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

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looked at acquiring Celgene. It was the right time to pounce, he insists; in the early 2000s, Celgene wasn’t the giant it is now, and shares were worth just over $5 apiece.

In 2004, Celgene was on the verge of bringing lenalidomide (Revlimid), a derivative of the once-banned drug thalidomide, to market. It was in development to treat the blood cancer multiple myeloma and myelodysplastic syndrome. Novartis probably could have bought the company for $5 billion, Golumbeski says, but the message soon came down from on high: We can’t risk that much money on an unapproved drug.

Approved in 2005, lenalidomide launched Celgene into the ranks of big biotech. It generated $8.2 billion in sales last year alone and more than $50 billion over its lifetime. “Nobody wants to take a stupid risk,” he says. “But you’ll never do an acquisition that doesn’t have some risk.”

“WHAT ON EARTH HAVE I DONE?”

While Golumbeski grew more attuned to the intricacies of his job, his attention to his home and personal life waned. His typical day: Wake up, go through e-mail at home, work all day, come home late, eat dinner, go through e-mail again, go to sleep. Rinse, repeat. He flew once a month to Novartis headquarters in Basel, Switzerland, and all over the world to look at deal opportunities.

The grind was no secret. At one offsite meeting for company leadership, everyone had to write down suggestions to improve work culture and demands. One comment still sticks out, written by a colleague Golumbeski declines to name: “Provide divorce insurance.”

On a trip to California with his wife to attend a close friend’s wedding, a deal he was working on hit a snag. Other than the wedding and reception itself, Golumbeski spent the whole time in his hotel room working. His wife, who has the “patience of a saint,” he says, was livid.

They had two young children at home, but he says he was in “a space of perpetual focus on work and not being available.”

Turns out that intense focus didn’t stop him from making an ill-fated career decision, either. In 2008, he thought the time was right to run a company himself. One startup, in particular, intrigued him: a company based in Vienna, Austria, called Nabriva Therapeutics (NASDAQ: NBRV) that was developing a new class of antibacterial drugs. He would move his wife and children, ages two and five, to Europe to run a startup with an uncertain future.

Uncertainty soon turned to disaster. Shortly after he arrived, Golumbeski got a closer look at early data from Nabriva’s most advanced drug and saw troubling signs that he had previously missed. He remembers sinking into his office chair, like he was drowning in a whirlpool, and thinking, “What on earth have I done?”

He shifted Nabriva’s focus to another drug (lemafulin, now undergoing an FDA review) and made executive changes. But the capital markets collapsed in September 2008. Golumbeski fought with his investors, unsure whether the company would get refinanced, or what would happen to his family if Nabriva went belly up and he was stranded in Austria.

Fortuitously, he’d impressed a few folks in Summit, NJ, when scouting out Celgene with Novartis years earlier. They’d been reaching out to him in Europe, wondering if he’d like to run their business development division. “It’s quirky the way this happened,” Golumbeski says. “If [Nabriva] had been refinanced, I would’ve stayed.”

THE CRATER

Perhaps his own downward spiral would’ve been worse, too. Coming back to the States, his wife called him out. “You’re here, but you’re not here,” she told him. “I don’t want to be here under these conditions.”

“I cratered. I had to admit it was all true,” Golumbeski says. “I almost did lose my family life.”

It’s not easy to discuss, but he feels his story might help others in a similar situation. “That’s meaningful to me,” he says. What he now realizes was a low-grade depression got worse as he accepted the Celgene job in 2009. At the urging of his wife and close friends, including Tom Daniel, he sought help.

He approached his own depression treatment like diligence on a biopharma deal. He met with nearly a dozen therapists, probing for the most competent candidate. As a life sciences executive, Golumbeski knew the latest research on mental illness and antidepressants. But living through a major depressive episode, getting help, and coming through the other side gave him a different perspective.

He came to see depression as a debilitating medical condition, in some ways like cancer. It affects millions of people. There are many drugs, but often no way to tell if they’ll work. Golumbeski was one of the lucky ones. He says it took about six months of medication and psychotherapy for him to start turning things around. He won’t go into details about the depths of his depression except to say he was in a “very dark place.” But he admits the experience has had a lifelong impact on him.

He stopped incessantly checking e-mail and taking work with him everywhere. He focused on spending more time with his family. They’ve since gone on trips to the Galapagos, Ecuador, Switzerland, and more. And Golumbeski has committed to being psychologically present. “I still work my share, believe me. But not one-dimensionally,” he says. “The relationship I’ve developed with my wife and kids since then is the best it’s ever been.”

In addition to family and travel, Golumbeski has three escapes from the biopharma grind. He loves birdwatching, so much so that he’s on the board of directors for the National Audubon Society. (He’s currently treasurer.) He’s also a student of classical music, reading biographies of major composers and studying their scores. And he’s an avid landscape and wildlife photographer; ex-Celgene colleague Daniel once told Golumbeski that he has an “artist’s mentality.” To blow off steam, he’ll hike somewhere and wait minutes, even hours, for the wind to stop blowing so he can get a perfect shot. “In those times, I’m not thinking about anything else,” Golumbeski says. “Just about the scene and getting it on film.”

Photo of an Atlantic Puffin in the U.K. by George Golumbeski

Photo of a King Vulture in Costa Rica by George Golumbeski

WORK MARRIAGE

In 2015, international drug firm Takeda Pharmaceutical was ready for a shake-up, and it looked to two executives for help: Dan Curran and Andy Plump. Curran was climbing the ranks at Takeda when Plump, the firm’s new chief medical and scientific officer, tapped him to run business development.

The two took stock of Takeda as a biopharma partner. “We got some external advisors to come tell us how much we sucked, which we did,” Curran says. “Who does this well?” they asked. The answer they got from the advisors: Celgene.

Curran and Plump looked closely at Golumbeski and Daniel. Who did they hire? How did they make decisions? How did they structure deals? And, perhaps most important, how did they amass such a sprawling network of relationships? Curran and Plump tried to emulate that strategy. In one instance, they inked a deal with Third Rock Ventures to co-launch a startup, Ambys Medicines. In others, they formed broad alliances with Wave Therapeutics (NASDAQ: WVE) and Denali Therapeutics (NASDAQ: DNLI). Each deal has put the smaller company in the driver’s seat and let them make strategic decisions.

“I see a lot of similarities between the way Andy and Dan work[ed] together at Takeda and the way Tom and George worked together at Celgene,” says Atlas Venture partner Bruce Booth. “George and Tom really were pioneers.”

Meanwhile, Daniel had already been … Next Page »

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