Biotech Pioneer Steve Gillis on Life as a VC, How Today’s Entrepreneurs Can Make It, and Seattle’s Future in Life Sciences (Part 1)

9/23/09Follow @xconomy

Most Seattleites would probably list Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Howard Schultz, and Jeff Bezos when asked to name local entrepreneurs who built not just successful companies but entirely new industries. But they’d be forgetting Steve Gillis.

Gillis would have to be considered something like the Fifth Beatle in a group like that—you can walk into his office today without being babysat by PR handlers—but he is one of the pioneers of the biotechnology industry both in Seattle and nationally.

For those who don’t know, Gillis was a charismatic 28-year-old immunologist when he left a faculty post at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to start Immunex in 1981. He and co-founder Christopher Henney rode the early wave of investor enthusiasm for genetically engineered drugs to an IPO, recruited top scientific talent from around the world to Seattle, and persevered through some dark days to create a breakthrough drug for autoimmune diseases that generates more than $7 billion a year in worldwide sales for biotech giants Amgen and Wyeth.

Talk to any scientist who worked at Immunex in the early days, and they’ll tell you they adored Gillis, the inspirational scientist with an irreverent brand of humor. Legend has it he used to dare scientists to dream big, and instead of bashing them for running a failed experiment, he’d honor goof-ups with the “Pons & Fleischmann award for achievement in dubious science,” named after the guys who once claimed to discover cold fusion.

Gillis didn’t have as much success in his second career act from 1994 to 2005, as the founder and CEO at Seattle-based Corixa. But when GlaxoSmithKline bought that company for a little more than $300 million, he took a new direction in his career, joining one of the most active life sciences venture firms in Seattle, Arch Venture Partners.

This role at Arch allows Gillis, now 56, to put his fingers in a lot more pots. He serves on the boards of six life sciences companies in Seattle: Accelerator, Trubion Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: TRBN), VLST, Theraclone Sciences, Qwell Pharmaceuticals, and VentiRx. He also serves on the board of two other Arch companies in Massachusetts—Brighton, MA-based Surface Logix and Cambridge, MA-based Variation Biotechnologies.

This new perspective as a venture capitalist provides Gillis an opportunity to be even more influential in the community, says one of his protégés from the Immunex days, ZymoGenetics CEO Doug Williams. “He can be enormously helpful to the local biotech scene at Arch, and in fact I think if you look at the companies he’s involved with locally, you’d have to conclude that he already is. Steve is one of those rare people with an equal dose of talent in science and the business of biotech. He’s pretty much done and seen it all, and for him to be able to convey that to many companies instead of just one is of great benefit to the local scene,” Williams says.

I sat down with Gillis a few days ago to talk about life as a venture capitalist, how the biotech investing model has changed, and Seattle’s strengths and weaknesses. Here are the highlights of the conversation.

Xconomy: Can you bring us back to your thought process when you came to Arch? It was the summer of 2005, you had a long run at Corixa, and could have done a lot of different things. Why did you decide to become a venture capitalist?

Steve Gillis: After whatever it was, 14 years at Immunex and 11 at Corixa, that was 25 years of being involved in operations of a public company. I didn’t want to jump back into doing that. I needed some sort of break. Because sometimes running public companies isn’t a lot of fun. A lot of what you do is … Next Page »

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  • http://lenr-canr.org Jed Rothwell

    Evidently, Mr. Gillis knows nothing about Fleischmann, Pons and cold fusion. Their discovery was not a “goof up.” It was replicated in hundreds of major laboratories such as Los Alamos, China Lake and BARC. Thousands of papers have been published describing these replications, including 1,200 in peer-reviewed journals, which I copied from the library at Los Alamos.

    Gillis should read the scientific literature on this subject before commenting on it or reaching a conclusion.

    Our web site, http://lenr-canr.org, has a bibliography of 3,500 papers and about 1000 full text papers on cold fusion.

  • shrikant Deshpande

    It was good to read the article about Steve Gillis. I liked him very much when he was at Corixa where I worked.