John Mendlein, Biotech Exec With Surfer Look, Follows Winding Path as “Parallel Entrepreneur”

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in science. Mendlein enrolled at the University of Miami—”the Harvard of the Everglades,” he jokes—with a vague notion he’d study marine biology. That morphed into a general interest in chemistry and biology, then narrowed, like it does for many in biology, to specific questions about how ions are transported in the body.

This interest eventually led Mendlein to the lab of George Sachs at UCLA. As a graduate student, he did work trying to figure out the mechanism of action for a drug called omeprazole. “Naïve” about business in those days, Mendlein didn’t try to capitalize on the research. The product for heartburn, marketed by AstraZeneca as Prilosec, went on to become one of the best-selling drugs ever.

Mendlein finished his Ph.D. in biophysics at UCLA and went to work on conventional small-molecule pills at SmithKline & French (now known as GlaxoSmithKline) in the Philadelphia area. Wanderlust kicked in within two years, and he “went sailing for a while.”

Apparently while riding the waves, he figured out that what he really wanted was to go to law school. He enrolled at UC Berkeley.

That was a shrewd move, though he says he didn’t know it at the time. He was a scientist who also had a law degree, and he was located in Silicon Valley when biotech was taking off in the 1990s. He got a job with the Cooley law firm, doing patent work, licensing deals, and some corporate law. Amgen, which was booming in those days, was a major client. And the Valley was teeming with other Amgen and Genentech wannabes. Mendlein got to know them and the “absolute madness” of taking on the high-risk business of drug development. It made him restless once again.

Two people Mendlein knew from his past stints at SmithKline and UCLA ultimately lured him into biotech. He joined San Diego-based Aurora Biosciences, the company co-founded by UCSD chemist Roger Tsien in 1996, with the vague title of “chief knowledge officer.” He crafted financings and partnerships to advance the company’s science. He raves about the experience he got there. “If you were an able bodied person, people gave you a lot of freedom to get things done,” Mendlein says.

John Mendlein

John Mendlein

Aurora was acquired by Cambridge, MA-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals for almost $600 million in 2001. It was time to do something new. Mendlein moved to Toronto for his first chance to be a CEO, at Affinium Pharmaceuticals, an antibiotic developer born in the genomics bubble. It didn’t live up to the lofty promise or investor valuations, and Mendlein resigned in 2005. Two of the VCs in the group that had backed Affinium—Jean-Francois Formela of Atlas and Noubar Afeyan of Flagship—then recruited him to be CEO of Adnexus Therapeutics.

Adnexus had a platform technology that it thought could someday rival monoclonal antibodies. Along with other members of the management team—Katrine Bosley, John Edwards and Eric Furfine—Mendlein developed a strategy that made sure Adnexus didn’t try to do too many things at once. Instead of licensing the technology widely, the company concentrated on drug candidates that could demonstrate the potential of the platform, and do so in a way that would be perceived as valuable outside the company.

Adnexus hit the jackpot with its sale to Bristol. Most of the time that means a guy like Mendlein gets rich and walks away for the next green pasture. Flagship’s Afeyan says he was impressed by what came next. Mendlein stayed at the company for six months, working on small details to make sure that each individual’s contribution to the success of Adnexus was personally recognized, and that he or she fit into the larger company’s culture.

“John did it in a way that took a lot of attention away from him and distributed it widely.” Afeyan says. “A lot of people spend time on culture because they think good will come from it, but to do so after you exit, and purely for the benefit of the people who are staying behind, is a whole other level of attention.”

Bosley, now CEO of Waltham, MA-based Avila Therapeutics, says Mendlein has … Next Page »

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  • Linda Kelly

    The “dude” is awesome!

  • Pingback: Late Add: John Mendlein Joins “Reinventing Biotech” Lineup April 3 | Xconomy

  • Alison Madden

    John if you are tracking this, please get in touch with me @ 650.924.5004; an interesting issue in Redwood City involving sailors and land use, would love to talk to you. Great job on all your success, I am not surprised. Editor, BTW it was UC-Hastings not Berkeley. John, hope it’s OK that I make that correction ;-) Ali