We at Xconomy are excited to announce that we are honoring Mark Levin, co-founder and partner at Third Rock Ventures, with our 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award in Boston. The award recognizes Levin’s extensive contributions to the biotech industry and to the Boston life sciences ecosystem. Levin built Millennium Pharmaceuticals—inspiring a generation of future executives/entrepreneurs along the way—and also helped reinvent the venture capital market for early stage biotechs by founding Third Rock, where his work has helped bring a slew of important new companies and new drugs to market. His efforts have played a key role in making Boston biotech what it is today. He will receive his award and give an acceptance speech at our annual Xconomy Awards gala on Sept. 12 in Boston. Here’s more on Levin’s career.
The only sure bet in biotech is that it is a very, very long game.
“You can’t overreact to great ideas,’’ says Mark Levin, co-founder of Third Rock Ventures in Boston. “Things just don’t work that quickly.”
Levin, who has spent about 40 years in the biotech world—30 of them at venture capital firms—says taking the slow, methodical path is the key to success. Since Third Rock’s founding in 2007, the firm has raised $2.7 billion and invested in more than 50 companies, including standouts like Agios, Foundation Medicine, and Bluebird Bio.
Third Rock, Levin says, spends up to four years finding the right mix of business executives and scientists to tinker with an idea—such as whether a genome scan could identify the best drug for each patient—just to decide if there’s enough there to start a company.
Unlike tech companies, which can raise millions and go from idea to market in only a few years, biotechs must weather dry spells when investors shy away, and persevere through years of painstaking lab work and clinical trials to prove the efficacy of a drug—effort that still doesn’t guarantee the treatment will make it to patients. Investors willing to take on that sort of risk, waiting a decade or more while pouring in millions, are hard to come by. For Levin, bringing together a selected group of business and medical experts to work jointly on promising research increases the rate of success substantially.
“One academic with one idea will not be successful, mostly,” Levin says in an interview with Xconomy. “We go out and meet all the best people in the world and we [together] develop an R&D plan, a discovery plan, [and reflect on] does this make regulatory and reimbursement sense … we’ll spend years on that idea.”
That combination of active networking and recruiting is key to the teams Levin put together both at Third Rock and Millennium Pharmaceuticals, says John Maraganore, currently CEO of biotech Alnylam Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge. “You can have the greatest science and the greatest idea and if you don’t have the right people behind it, the likelihood of success is really low,” he adds.
Maraganore saw this first-hand. He met Levin in the mid-90s when Levin recruited him to work at Millennium, a genomics-based drug discovery company. Maraganore had, at that point, spent a decade at Biogen rising through the ranks and holding positions in both the company’s research and business development sides. “Mark had that vision, the belief that solving the human genome and integrating those tools would lead to a whole revolution in drug discovery and development,” he says. “Working with Mark is in the top five great things that I’ve done professionally in my life.”
Levin’s entrepreneurial zeal was instilled early. Levin’s father had a 6th grade education; his mother had graduated from high school. They cared for their family by running small businesses, in St. Louis and in Wisconsin, where Levin grew up. Those years of helping keep stock up-to-date and serving customers gave Levin an intimate feel for serving a market. That experience continued at other small businesses. “I spent 22 years working these kinds of jobs: restaurants, bowling alley, shoe store,” he says. “That was my mindset growing up.”
He went on to earn a biochemical engineering degree from Washington University in St. Louis, and began his career working for big companies like Eli Lilly and Miller Brewing. A key part of his responsibilities entailed opening new plants and integrating new operations into an existing business. When a friend at Genentech asked him to join the company, Levin was intrigued. The pioneering biotech had been founded just a handful of years before, in the mid-70s.
“My first question was, ‘What was biotech?’” he says.
In the early ’80s, biotech was an industry at the starting gate, with Genentech among the companies leading the way. Levin was at the South San Francisco-based firm until 1987, a time in which Genentech developed and sold the first version of insulin manufactured through bioengineering (along with partner Eli Lilly). Other drugs followed, including Protropin, a supplementary growth hormone for children, and Activase, a drug used to dissolve blood clots in patients with acute myocardial infarction and to treat non-hemorrhagic stroke.
