From Russia With Love (for Biotech), Stewart Parker Gets “Antsy” to Return
H. Stewart Parker’s biotech dream came to an end a little more than a year ago. The company she founded back in 1992, Seattle-based Targeted Genetics, had essentially run out of time and money for its quest to develop groundbreaking new gene therapies. It’s still around, but it never developed a cure, and it is much smaller than it was in its earlier days.
That experience—in which she recruited, mentored, and inspired a generation of Seattle biotechies—sapped an enormous amount of her energy. It was obviously humbling, and heartbreaking, when it ended. “I love Targeted Genetics,” Parker says. “It was a real roller coaster ride. We did some great work that I’m proud of, but it was a tough row to hoe.”
So Parker, 54, took a year off. She only had a couple of nonprofit board responsibilities to tie her down to Seattle, with the University of Washington’s College of Arts and Sciences and the local YMCA. So she got about as far away from Seattle and biotechnology as one can get.
She brushed up on her Russian language skills she learned back in her undergraduate days at the University of Washington, and she went on a monthlong journey in Russia. She passed through the global cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, hopped on the Trans-Siberian railway, ending up in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. She visited with friends and family back home in the U.S. She went fishing near her second home in Montana, and hiking in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. And when she sat down to catch up with me last week at a coffee shop in Seattle’s South Lake Union, she said that after this year of soul-searching, she decided she wants back into biotech.
“I got re-energized,” Parker says. “I wondered if I’d get the passion back. But I find that I miss it. I miss the people. I want to get back in.” She adds, “I grew up in it. The people are really passionate about what they do. And I don’t care what anybody says, they have the best interests of patients at heart. They are not money grubbers.”
Exactly what role she’ll take is still to be determined. She could end up taking on another full-time CEO role at a biotech startup. Or, rather than get consumed in another intense day-to-day operating job, she might join a number of boards where she can share her experience and advice more broadly. Joining a venture capital fund is another option, in which maybe she could serve on boards, and occasionally dive more deeply as an interim CEO for companies that are going through a change of some kind.
That sounded to me a lot like what one of Parker’s mentors, Steve Gillis, is doing these days at Arch Venture Partners. “That would be ideal,” Parker says.
Of course, she’s trying to get back into the game at a time when there aren’t as many opportunities as there once were. But we talked a fair bit about the state of local biotech, and how it’s far from dead. Many Seattle companies have gotten much stronger in the past year, including Dendreon, Seattle Genetics, OncoGenex Pharmaceuticals, Calistoga Pharmaceuticals, and Alder Biopharmaceuticals, to name a few. Biotech pioneer Leroy Hood has started a new company, Integrated Diagnostics, with $30 million in committed venture capital. But even while those positive things have occurred, I’ve noticed that those organizations are watching their pennies more closely than ever, and not doing very much hiring.
Parker wasn’t about to tip her hand on where she might go. She obviously has deep Seattle roots, and would like to do something here, but she’s also nationally known through her past work with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and as a pioneer among women biotech executives. Wherever she goes, she sounds to be motivated by the same thing that convinced her to start a gene therapy company in the early 1990s. She wants to see a compelling technology with potential to make a big impact on patients’ lives.
“It’s all about passion,” she says. “If it’s an opportunity, an idea that I could fall in love with, then it’s something I could see doing for another 20 years.”