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 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 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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