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Xconomist of the Week: Tony Coles’ Journey from Mass General Doctor to SF Biotech CEO

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taking the first steps toward becoming a doctor.

At Hopkins, he sought to make himself a well-rounded person, studying not just hard science but humanities courses like psychology, sociology, history, French. He met his wife, Robyn.

Coles then moved on to Duke University for medical school in 1982. From the mid-80s through the early ’90s, his resume has all the signs of big ambition—residency training in cardiology and internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University, and a research fellowship at Harvard Medical School. While that was going on, he and Robyn had started a family, she had started a business to make up for his modest wages as a medical resident, and Coles moonlighted as an ER physician to help pay the bills. “When I look back, those were such unimaginably crazy hectic days,” Coles says. One fond memory of those days, he says, is of bringing his toddler son to the hospital to hang around when he had some rare downtime.

Coles says he figured he would pursue a career as a clinician, someone who would both treat patients and help advance his field through research. But he grew disillusioned with the healthcare system, and toyed with different ideas on how to make a bigger impact on medicine, perhaps by becoming a lobbyist or a healthcare staffer for a congressman on Capitol Hill. Mass General fought hard to keep him, offering him a chance to set up a new state government affairs office and work with the CEO, but Coles passed on it. Ultimately, by 1992, he was attracted to job that put him on the leadership track at Merck, the pharmaceutical industry giant.

Many of his colleagues were unimpressed. “People called me names. They said I was a traitor. I had gone to dark side,” Coles says. “How could you throw away these wonderful years, this great training, best in world, and go into industry?” But there were supporters, too. Just in case he ever soured on industry, one of his mentors at MGH said, a faculty position would remain open for him.

But Coles didn’t look back. He moved the family to Pennsylvania to join Merck, and started studying marketing. “It was a real learning experience. It was fundamentally like doing an internship all over again,” Coles says. Within a couple of years, he was promoted to vice president, and was overseeing marketing of ACE inhibitor drugs to cardiologists.

Eventually, he grew restless. “I realized the way to grow in this industry is not to rest on your laurels,” Coles says. So when he got a call from Bristol-Myers Squibb, offering him the opportunity to take on a bigger, more global role in introducing cardiovascular products, including the blockbuster anti-clotting agent clopidrogel (Plavix), he jumped. Bristol-Myers, he says, was “hungry” to get bigger and better.

After six years at Bristol, rising to the level of senior vice president, Coles sought out new challenges once again. He says he saw the writing on the wall in pharma. The pipeline was drying up, and it would extremely hard to sustain aggressive growth at companies that were already very large. The Human Genome Project was coming to a close around 2000, and biotech was booming. By 2002, the bubble had burst, but Coles still saw promise at one of the top biotech companies, Cambridge, MA-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX), which he joined as senior vice president of commercial operations.

Coles doesn’t have much to say about his time at Vertex. He left after three years. Later on, he filed a lawsuit, covered at the time in the Boston Globe, in which he said he was stripped of key responsibilities and essentially forced out. Coles didn’t mention the suit during my interviews, and had nothing but nice things to say about the company and its executives. “It was a great learning opportunity for me to learn what biotech is about.” Founder and former CEO Josh Boger, and current CEO Matt Emmens and team “have done a brilliant job,” he says.

By late 2005, Coles moved on for his first chance to run a biotech company, joining Bedminster, NJ-based NPS Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: NPSP) as chief operating officer, as an interim step on his way to becoming CEO. He took the top job in May 2006, and it wasn’t long before it became an unhappy experience. When he joined, the company had submitted an application to the FDA for clearance to market an osteoporosis drug, and was gearing up its sales and marketing plans, which was right in Coles’ wheelhouse. But the FDA took a negative view … Next Page »

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