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Steve Jobs’s Dying Realization About Biology and Technology

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the most. Biotech in the U.S. has always depended on an irrepressible can-do spirit, in which creative people believe they can do the unprecedented. It leads in many cases to hubris, it attracts more than its share of charlatans, and plenty of people get burned in the messy process. But it’s also made some amazing leaps ahead for medicine over the past 20 years. Even this year when biotech was under siege, we saw a surge of innovation that might be the best I’ve seen in my 10 years of following the industry.

I doubt that Jobs was paying much attention to all of that, and I’m sure that most people in the broader public would wonder what you’re smoking if you told them 2011 was a banner year for biotech. It certainly doesn’t feel that way.

But this past week, I spent some time searching for what things were like in biotech in its early days. I interviewed the co-founders of a company that created an honest-to-goodness breakthrough for rheumatoid arthritis that generates more than $7 billion a year in sales.

When I asked Steve Gillis and Chris Henney about what made their company, Immunex, the special place that was able to create that drug, they offered some telling answers. They talked about the smart people, the camaraderie, the entrepreneurial spirit. They didn’t mention anything about things going on in the world beyond their control at the time. They started their company in 1981, during a pretty significant recession. Biotech was just getting started then. Nobody knew how long it would take, how much money it would require, or how hard it would be to finally hit gold with etanercept (Enbrel) in the late 1990s.

“We were wonderfully naïve,” Gillis said.

That phrase stuck with me. Wonderfully naïve. Maybe that’s the kind of spirit the biotech community needs to rekindle. We can all read the sobering stats about how it takes a long time, costs a lot of money, and there’s still a lot of risk when it comes to testing drugs in human beings. Powerful as today’s computers are, they are nowhere near ready to tell us with any accuracy how a new drug might perform in clinical trials in a given individual.

But without that feeling of wonderful naivete, as Gillis put it, nobody would have bothered to work with the purpose and passion that it took to create Enbrel. It would have been written off as a fool’s errand. They worked on it with such commitment partly because nobody told them it was impossible.

Jobs, who came of age in the tech industry about the same time Gillis and his peers were coming up in biotech, surely would have appreciated Gillis’s line about being wonderfully naïve. Jobs made a similar comment himself in his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, in which he warned students not to get trapped by dogma, and “don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” Only by following his own heart and intuition was he able to enter the most creative period of his life, his second act at Apple.

Jobs ended that speech memorably by quoting the motto of the Whole Earth Catalog’s final issue—“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It’s a motto that a lot of biotech pros of a certain age can relate to. It also reflects a spirit that biotech will need if the industry wants to seize the big opportunities of the 21st century.

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  • Robert Jones

    When it comes to the woes of biotechnology there is only one commencement address that describes how we got here, Cargo Cult Science by Richard Feynman. Contrast the ending of Feynmans speech.

    “So I have just one wish for you–the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.”

    We currently have no shortage of hungry fools. What is missing are honest leaders who create that “somewhere” described by Feynman in his speech.

  • John

    Intersting coincidence that Art Levinson, former CEO of Genentech, replaced Steve Jobs as Chairman of Apple.

  • Saumitra

    Great article Luke, No wonder Jobs had Levinson to be the next Chairman for Apple

  • Luke- I have not worked with any true innovators that have not been “wonderfully naive”. I think that Larry Page and Sergey Brin fit into this category.

  • Hi Luke, I just hope that Art Levinson can continue the good work Steve Jobs stared and did not have time to complete in his lifetime, just think what Steve could have done if he had lived?