Seattle’s Pharma Godfather, Ben Shapiro, Sees Potential Here To Transform Medicine Despite Setbacks

11/17/08Follow @xconomy

Not many people in the world have played a leading role in delivering 23 new drugs and vaccines to the U.S. market. Bennett Shapiro is the only person living in Seattle who can say it.

Shapiro, 69, spent the first chapter of his career as a biochemist at the National Institutes of Health, followed by a 20-year run at the University of Washington. He left the chairmanship of UW’s biochemistry department in 1990 to become a leader at Merck. He was executive vice president of basic research during a golden age for the company, and oversaw the emergence of the ill-fated pain reliever Vioxx, and a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, Gardasil. When he left, he was in charge of global in-licensing, where it was his job to identify the most exciting biomedical research in the world happening outside of Merck and bring it in.

He rarely does interviews, but I spoke with Shapiro in a fascinating 45-minute phone conversation last week while he was in New York. The point wasn’t to reminisce. It was to get up to speed on all the leading-edge science Shapiro has his fingers on right now. For starters, he’s a partner with one of Boston’s leading life sciences venture firms, Puretech Ventures. He’s also on at least a dozen boards to lend his advice to a younger generation of scientists and entrepreneurs at places like Celera, Fate Therapeutics, Ikaria, and the Mind & Life Institute.

“This is a wonderful time in life for me, having both experience and energy,” Shapiro says. “I try to be useful. That’s the name of the game in life.”

If you look carefully at which organizations Shapiro has joined, it shows he has omnivorous interests in a wide variety of life sciences. He has a view of more precise genetic diagnostics (Alameda, CA-based Celera), adult stem cell therapies (San Diego-based Fate), and hibernation-on-demand that could save people from bleeding to death (Ikaria, which has significant operations in Seattle). Another company, Tel Aviv, Israel-based Vascular Biogenics, is developing a novel pill to tamp down the inflammation that causes heart disease to turn deadly. He also has a taste for global health, through the nonprofit Geneva, Switzerland-based Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, which has developed two new drugs for malaria in Africa as well as Asia and Latin America, with only about $70 million of investment. The drugs cost 25 cents for kids, and 50 cents for adults, he says.

I get the impression that a few more Seattle companies would like to tap into Shapiro’s experience more of the time, but he’s careful about how he doles it out. Carl Weissman, president of the Seattle-based startup incubator Accelerator, said that Arch Venture Partners’ Bob Nelsen has had the most success getting Shapiro to lend his advice to young companies. “Ben’s years of experience in developing drugs is not something you find in very many people in Seattle. There aren’t many people around here hanging out at Starbucks who have experience of taking 20 drugs onto the market,” says Weissman, who served with Shapiro on the board of Cambridge, MA-based Elixir Pharmaceuticals.

All this activity requires that he spend a lot of time on airplanes, but Shapiro still spends about one-third to one-half of his time at a waterfront home in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. It’s a refuge, with inspiring views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, where he likes to read and host friends for dinner. He still skis and hikes in the Cascades, and says one of his favorite things to do is sail on the Sound by the San Juan Islands. “I love Seattle,” he says.

While he was at the UW, Shapiro told me, he never thought he’d leave Seattle. When Merck came calling, he said he had “leftist” ideas about price-gouging pharmaceutical companies, and he wasn’t very interested. “I didn’t think working in the pharmaceutical industry would be a noble undertaking,” he says. … Next Page »

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