Where’s the Can-Do Spirit in Biotech? It’s Alive, Deep Down

Xconomy National — 

How many people in the biotech industry today really feel like they are part of something special, something bigger than themselves? How many people feel such camaraderie with their co-workers that they’d show up to meet them at a reunion five years from now? How many people in biotech feel the task in front of them is challenging, but that nothing is impossible?

I’ve been ruminating over these questions the past week, since I hosted a reunion for the alumni of Bothell, WA-based Icos. This biotech company is largely forgotten now, but it made waves when it was founded in 1990. Icos brought together three superstar founders—George Rathmann of Amgen, Bob Nowinski of Genetic Systems, and Chris Henney of Immunex—and they raised a then-unprecedented $33 million Series A financing from a cast of rich people that included the young Bill Gates. The idea: develop drugs to fight cardiovascular diseases and inflammation.

After the auspicious beginning, Icos sustained all the usual ups and downs. It burned through huge sums of investor cash—more than $850 million over the next 16 years. It suffered regulatory setbacks. But it ended up developing a multibillion-dollar molecule in tadalafil (Cialis), and spun out a cancer drug that was the founding jewel of Seattle-based Calistoga Pharmaceuticals. Icos made money for investors when it was acquired by Eli Lilly for $2.3 billion in 2007.

Those are just the basic facts we in the business press and financial community use to keep score, but there was something bigger going on here. At its peak, Icos employed 500 people in Washington state and a total of 700 nationally. Many in the early days were young turks fresh out of academic research labs. As anybody could see at the reunion this week, many of them felt they were embarking on the most exciting and challenging journey of their careers.

These Icos vets told stories about how Rathmann memorized the names of every employee, and even their spouses, to show how much he cared about them personally. One scientist recalled how great she felt that Icos invested in a company-supported day care center to make it easier on parents pulling long hours in the labs. People were expected to work hard, but they wanted to, because they felt they were recognized and contributing to something larger than themselves. There was a spirit of egalitarianism that didn’t exist in hierarchical academic labs. There was a respect for everyone’s ideas. It was possible for anyone with smarts and ambition to advance from secretary to high-powered positions in human resources or investor relations.

The story, as many people know, didn’t end well for these people who invested so much of their brainpower and energy at Icos. The vast majority were given pink slips by Lilly. But people weren’t there to dwell on the ending. They remembered the company culture they were a part of—its values, its habits, its ways of working.

And actually, this team spirit was pretty common among the first generation of biotech companies. I personally witnessed this extraordinary spirit twice last year, when I organized similar events for the alumni of Genetics Institute in Boston and Immunex in Seattle.

After thinking about what I saw at those events, I can’t help but wonder where the spirit has gone. Christopher Henney, who attended both the Immunex and Icos reunions in the past year, has as good a perspective as anybody on what stirred that spirit back in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Christopher Henney

“The people who came to Icos, they mostly came out of academia, and certainly that was true of Immunex,” Henney says. “For them, it was part of that era where people said, ‘Wow, this is a whole world that I hadn’t known existed where I could practice my trade or my art or science, and work toward a common good.’ When you are doing things in an academic setting, the end product is always the glory of the guy who runs the lab. But when you’re in a company and you’re a shareholder, and you own part of the business, you could receive material benefits too. In many ways, their lives were changed. Most of them were more or less carrying out the same job they had in academic positions, but their sense of self-importance and self-worth was much more recognized. It was a great way to do science.”

Henney, like all first-generation biotech entrepreneurs, helped create that culture and seized upon the positive team energy to build valuable companies. And he’s also been around long enough to see the biotech model, and culture, go through some wrenching transformation.

Today’s companies, to the extent any are being started at all, are forced to run on extremely lean and mean budgets and to meet strict deadlines … Next Page »

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2 responses to “Where’s the Can-Do Spirit in Biotech? It’s Alive, Deep Down”

  1. Johnny T. Stine says:

    WE DID! We all felt like we were apart of something much bigger than ourselves. Every lab at Icos – whether Bermuda, Baha, Alaska, etc – produced value and every time there was a new discovery, we all heard the news and each of us fed off it. We were all convinced that nothing was impossible and that we could practice our art (discovery) and we knew that we could change people’s lives. That feeling came from our leadership. My memories of Mike Gallatin storming into our lab to congratulate us on a finding – seeing his enthusiasm. The same with Pat Gray’s lab as “we” were the first to clone so many important molecules in inflammation and HIV fields. The company meetings – watching your CMO (head of clinical) get emotionally charged from a clinical trial result. That feeling of being at the cutting edge and being excited about crossing it or even being hopeful that it would be you someday leading that charge was in virtually everyone of us.

