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

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the original blueprint. He reluctantly called Golumbeski. “I’m so sorry, but you have to come to Seattle,” Reda said.

“Kareem, I’m not mad,” he replied.

Golumbeski showed up on a Friday night and stayed through the weekend. He saw Reda and Wallace were both exhausted. Their talks had first centered on treating one type of cancer and a $1 billion investment from Celgene but had expanded to cover a broad swath of potential therapies over a 10-year period, with myriad permutations, like what would happen if there were management changes. Momentum was stalling near the finish line as the Juno side kept trying to extract more money, according to Golumbeski. During one negotiating session, “George just snapped,” Reda recalls.

“You keep this shit up and I’m going home on the next plane,’” he said. The deal was clinched shortly thereafter.

“I think he saved the deal,” Reda says. “He felt how worn down I was.”

Juno’s top two executives, Steve Harr and Hans Bishop, now both founders of a new firm, Sana Biotechnology, declined to comment.

Golumbeski was candid about how he had burned himself out and the “reckoning he went through,” Minkow says. He also went out of his way to connect her with other successful female biotech executives, like New Enterprise Associates partner Carol Gallagher. He was his “whole self” at work, she says, from the birdwatching and the quirkiness to sharing his past struggles and bringing his kids along for some deal negotiation trips.

“That’s what makes someone authentic,” she says. “You care about them as a person, and you know that they care about you as a person.”

Some of Golumbeski’s landscape photos hang in Minkow’s office at Prevail. And Reda says he’s tried to train his group at Evelo the way he was trained at Celgene: hire young, ambitious grads, trust their ability, and teach them to work smarter, not harder.

“He believed in me before anyone else knew I was talented and smart,” Reda says. “And he believed in me without a real rationale.”

Photo of Death Valley Sand Dunes by George Golumbeski


When his life was in tatters, Golumbeski spoke with his therapist about how someone like him—a geeky scientist who likes to learn stuff—ended up as a successful business development executive. The theory went back to his childhood.

Golumbeski had no control over his father’s alcohol abuse. It drove him crazy. He likens that scenario to a child playing pinball during an earthquake. The child presses the flippers, but the table shakes and the ball zig-zags everywhere. The therapist’s theory: deal making, with all its unpredictability, is just like that game. But as an adult, Golumbeski could win it and subconsciously craved the chance.

“If you want a Freudian theory of [business development], that might be one,” he says.

Embracing unpredictability also means accepting failure. Golumbeski and Daniel lost out to Johnson & Johnson on ibrutinib (Imbruvica), which has become a mainstay for a variety of blood cancers. Golumbeski says his biggest miss was turning down daratumumab (Darzalex), from Genmab, a multiple myeloma drug that also ended up with J&J and has become a blockbuster, with $2 billion in sales in 2018. “We just thought it had too many issues,” Golumbeski says. “That was a bad call and I put a lot of that on me.”

Other failed deals have taken the shine off Celgene’s pipeline and heightened pressure on Celgene to find a replacement for lenalidomide. After years of what critics consider Celgene’s unfair gaming of the patent system, the $8-billion-a-year best seller could face generic competition as soon as 2020.

A cancer alliance with Epizyme (NASDAQ: EPZM) hasn’t yet borne fruit. The lead drug from Avila never became the ibrutinib rival Golumbeski had hoped. An eye-popping $710 million acquisition of Irish biotech Nogra Pharma blew up when Nogra’s potential treatment for Crohn’s disease, mongersen, later failed a Phase 3 trial.  (“Multiple players with money wanted that,” Golumbeski says.) And after a $7.2 billion buyout of Receptos for the autoimmune drug ozanimod, the FDA refused to review it because Celgene left key information out of its approval application. At best, it’s a significant delay of a critical drug. (Celgene has said it will file a new approval application this month.) The issue was so sensitive, Golumbeski declined to speak about it.

Before the Bristol acquisition was announced, SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges wrote that investors “will probably wait” until some key development and regulatory milestones in 2019 and 2020 “before giving the company more credit for their pipeline investments.”

Celgene’s shares sank below the $60 mark, a level not seen since 2013.


The change in sentiment dramatically reframed the Bristol and Celgene talks. The deal had begun in early 2017 as a potential “merger of equals” but became an acquisition by Bristol as Celgene’s value plunged, regulatory filings show. Celgene lost more than half of its market capitalization between September 2017 and December 2018.

