to go through at a university. It’s the right thing to do.”

“When you have an innovator, give him a chance. Why not?” Zerhouni said. “I really believe if Greg succeeds, it will be a revolutionary accomplishment.”

I agree, this is an important experiment that scientific entrepreneurs everywhere should keep an eye on. But I sense the optimistic view isn’t widely shared by university administrators. Many are afraid that they’ll mess this up, and wake up to read a newspaper one day with a scandalous headline that says ‘University Researcher Exploits Taxpayer-Funded Research, Poor Young Grad Student Wage Slaves, to Become Mega-Millionaire Yacht Owner” or something like that. They aren’t nearly as afraid of a headline that says “University Researcher Pocketed Millions of Taxpayer Dollars and Never Bothered to Try to Develop Drug Because of Outdated HR Policies.” Yet if they allowed faculty to pursue more entrepreneurial dreams, it wouldn’t cost much, and it has potential to do a whole lot of good that the university could brag about forever.

I had a lively conversation recently with Verdine about his unusual career plan, during a visit to Warp Drive Bio’s office in Cambridge, MA. Here are edited excerpts:

Xconomy: How did you get started on Warp Drive Bio?

Greg Verdine: I was talking with Elias, and he said he wanted … Next Page »

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