    At the Icos Impact event – it felt incredible being around all of those OPTIMISTS again. It brought back memories and made me realize where my own sense of excitement about exploration and discovery came from. We were ALL INTO IT! I thought that was how everyone was? Maybe we were a unique group of people. I learned that nothing was impossible from Icosahedrons and the leaders from George R. to Cliff Stocks to Pat Gray. We literally kicked ass and when you look back at our decisions, history has proven now that we were on the right track – always comforting.

    I took the Icos experience to a whole different plateau when I moved to Vancouver, BC after the research world at Icos was steadily titrating down. I encountered something even more exciting and addicting when I joined ImmGenics (which became Abgenix). They all had the “eye of the tiger” and the “fire in the belly” and the technology that would change the antibody therapeutic world. But the difference here is that they were all young, no pedigrees, and just a down to earth group of people whose intentions were to get it done and change the world. It was more egalitarian as a result and the director of that ship promoted that “we’re all in this together” mindset more so than any other I had seen. Me just turning 40….I was working my ass off with a bunch of people too naive to know failure…..and therefore, it was awesome – total optimism in an egalitarian world and we all fought shoulder to shoulder.

    Fast forward to today….”Today’s companies, to the extent any are being started at all, are forced to run on extremely lean and mean budgets and to meet strict deadlines by investors who care much more about short-term returns than long-term impact. They are lucky to employ 30 people at their peak, not 700.” and “They know that today’s co-workers could be gone in a heartbeat. So why bother getting to know them very well?”.

    “….and everybody in biotech now does the cold-eyed financial analysis before pouring their heart and soul into anything. ‘“That’s the kind of level of perception that wouldn’t have occurred to first-generation people,” Henney says.

    But I also can’t let go of that “can-do” spirit that was in that room – that same spirit that permeated me in my seven years at Icos which was expanded even further with John Babcook and his unique culture at ImmGenics – that same spirit that led me to found Spaltudaq. To the “first generation people” Henney mentions I salute you for having the guts to create what you did in spite of the unknown ahead. And to the first gen’ers, that Icos can-do spirit is alive and well today – it is here in Seattle. It’s the same spirit but we’ve had to change the way we go about achieving it. Look at the pictures attached – this is a lab that produces fully human therapeutic antibodies that will hopefully go into patients one day – but look at the way it’s being done – not esthetically pleasing like our Bermuda and Alaska labs, but it’s what we have and it works. We build our own benches, take out our own trash, do the science and we are doing it this way to show that we won’t let a lack of funding keep us from discovering new therapeutics – we just adapt and change the model. This is an example of that spirit that was in the room at the Impact party and a portion of that can-do spirit is in a warehouse in the “North Lake Union Biotech Hub” in Wallingford. This shows to what extent we’ll go in this shitty investment/partnering market to do what we learned to do back at Icos – practice our art and discover at all cost.

    The proof that the old Icos spirit lives within all Icosahedrons?:
    In my recent efforts I signed on to do the impossible in antibody therapeutic discovery and treatment for a friend dying of what I thought was a very curable, antibody-treatable tumor…..I had very little time (4 months) but a fast way to get there – and I needed help to do things I’ve never done before. Everyone turned me down saying things like “it will ruin my career if it doesn’t work”, “I could lose my license”, “it’s too risky”, “the paperwork will take 9 months”, etc…. In this short notice of my request for help the ONLY people who volunteered to take on such a heroic, never-done-before risky yet attainable task with me were ICOSAHEDRONS. It wasn’t because we were close friends and they wanted to lend a hand. I haven’t seen any of these people since I left in 2001. It was because they STILL have the spirit and the knowledge and confidence that they can make it happen because they’ve done it before. And they STILL had the courage to step up and help what most would label a crazy endeavor….but collectively, we all knew we could do it. We’ve done it before…… To all of those so called professionals who said “no” – no worries, we’ll take it from here….my fellow Icosahedrons have my back.
    Excelsior ICOS!!

  2. Pictures for first reply……