John Mendlein, Biotech Exec With Surfer Look, Follows Winding Path as “Parallel Entrepreneur”
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an unusual mix of IQ and EQ. “He cares a lot about people and company culture. It doesn’t matter how great the technology is if you don’t have the right people and right culture to bring it forward. He sees how to put all the pieces together. He’s very farsighted,” she says.
The sale of Adnexus, which Mendlein says generated returns of 8-10 fold for VCs, made him more popular in investor circles. He mulled whether to stay in Boston or to move back to San Francisco or San Diego—two other biotech hubs where he had ties. He says he moved to San Diego partly because he had a house and friends there.
But while Mendlein is a free-spirited guy who likes surfing, sailing, scuba diving, and “anything to do with water,” Bosley says, he also feels drawn to high-pressure business environments. “He feels West Coasty when he’s on the East Coast, and feels East Coasty when he’s on the West Coast,” Afeyan says.
It was Afeyan, an East Coast VC, who encouraged Mendlein to think about being a “parallel entrepreneur.” Instead of getting engulfed in the day-to-day pressures of being a startup CEO, Mendlein could channel his energies into several companies by being a hands-on chairman of the board.
That’s the role he took at Fate Therapeutics, a stem-cell startup where he has been reunited with CEO Paul Grayson, an old friend from UCLA and Aurora Biosciences. Similarly, Mendlein is executive chairman of aTyr Pharma, a San Diego company seeking to develop a new class of protein drugs.
Mendlein also serves as an advisor to Genesys Capital, a Toronto-based venture firm, and is chairman of one other lesser known San Diego startup, Alevium, which aspires to develop a better drug for heartburn. Mendlein retains his ties to Boston as a co-founder and board member of the nonprofit Homes for Sudan. He also serves on the scientific advisory board for the Ocean Discovery Institute, a San Diego nonprofit that encourages city kids to get interested in the ocean and natural environment.
While plenty of people lose their enthusiasm for science over time, Mendlein still clearly has that sense of wonder about him, like in junior high when he saw the work of an antibiotic in a petri dish. When I asked him where he’s going in his next chapter, what he really wants to do, he summed it up in a way that a junior-high student could grasp.
“Stuff that makes a difference to patients,” he says.