John Mendlein, Biotech Exec With Surfer Look, Follows Winding Path as “Parallel Entrepreneur”
When John Mendlein walks down the street, most people think one thing: surfer dude.
But for those who know better in the biotech industry, Mendlein represents a lot more than a laid-back stereotype. The tall guy with long blond hair is an intense driving force behind one of the big success stories of the past five years in Boston biotech. And now he’s following an unconventional path in which he hopes to have an impact on several of the more interesting life-science startups in San Diego today.
Mendlein reached this point without any “grand plan,” he says. First he was a scientist, then a lawyer; now he’s a biotech executive who relies on both skill sets. Mendlein made his name as a CEO when he sold Waltham, MA-based Adnexus Therapeutics to Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) three years ago in a deal ultimately worth more than $500 million. Now he’s taking the road less traveled again as a “parallel entrepreneur.” Instead of pouring all of his energy into one startup as CEO again, like a serial entrepreneur, he’s a hands-on board member at three companies pursuing big ideas in San Diego.
Mendlein’s goal—at Fate Therapeutics, aTyr Pharma, and Alevium Pharmaceuticals—is to help put together the ingredients a biotech startup needs to do something truly innovative. That means finding technologies that can shake up medicine, adding capable people, securing adequate venture financing, and creating a team-oriented culture to deliver the goods.
“It was just all interesting to me,” Mendlein said recently about how he landed on his career path. “I don’t think there was a big grand plan there. It was interest-driven and luck.”
Those who have worked closely with Mendlein say he stands out not just because of his surfer dude look, but because he has an unusual sense for what drives people—not just science. His gravitational pull became clear to me back in March, when I invited UCSD Nobel Laureate Roger Tsien to attend an Xconomy event, and he accepted the instant I told him Mendlein would be there as the moderator.
“John is intense, funny, highly perceptive,” says Noubar Afeyan, managing partner of Flagship Ventures in Cambridge, MA, who worked with Mendlein at Adnexus. “He’s very in tune with people and their needs. He has very big dreams, big ambitions, and thinks very broadly about markets and opportunities. I’m a huge fan.”
Mendlein’s journey into biotech had a classic start: as a kid at the junior-high science fair. He set up an experiment of petri dishes filled with dirty water—one with an antibiotic and one without. “You could see bacterial colonies flourishing when the antibiotic wasn’t there,” Mendlein says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t even see it, but I know something’s happening.’ And that you can test things that way.”
He attended junior high, high school, and college all within about a mile of the house where he grew up in Miami, FL. His parents, both artists, didn’t have much interest 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.
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 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.