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

Xconomy National — 

George Golumbeski is one of the most prolific dealmakers in the biopharmaceutical world. But the deal that changed his life is a pact he made with himself when he was ten years old.

Playing with friends in front of his house in Hampton, VA, he watched his mother drag his dead-drunk father, a U.S. Air Force veteran who did a short stint in Vietnam, out of his car. Pretending to sleep in his bedroom, he’d often hear his parents screaming at each other.

“I can’t end up like this,” he remembers thinking of his alcoholic father. By third grade, he knew he had to escape and “forge a different and better path.”

He immersed himself in education and used it as his one-way ticket out of town. He got into an Ivy League school, then climbed his way up the corporate ladder to international powerhouses Novartis (NYSE: NVS), then Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG), where he and the company’s research chief Tom Daniel forged a cutting-edge template for biotech deal-making: they showed how smaller companies, wary of being exploited by bigger companies, could instead benefit short-term with much-needed cash, then keep control of their own destinies. Larger companies have taken notice.

“Quite frankly we’ve modeled a lot of what we do today on some of the principles they applied,” says Dan Curran, who ran business development at Japanese pharma giant Takeda Pharmaceutical until January and now heads its rare disease division.

Golumbeski and Daniel have moved on from Celgene, but early this year, it seemed that one of the drug industry’s largest acquisitions ever would build upon their legacy. Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) agreed in January to buy Celgene for $74 billion, primarily because of drugs acquired during Golumbeski’s tenure.

But dissident shareholders have begun to protest the acquisition, skeptical of the prospects of the pipeline he helped craft.

Indeed, the grumbling began before the acquisition. A series of setbacks starting in 2017 doused Celgene’s years-long momentum. So Golumbeski’s legacy might not be written in stone just yet. But he has at least one more chapter in his professional life. He’s now president of liquid biopsy developer Grail, one of the most ambitious biotech startups in recent memory, with billions of private dollars raised to develop a blood test that screens for early signs of cancer. It’s an immense scientific and financial challenge, one that would seem at risk of tipping Golumbeski back into a precarious life, one that he spent years struggling to escape.

Like a lot of top executives, Golumbeski’s rise to the top of the deal-making world was fueled by workaholism. Marathon hours, flights around the world, competitive pressure: all led to a deep depression. Only an ultimatum from his wife forced a reckoning. The emotional scars have left him with life lessons to share. “There is a difference between working hard and not having a personal life,” he says. “It’s hard, but one has to be watchful of oneself.”

ENCYCLOPEDIAS AND REBELLION

Biotech business development isn’t for the thin-skinned. Expect every decision to be criticized, says Golumbeski. Management, investors, and potential partners will all scream at you. Some deals will make you a hero. Others that appear done will fall apart at the last minute.

Good business development executives learn a variety of disciplines and thirst for more. Most important, they adapt when crisis hits. Golumbeski likens it to “being put in a plane with two hours of training and flying by the seat of your pants.”

Flying is one of Golumbeski’s earliest memories, and a happy one. When he was small, he and his parents, a lower middle-class couple descended from Polish immigrants, boarded a plane on the East Coast and flew across the Atlantic Ocean to Germany. They lived there for two years while his father was stationed overseas. His dad then served a one-year stint in Vietnam, and his drinking got worse, the fights more frequent. Golumbeski bristles at the recollection, calling it a “terrible upbringing and terrible environment.” His parents divorced in 1967, when he was 10 years old. His father moved away, and Golumbeski rarely saw him. He died of a heart attack while Golumbeski was in college.

After the divorce, his mother did what she could to make ends meet, working as a secretary at a Virginia Air Force base. Golumbeski took to science, was obsessed with becoming a doctor, and his mother surprised him one day, scraping together the money to buy a set of medical encyclopedias. One was on the skeletal system, another the circulatory system. A latchkey kid coming back from school to an empty home, Golumbeski studied every volume. “I frickin’ memorized those books,” he says.

Academics came easy, but like many teenagers, he also rebelled. He and a close friend cheated classmates out of lunch money, using a marked deck of cards in poker games. He grew his hair long and acted up in class. He loved tropical fish but 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.”

BUSINESS TIME

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.”

GRIND TO THE TOP

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 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 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.

THE SCHOOL OF GEORGE

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 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

CALLING DR. FREUD

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.

CELGENE CUT IN HALF

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.

ROCKET SCIENCE

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.”