Celgene thought Bristol’s $110-per-share cash bid in September 2018 was too low but later accepted a comparable bid: $102.43 for each Celgene share, with $50 of that in cash and the rest in Bristol stock, and an additional $9 per share if a few drugs make it to market.

Daniel left Celgene in 2016. He says he had accomplished many of his goals and has since been an adviser to several up and coming biotechs. Golumbeski says he began planning his exit in 2015, finally leaving in 2018, itching for a new challenge. “It was a good, if not a great run,” says Daniel. “Our friendship will extend beyond that.”

Meanwhile, Golumbeski’s post-Celgene life is anything but sedate. He is a board member and advisor to several companies, including Sage Therapeutics, KSQ Therapeutics, and Carrick Therapeutics. He has a part-time venture role with Arch Venture Partners.

He’s also now president at Grail, one of Arch’s most ambitious projects, a company spun out of DNA sequencing giant Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) to develop a liquid biopsy, or blood test, that detects cancer very early, before patients experience symptoms. It is an extremely ambitious and difficult goal; success could lead to a significant impact on public health. “I want to work on big ideas that can really change the world,” says Golumbeski.

He also says that running Grail’s business development efforts isn’t the same as being the captain of the ship: “I’m more relaxed and having more fun than I’ve had in a while.” (Jennifer Cook, a former Roche executive, is CEO.) But this is no leisure cruise. Grail is reportedly valued at more than $3 billion and last year raised a $900 million round—biotech’s largest ever—to run the massive studies needed to prove its technology works.

Reports have indicated Grail is considering an IPO soon, which would put Golumbeski back in the limelight with another high-profile, publicly traded company. Golumbeski won’t comment on IPO plans: “I’m confident Grail can remain very well capitalized,” is all he’ll say.


Under pictures of a golden pill filled with golden DNA—the logo of this year’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco—Celgene CEO Mark Alles and Bristol CEO Giovanni Caforio kicked off the annual gathering together to sell the merits of their planned $74 billion merger to a packed conference room at the Westin St. Francis hotel.

Describing Bristol’s rationale, Caforio ticked off five Celgene drugs expected to come to market within the next couple of years. Four of them came from deals Golumbeski was heavily involved in. Several other drugs are in earlier stages.

Dissident Bristol shareholder Starboard Value has challenged the company’s projections as unrealistic. Others have said Bristol has better alternatives elsewhere. Yet if Celgene hadn’t missed on drugs like mongersen or suffered setbacks with ozanimod—or maybe, if Golumbeski had pulled the trigger on daratumumab—this debate wouldn’t have even occurred. Celgene might have been too expensive for Bristol’s taste.

“These things are always bittersweet,” says Golumbeski. It was shortly after the presentation, and he was sitting at a diner a few blocks from the conference. After years of being clean-shaven, he’s brought back the beard he had in his younger days, now speckled with grey. He wore a light blazer and glasses with checkered frames. He ordered oatmeal and stared at the audio recorder in front of him, calculating what else to say about the deal.

He was in on the discussions when they began in 2017. When they picked up again in late 2018, he was already gone. “I was intrigued with what the company might possibly be,” he says. “That’s not to say I was pounding the table to do that deal, but I thought it was pretty interesting.”

The day of the announcement, he was inundated with calls from friends, former co-workers, members of the financial community, and more. There was “some feeling of, wow, they’re buying this for value that was created during my time,” he says. As naysayers dispute the deal’s financial rationale, Golumbeski staunchly believes in the drugs he and Daniel acquired during their run. “Each of those programs could really be very important for patients,” he says.

What’s best for Bristol is not the only concern. Celgene was a key cog within biotech circles. “What is the consequence to the biotech ecosystem for one of the best partners to go away?” says Bradner, of Novartis, whose startup Acetylon Pharmaceuticals partnered with and was eventually acquired by Celgene during Golumbeski’s run. “Though investment is not hard to access today, smart money from a large biotech or pharma company is still elusive at a stage when it can be really helpful.”

Golumbeski used to attend a yearly dinner of biopharma dealmakers at J.P. Morgan. The last time he attended a few years ago, a peer approached him, someone high up within the industry. We’ve studied your methods and presented a plan based on them to our board, the person said.

“Good luck,” Golumbeski said with a laugh. “It isn’t rocket science.”

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