Harvard’s Verdine Blazing Trail for Scientific Entrepreneurs

10/7/13Follow @xconomy

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about two different career paths—one in academic science and one is whatever you want to call it, ‘applied science’ in industry. They want to know, how are these paths different? Which one suits me? I could never really explain that in a credible way. Now I’m doing it. I understand it. I do think, in the end, it enhances my value to Harvard. The other thing is, Harvard is transitioning in a more translational direction. Harvard really aspires to do more that directly impacts human health. How can I get much more direct than what I’m doing right now?

X: And Warp Drive is, like you say, just down the street from Harvard. If you don’t travel, it’s convenient, and possible for you to balance these things. There wouldn’t have to be much waste in your schedule.

GV: If you’re a professor in the design school at Harvard, you can run an architecture firm. If you’re a professor in the law school, like Alan Dershowitz, you can have a law firm involved in major, major cases splashed out on CNN, without giving up your Harvard professorship. It’s only in the sciences, the faculty of arts and sciences, that we’re being told you can’t have both. You can’t both run a company and have a professorship. The way it’s legislated is based on time. You can’t spend more than 20 percent of your time on [business].

X: But you’re flipping that, basically, so that you’re more like 80 percent business and 20 percent at the university, because you’re still overseeing your lab at Harvard.

GV: During the sabbatical, yeah, probably something like that. We still have group meeting every week. I still meet them. Sometimes we have meetings here, and sometimes we have them at Harvard. The interesting thing is, my job here at Warp Drive constrains me to be in Cambridge all the time. Arguably, I’m more available to them than ever before. The whole thing is quite interesting. Basically the way to look at it, you have a person with an incredible opportunity to develop new drugs. It’s incredible, the science at Warp Drive. I have an incredible opportunity to do a science experiment that’s never been done before, and you could never fund in an academic setting. Furthermore, the way you can do cross-functional connected work is incompatible with an academic setting. In an academic setting, it’s all about departmentalization. It’s ‘that’s your project, that’s your project, that’s your project.’ We could not do what we’re doing in that setting.

X: What you’re doing sounds like a career pathway that could be used in lots of other academic centers, not just Harvard, that have that same 20 percent time limit.

GV: That’s pretty much the standard, yes, for medical schools. It’s this 80/20 rule. But it’s different in design schools, in law schools, and elsewhere.

X: What kind of feedback have you gotten from your peers on this?

GV: I have not heard a single negative comment to date.

X: Really? You’re not seen as turning to the dark side?

GV: No. I think people don’t look at it as the dark side anymore. In the olden days, in venture capital (and I’m still a venture partner at Third Rock), people looked at the venture world as the dark side. But not Third Rock. Third Rock has core values on every single desk in the fund, and the top of those core values is ‘do the right thing.’ People come in and see that, and realize they are in a different world. They take that stuff seriously. But what are we trying to do? We’re trying to create new medicines. Harvard wants to do the same thing. What’s the difference between doing it at Harvard and doing it here? Well, we’re doing it here with a lot more money, and with a lot more concentration of effort, and with a lot less concern over individual credit. We have no individual credit. Everybody takes credit.

X: But at Harvard, they can only take a drug candidate so far. They’re part of a continuum, on the early side.

GV: They can only take it so far, that’s right. Certainly, I’ve done that kind of thing. When we invented staples peptides, that was licensed to Aileron Therapeutics to try to commercialize it. You can only take it so far in academia, and then you run into funding constraints. But more than that, there is certain expertise in pharmacology and drug hunting that for the most part, we don’t have in academia. There are a few exceptions. But this idea of the dark side, and the light side, if you look at the aspirations, they’re almost the same. The aspiration is to get a drug. Then there’s no question, the universities aspire to derive profit from those molecules, to do well by doing good.

X: Right, but there has to be an orderly handoff. The classic problem is that the university wants to drive a hard bargain, make sure it’s not getting fleeced, maybe doesn’t understand all the development work that needs to be done by industry. Industry has its own issues, trying to get everything dirt cheap.

GV: That’s something for you to really pay attention to. Art Levinson, when he was at Genentech, made a deal with the University of California to have a uniform intellectual property agreement. What happened is, because of that universal IP agreement, there was a flood of collaboration between Genentech and the UC schools. If you look at the situation we’re in at universities, with sequestration and the reduction in general government funding, it puts universities in an extremely difficult position. They need to make up the shortfall. I can’t tell you how many people at Harvard, myself included, have had grants terminated that were 25 years running, that were highly productive. The question is ‘how are universities going to adapt themselves to make up for that shortfall, and effectively reinvent their business model?’ One way to reinvent your business model is to recognize the intrinsic value of the sponsored research agreement. That agreement brings in overhead, it keeps postdocs working, keeps grad students working, helps the university to achieve its fundamental education mission, in addition to licensing revenues.

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