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The Life, Troubles, and Celgene Legacy of Deal Guru George Golumbeski

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couldn’t afford the high-end equipment. So he stole it from local pet stores, including one where he worked. “I was kind of a jerk,” he says sheepishly. “It’s embarrassing.”

But his grades didn’t suffer, and he stayed away from drugs and alcohol, afraid they would send him down the same path as his father. He shirked a suggestion from his mother to join a military academy—“You’d never put up with the discipline,” his father told him once—and as an in-state resident he was able to afford the University of Virginia.

At college, Golumbeski was initially “scared shitless,” surrounded by kids with great grades and SAT scores. But blessed with a good memory, he grinded, learning genetics, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and more. He also realized he didn’t have the stomach to be on the front lines treating sick patients, so he steered toward basic research and earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin.

“He was very soft spoken, a pleasant student to have,” says Randy Dimond, the chief scientific officer of Promega, and Golumbeski’s PhD advisor at the University of Wisconsin for several years. “People just enjoyed working with him.”


Though he got his PhD in 1985, Golumbeski realized that perpetual grant-writing wasn’t for him. He dabbled with a short-term gig as a liberal arts professor in Dallas but wanted to earn more money. With an eye toward industry, he did postdoctoral research in Boulder, CO, where he’d meet his eventual wife, the mother of his two children.

If he couldn’t be a medical doctor, maybe the biopharma industry was another way to work on human health, he thought. The only problem: he had few connections and no experience. When he finally drew interest from a biotech company, he asked his former PhD advisor Dimond to be a reference.

Dimond had a different idea. He had left academia to join Promega, a biotech tools company in Wisconsin, and suggested Golumbeski follow him. Golumbeski was lukewarm about a company whose primary focus was not drugs but reagents—substances companies use to analyze chemicals. But another offer fell through. He went with Promega, where his early assignments caught management’s eye. They asked him to run a group that evaluated and licensed new technologies.

“He had a great talent to communicate with people and establish relationships,” Dimond says, and that was critical for Promega. The firm stressed the importance of “win-win” collaborations.

It’s a terrible cliché, of course. While companies and dealmakers might say they want both sides to win in an alliance, the more common reality is the larger organization wants control. Their attitude is, “someone is going to win, and someone’s going to lose,” says David Schenkein, the longtime CEO, now executive chairman of Agios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AGIO), and a general partner at venture firm GV. Agios cut a wide-ranging deal with Golumbeski at Celgene in 2010, and Schenkein saw something different. “George’s attitude was, if this deal is going to work, we’re going be partners for a long time, so it can’t be that someone wins and someone loses.”


After a five-year stint at Promega, Golumbeski spent time at German drug maker Schwarz Pharma, where he cites two situations as career changers. First, he nixed a buyout that was almost wrapped up, surprising and earning the respect of Schwarz’s then-CEO. He then championed a deal for a transdermal patch for Parkinson’s disease, winning over skeptical executives at the firm. “Every deal is a battle,” he says, and fighting for a deal and closing it was also “a kick.”

“It was like, I could actually do this,” he says. (Called Neupro, the patch was a key reason Belgium’s UCB bought Schwarz for $5.6 billion in 2006.)

He joined Elan Pharmaceuticals in 2000 just before the Irish company became mired in an accounting scandal. (Golumbeski says he didn’t know about it until the news broke in the Wall Street Journal.)

Next came Novartis, where he ran deal making for the pharma giant’s cancer drug business. Before his arrival the group had won approvals of the drugs Gleevec, Zometa, and Femara. It was time, he felt, to use that cash and momentum to buy more drug prospects and build the pipeline of the future.

Instead, he ran into the cold reality of biopharma bureaucracy. “It was a very, very tough deal culture,” he says. Golumbeski had to present each case to several committees. Potential deals were often halted for issues that shouldn’t have stopped them, he says. “How can you take a shower without getting wet?” he recalls an exasperated colleague saying.

Jay Bradner, a current Novartis executive, says he feels Golumbeski’s pain. Bradner now runs the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, MA, but previously was the head of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and an entrepreneur. He says one biotech he founded “came to Novartis, got beaten up, and got sent home with a black eye.”

“[Novartis] had some tough personalities around the table,” Bradner recalls, adding that he and his colleagues have been working to change that perception.

One deal at Novartis that never happened would have indelibly altered Golumbeski’s career—and perhaps the current biopharma landscape.

Golumbeski says he was part of a stealth team that … Next Page »

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