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

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at Celgene a few years when Golumbeski arrived in 2009. The company was in transition. Lenalidomide had become the best-selling multiple myeloma medicine in the world, and Daniel wanted to use the cash for deals and build a balanced portfolio of in-house and outside drugs. That strategy is common these days, but less so a decade ago. Historically, pharma had looked at business development almost as a “side project” when it had a need to fill, Curran says. “Both Tom and George looked at it as a critical competitive advantage.”

Daniel and Golumbeski became fast friends and shared similar views about where Celgene needed to go. “I put a lot of energy into learning about him and forming a relationship,” Daniel says. “It was very easy.”

“We can pretty much finish each other’s sentences,” Golumbeski says.

Having both run biotechs before, they cared about what smaller companies wanted and, when forging alliances, trusted them enough to give them money and get out of the way.

“When you’re putting in the big dollars, there’s this natural tendency to micromanage the smaller company. It’s human nature,” says Versant Ventures managing director Tom Woiwode, whose firm has done a number of deals with Celgene. “They made an explicit effort to trust that the people who brought the company to the point of warranting the deal were going to know what to do to keep that company going.”

They were willing to do novel, flexible deals, and buy equity too, not just make a one-off payment to license a drug. That equity became valuable as the biotech IPO window burst open in 2013. One after another, Celgene partners went public: Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE), Acceleron Pharma (NASDAQ: XLRN), Agios, and more.

But the deal that really put Celgene’s deep partnership practices on the map was its 2010 tie-up with Agios, which has led to two FDA-approved drugs.

At the time, it was an unprecedented agreement: Celgene paid $130 million upfront to a startup with a first-time CEO, Genentech veteran Schenkein, and no drugs even close to human testing, in exchange for Agios stock and options to license its drugs in the future. “It was a pretty complicated deal,” Schenkein says. The partners planned out scenarios all the way through commercialization, even though Agios was so early in its life it hadn’t begun working on an actual drug, or “chemical matter,” as Schenkein puts it.

Golumbeski “talked me off the ledge several times” about paying Agios that much upfront, Daniel says. “I knew once we had done it we would be expected to follow that precedent with other deals.”

He was right. The Agios deal created a “huge halo effect,” Takeda’s Curran says. Biotechs now wanted to work with Celgene, and Golumbeski and Daniel became the architects of a sprawling network of collaborations: option-to-buy deals, billion-dollar acquisitions, broad alliances on a variety of drugs, and more. In addition to Agios’s two approved drugs, ivosidenib (Tibsovo) and enasidenib (Idhifa), both for acute myeloid leukemia, a couple more have emerged: the cancer drug nab-paclitaxel (Abraxane from Abraxis BioScience) and likely this year, the blood disease drug luspatercept from Acceleron. Others could follow in areas like cutting-edge cell therapy and autoimmune disease. “It was quite an impressive five- or six-year track record of deal making,” Booth says. (Atlas was an investor in Avila Therapeutics, which Celgene acquired in 2012; its lead drug spebrutinib, however, was eventually dropped.)

Several people who were involved in closing those deals are now following in Golumbeski’s footsteps.


Kareem Reda and Emily Minkow came to Celgene as interns straight out of Harvard Business School. That was common at Celgene. Former CEO Bob Hugin, who recently lost a bid to join the U.S. Senate, wanted the business development group to be a breeding ground for future executives and to staff it either with Celgene employees or hotshot MBAs fresh out of school. Golumbeski was lukewarm on the plan initially. “He wasn’t sure how these people were going to fit in,” Reda says.

At his previous stops, he had worked with seasoned executives. At Celgene, Golumbeski ran a predominantly inexperienced group who’d never done a deal before. But he grew to love mentoring, and by the time his disciples left Celgene, they were ready for top jobs. Reda is now the head of business development and strategy at Evelo Biosciences (NASDAQ: EVLO), a microbiome drug developer. Minkow is the chief business officer at Prevail Therapeutics, which is doing work in Parkinson’s disease.

“It was definitely like going to the school of George,” Reda says.

To his mentees, Golumbeski was a quirky savant who commanded respect. He had an encyclopedic memory of biotech and deal making, Minkow says. He could integrate information from any discipline—say, civil war history—into a story he wanted to tell.

If he said, “I’m not mad,” it meant you screwed up. And if he wanted to tell you how you screwed up, he’d tell a story about how another one of his employees screwed up. “It was never like, ‘Kareem let me give you some feedback,” Reda says. “It was like, ‘Kareem, let me tell you this story.’”

Most business development teams in big drug companies like Celgene are large and risk-averse. Celgene’s group was a small group of people who were “young, super eager, and not bound by convention,” Booth recalls.

Reda likens it to the old medical school adage, “see one, do one, teach one.” Interns were thrown into the deep end of the pool right away and asked to work on all aspects of a deal: finding new leads, doing diligence, and ultimately hammering out terms. Golumbeski would give each member a field of research to master and the chance to lead a deal right away. The deal leader, not Golumbeski, would sit at the negotiating table with the biopharma partner. “I felt like a very senior empowered business executive,” Reda says. “It was like, ‘give me more.’”

Those who couldn’t hack it were gone quickly.

Minkow’s first deal was an alliance with Quanticel Pharmaceuticals. A dozen representatives from both sides were in the room, working on terms. Golumbeski stayed in a side room, coaching Minkow during breaks. His key message: She had to have her own voice and style. She had to stand firm and deliver good and bad news, not defer to him. “If you’re leading this deal, you’re the good cop and the bad cop,” he’d say, according to Minkow.

“He wanted to put his people out in front and develop them,” she says. “That was challenging for me at the time, but when I look back on it I think it was a period of tremendous personal growth.”

The hours could be demanding, particularly when doing diligence or nailing down a deal. Reda and Minkow both say they were invigorated by the work. And Golumbeski, softened by his own life experience, tried to shield them from burnout.

Reda, for instance, co-led negotiations with Courtney Wallace, now head of business development and strategy at Beam Therapeutics, on Celgene’s sprawling alliance in 2015 with Juno Therapeutics. They were holed up in a Seattle hotel logging more than 100 hours a week trying to hammer out the final details. Golumbeski was on vacation. If it’s important, call me, he told Reda.

Reda was getting worn down. The complicated deal didn’t resemble … Next Page »

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