“It was intoxicating,” Levin says of those years. “I loved it.”
Levin had another motivation to join the biotech industry: His mother had died of stomach cancer when he was 16. “No one really knew what cancer was in the ’60s,” he says. “I kept the record of the treatment she had. There was really no medicine at all.”
While his dad was focused on earning enough to provide for the family, Levin says, he and his sister helped to look after each other. “It’s amazing how our childhood affects all of us and what we do,” he says.
In the late ’70s and into the ’80s, Genentech gave Levin first-hand experience at the beginnings of genomic medicine—the science of using insights extracted from the study of the human body at the genetic level to develop medical treatments.
Levin’s work at Genentech made him interested in how companies are founded and expanded. A venture capital cluster focused on Silicon Valley’s growing set of information technology companies had already taken root; Levin says he saw an opportunity to be part of an investment community dedicated instead to supporting life sciences companies. In 1987, he joined the Mayfield Fund, co-founding the firm’s life sciences arm. “We started up companies from scratch; it was phenomenal,” he says.
Mayfield is where he began to hone what eventually became Third Rock’s signature team approach to biotech investing. During those years at Mayfield, Levin identified areas of biology where he saw promise, and sought out experts across the globe to help clarify and compose a business plan for the firm’s portfolio companies. Frequently, Levin stepped in as interim CEO. Mayfield supported companies that were the first to develop human antibody drugs, gene therapies, and cellular therapies, says Steven Holtzman, president and CEO of Decibel Therapeutics (which is backed by Third Rock).
One of those companies was Millennium Pharmaceuticals, which Holtzman joined a year after its founding in 1993. Levin was the company’s founding CEO. “He was all about creating great conditions for great people to do great things,” says Holtzman. “He once told me in our first year, ‘When you’re going into a room with people for a meeting, is your goal when they walk out [that they] say, ‘Steve is smart,’ or that they feel good about themselves so they go out and do great things?’ He had the greatest impact of how I thought about leadership in my career.”
After 12 years at Millennium, including seven after the company went public, Levin decided it was time to return to investing. “It’s fun for me to go back and forth,” he says.
So, Levin, along with co-founders Bob Tepper and Kevin Starr, decided to found Third Rock Ventures in 2007 with a $378 million first fund. It was a tough time in the biotech venture industry—capital had largely become hard to come by after the dotcom bust in the early 2000s. By 2007, the financial crisis was looming, and would soon lock up the capital markets.
Most investors at that time were looking for faster one-off projects. But Levin was determined to apply—and expand—his approach at Mayfield. “Third Rock is Mark Levin institutionalized,” Holtzman says.
Third Rock’s approach isn’t a guarantee of success, however. Investments in companies like Zafgen, Ember Therapeutics, and Eleven Biotherapeutics did not make the “win” column. But biotech investing is an inherently risky endeavor, and there are plenty of points along the way where a drug candidate can implode.
“I made a million mistakes, absolutely,” Levin says. “There are lots of investments that we passed on.” He says he’s aware that promising biotechs are blooming away from industry centers in California and Boston, but there is only so much time and bandwidth to properly nurture them.
It’s telling, however, that other biotech venture capital firms have adopted an investing approach similar to that of Third Rock, Holtzman says. What was a contrarian approach a decade ago now has demonstrated results, he adds.
In a Harvard Business Review article from nearly 20 years ago, Levin shared his thoughts about the stages of development of the biotech industry, and the different opportunities available during those periods. He says the industry now is likely to be in a distinctive new phase.
The challenging issue of healthcare reimbursement is “changing how we look at everything,” he says. At the same time, the potential of mining data—from genome sequencing, from brain banks, from disease research—combined with tech advances like artificial intelligence, is creating new opportunities for scientists and investors.
“There is a revolution going on in medicine,” he says. “The opportunities are unbelievable if you bring the right people together.”