[Corrected 7/8/15, 3:48pm. See below.] Some people who’ve made it big in biotech drive fast cars. Some take outlandish vacations. Some don’t take any vacations at all. (I’m sure you know the type.) But for a few San Francisco Bay Area biotech veterans, the reward for a long, successful career is the chance to swap suits and lab coats for cowboy boots and spurs (or at least muck boots and baseball caps) and to get their hands dirty raising cattle and sheep in the ever-drier West.
While the views and sunsets can be a reward unto themselves, it’s no dude ranch escape. In addition to the animal husbandry, pasture management, and other business considerations, they’re learning hard lessons about the rest of the world’s regard for their scientific arguments.
If you know about multiple sclerosis, you probably know about natalizumab—branded Tysabri—which about a decade ago was a big step forward in treating the vexing neurological disease. It garnered a lot of attention because, despite increasing the risk of a deadly brain infection, patients clamored for it, and the FDA listened. It was at the time a big win for the patient-advocacy movement.
Natalizumab was also a win for Ted Yednock. A neuroscientist trained at the University of California, San Francisco, Yednock’s work at Athena Neurosciences led to the drug’s development and eventually its approval in the U.S. in 2004, after Athena became part of Elan Pharmaceuticals.
The brain infection, caused by a virus that would normally lie dormant, actually forced the drug off the market soon after its approval. Yednock and colleagues at Elan and Biogen, which co-owned natalizumab at the time, dug into the problem. They eventually produced a diagnostic test that Biogen has used to help patients and doctors better weigh natalizumab’s risks. Natalizumab generated nearly $2 billion in revenue for Biogen last year. (It was approved for Crohn’s disease in 2008.)
During his time at Athena and Elan, where he rose to become executive VP in charge of global research, Yednock had a hand in other drug programs, as well, including the Alzheimer’s treatment bapineuzumab. Elan is no more, sold off in pieces over several years. After a few years as a consultant, Yednock recently rejoined the startup world as chief scientific officer of Annexon Biosciences in Redwood City, CA.
Yednock also now owns a cattle ranch. He and his partner Doug Frazer, who earned a degree in soil science from U.C. Berkeley, in 2012 bought the 5,000-acre Sadler Ranch in Nevada’s Diamond Valley, close to the state’s geographical center.
Much of the valley is covered by a “playa”—a dry alkali bed that’s about as amenable to raising livestock and crops as the surface of the moon. Unless there are springs and aquifers. And in Diamond Valley, there are plenty. Or there were, which brings us to Yednock, and what his biotech background can—and can’t—help him with in his second life as a rancher.
The largest spring in Diamond Valley is Shipley Hot Springs, on the Sadler Ranch property, which let generations of owners—mainly descendants of Nevada governor Reinhold Sadler, who bought the property in 1880—raise cattle and grow alfalfa. The spring, which flows out of the ground at 106 degrees Fahrenheit, once fed over 2000 acres and created meadows and lakes. [A previous version of this story misstated the estimated number of acres fed by the spring.]
But state grants of water rights in the 1960s allowed for farmers at the south end of the valley, about 30 miles from Sadler Ranch, to pump water from the underground aquifer faster than the region’s rains and snowmelt could replenish it. Two generations on, says Yednock, many outlying springs in the valley have dried up, the land is sinking, and Shipley is now flowing at one-tenth the historical level. “The former owners of our ranch couldn’t sustain a business,” says Yednock.
The diminished flow is part of a dossier of documentation and calculations that Yednock and Frazer have assembled for a legal case they’ve brought to reclaim more of the valley’s water. Everyone acknowledges there already isn’t enough water to go around. Now Yednock and Frazer’s actions have put them at odds with the farmers in the southern part of the valley, who immediately protested three years ago when the newcomers applied to pump far more water than what was flowing out of the spring.
That protest led to a hearing with the state water engineer. Last year, the engineer issued his ruling: Sadler Ranch could pump a fraction of what Yednock and Frazer wanted, but he left the larger issue of water rights to the courts.
“We applied as much intellectual force as we could, in terms of understanding past water flow, using diaries, old photos and court documents, and satellite images,” says Yednock. “We have a beautiful case. I made a spectacular PowerPoint presentation.”
He says that with a little laugh, but things are indeed serious. The issue is now before … Next Page »