John Mendlein, Biotech Exec With Surfer Look, Follows Winding Path as “Parallel Entrepreneur”

Xconomy San Diego — 

When John Mendlein walks down the street, most people think one thing: surfer dude.

But for those who know better in the biotech industry, Mendlein represents a lot more than a laid-back stereotype. The tall guy with long blond hair is an intense driving force behind one of the big success stories of the past five years in Boston biotech. And now he’s following an unconventional path in which he hopes to have an impact on several of the more interesting life-science startups in San Diego today.

Mendlein reached this point without any “grand plan,” he says. First he was a scientist, then a lawyer; now he’s a biotech executive who relies on both skill sets. Mendlein made his name as a CEO when he sold Waltham, MA-based Adnexus Therapeutics to Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) three years ago in a deal ultimately worth more than $500 million. Now he’s taking the road less traveled again as a “parallel entrepreneur.” Instead of pouring all of his energy into one startup as CEO again, like a serial entrepreneur, he’s a hands-on board member at three companies pursuing big ideas in San Diego.

Mendlein’s goal—at Fate Therapeutics, aTyr Pharma, and Alevium Pharmaceuticals—is to help put together the ingredients a biotech startup needs to do something truly innovative. That means finding technologies that can shake up medicine, adding capable people, securing adequate venture financing, and creating a team-oriented culture to deliver the goods.

“It was just all interesting to me,” Mendlein said recently about how he landed on his career path. “I don’t think there was a big grand plan there. It was interest-driven and luck.”

Those who have worked closely with Mendlein say he stands out not just because of his surfer dude look, but because he has an unusual sense for what drives people—not just science. His gravitational pull became clear to me back in March, when I invited UCSD Nobel Laureate Roger Tsien to attend an Xconomy event, and he accepted the instant I told him Mendlein would be there as the moderator.

“John is intense, funny, highly perceptive,” says Noubar Afeyan, managing partner of Flagship Ventures in Cambridge, MA, who worked with Mendlein at Adnexus. “He’s very in tune with people and their needs. He has very big dreams, big ambitions, and thinks very broadly about markets and opportunities. I’m a huge fan.”

Mendlein’s journey into biotech had a classic start: as a kid at the junior-high science fair. He set up an experiment of petri dishes filled with dirty water—one with an antibiotic and one without. “You could see bacterial colonies flourishing when the antibiotic wasn’t there,” Mendlein says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t even see it, but I know something’s happening.’ And that you can test things that way.”

He attended junior high, high school, and college all within about a mile of the house where he grew up in Miami, FL. His parents, both artists, didn’t have much interest … Next Page »

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3 responses to “John Mendlein, Biotech Exec With Surfer Look, Follows Winding Path as “Parallel Entrepreneur””

  1. Linda Kelly says:

    The “dude” is awesome!

  2. Alison Madden says:

    John if you are tracking this, please get in touch with me @ 650.924.5004; an interesting issue in Redwood City involving sailors and land use, would love to talk to you. Great job on all your success, I am not surprised. Editor, BTW it was UC-Hastings not Berkeley. John, hope it’s OK that I make that correction ;-) Ali