Harvard’s Verdine Blazing Trail for Scientific Entrepreneurs

10/7/13Follow @xconomy

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to be an equal co-investor with Third Rock. Both Third Rock and Elias said ‘we’ll only do it if you run the science of the company.’ That I could do without violating my employment contract at Harvard. I could run the science at the company, because it wasn’t all-consuming.

Imagine now that we got a year and a couple months into the life of the company, and the prospect is to bring on board a CEO. As we began interviewing people and looking at people, I realized it still felt too early to bring on board a CEO. The company was still vulnerable in a sense. The company was started on a hypothesis that you could search through bacterial genomes and find novel natural products, and get ahold of them, and test them. That was the hypothesis. It seemed reasonable. But that’s a lot different from actually playing it out, and putting all the pieces together. Can you take quiescent genes and turn them on? We’ll see. It still felt to me, that in the Third Rock model, Alexis Borisy was running the company with me. We had a fantastic partnership. But he’s a partner at Third Rock, and he eventually has to go back to being a partner at Third Rock. So I looked at it, and thought the risk to the company, No. 1, was unacceptably high. I had put so much into it, and it just so happened that I knew I had a sabbatical coming up. I knew I could take a year, at least, and yet, Third Rock and Elias, in order for me to take the CEO job, they wanted—understandably—a commitment of longer than a year. The complication is that no mechanism exists at Harvard, right now, to take a leave of absence of longer than one year.

The exception to that reflects a value judgment that I don’t really accept. It’s that if you go into government, you can take a longer leave of absence.

X: So even though you can’t officially take a leave of more than one year, if you go to government for, say, a four-year administration, you can come back?

GV: You are specifically excluded, that’s a specific thing in which you can take a longer leave of absence.

Obviously, [former Harvard president] Larry Summers exercised that option. The thing about that is, basically what I’m doing is taking a leave of absence to do something which is going to advance the health and well-being of human patients, suffering from disease. How could it be that a job in government would be valued as being more important, or more deserving of an exclusion from a leave, than doing something that will advance health and well-being. That is our core mission.

X: You envision this as being a three or four-year commitment?

GV: It’s probably a three-year commitment. There does exist a way to do it. Not to inflame Harvard or anyone else, but there’s a pathway I’ve created, and that is to give up tenure. It’s to be a ‘professor of the practice.’ It’s not a tenured appointment, it’s a five-year appointment.

X: It’s like a five-year contract. And it’s renewable, right?

GV: Yes, it’s like a five-year contract, and it’s renewable. Basically, that allows me to keep some kind of small lab there. I still have a lab of 15 people there. The thing is, I don’t travel. I’m here in Cambridge. I probably see my colleagues in my lab more than most people who travel extensively, giving talks at meetings around the world. I don’t do any of that, because I’m running this company. I need to be here in Cambridge all the time.

X: So are you on a three-year sabbatical?

GV: No, actually I’m on a 1-year sabbatical. At the end of the 1-year sabbatical, under current Harvard regulations, I must return to Harvard. So I can’t really return to being a full-time professor at Harvard and be a full-time CEO at Warp Drive also.

X: But you plan to return in this contract-type of position?

GV: I have to change my position to “professor in the practice.”

X: And that will enable you to continue to run this lab with 15 people, continue to secure NIH grants, other sources of funding, while spending 60 hours a week or whatever still working on this company?

GV: It removes me from the residency requirement. What it says is that your obligation is obviously to manage your lab, and teach a particular course. That’s basically you being a good citizen. If you’re a ‘good citizen’ you’ll also do some administrative things in the department to which you’re appointed. I’ve always been very proud of being a ‘good departmental citizen’. That’s the way it’s different from being like someone who is a lecturer. A professor in the practice is still really part of the community, but you’re not tenured.

X: So you’re creating a new kind of pathway for scientific entrepreneurship at Harvard?

GV: That’s the goal. I’m working on it together with the provost and the dean. No one’s ever done this before. This leave restriction is so draconian. The only people who have done what I’m doing have gone off into government service. I believe I shouldn’t have to give up tenure, there should be an exclusion also for patient service.

X: I suppose part of the rationale was ‘Gee, if these people go off into government service, become the Secretary of State or whatever, they come back with all this fantastic real-world experience, and it will make him or her a better faculty member.’ And then they come back, right. You can probably make the same argument, right?

GV: I think that’s true. Furthermore, our students at Harvard are passionate about what’s going on the real world. We have an obligation to teach them about what’s going on in the real world. I think this kind of experience I’m doing here, which is to understand ‘how is academic science, and running it, different from science in business?’ Students often ask me … Next Page »

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