We at Xconomy are excited to announce that we are honoring Ivor Royston, co-founder of Hybritech and Idec Pharmaceuticals, with our 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award—the first ever awarded in San Diego. The award recognizes Royston’s wide-ranging career as an academic physician, entrepreneur, investor, and life sciences executive. His foundational role in starting Hybritech, San Diego’s first biotech, puts him at the start of the creation of what is today one of the most vibrant life sciences ecosystems. He will receive his award and give a talk reflecting on his career at our inaugural Xconomy Awards San Diego gala on May 29 in La Jolla. Here’s more on Royston.
Since joining the UC San Diego faculty in the late 1970s, Royston has reinvented himself every decade or so. Throughout that journey, he has played a major role in establishing the region as a life science powerhouse, through his scientific research, business-building, investments, and his championing of fellow entrepreneurs.
During one of his first reinventions, from academic physician to entrepreneur and cofounder of Hybritech, Royston built a team of scientists and executives who would go on to create dozens of biotechs in San Diego—helping to launch the region’s biotech industry, for which it is now globally recognized. David Hale, a former Hybritech CEO who now runs Hale BioPharma Ventures, an investment firm, estimates Hybritech alumni have gone on to create some 200 companies.
But no one could have predicted Hybritech would have that effect when it was founded in 1978.
“Ivor took a big risk when he decided to help create Hybritech and to become involved because at the time that just wasn’t something that was done very often, and academics put their careers in jeopardy by associating with a commercial company,” Hale says.
Royston first found his passion for oncology research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he studied the role of viruses in cervical cancer.
“I was driven to try to find a cure for cancer, or to make one of the people who could make a breakthrough in cancer,” he said.
Royston’s research into viral causes of cancer earned him a postdoctoral position at Stanford University. Following that, he spent about three years at the National Institutes of Health researching the cause of mononucleosis (the Epstein-Barr virus), then returned to Stanford to finish his oncology fellowship.
It was there that he was first exposed to the technology that would underpin Hybritech—monoclonal antibodies. Around that time, Genentech, the world’s first biotech, launched in South San Francisco with funding from Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins (then Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers).
Royston joined the UC San Diego faculty in 1977. The following year, he and Howard Birndorf, a lab technician he first met at Stanford, launched Hybritech to scale production of monoclonal antibodies for use in diagnostics and therapeutics.
Royston quickly encountered pushback. Despite the numerous top academic labs doing biology research in San Diego, there was no clear path from bench to bedside for scientific discoveries, according to Royston and others. It wasn’t clear how or if the “great groundbreaking science” underway would reach the market, says Mark Cafferty, who heads the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation.
“I was a medical doctor interested in translational science. The problem was how to produce and make these antibodies so I could use them to treat patients,” Royston said. “There was no biotech industry, and the pharmaceutical industry didn’t understand what I was talking about when I said I wanted to make antibodies in a test tube or a flask, as opposed to bleeding goats and horses and rats.”
An introduction to Kleiner Perkins partner Brook Byers from Royston’s wife got Royston’s foot in the door with the venture firm, fresh off of its decision to back Genentech.
Seeing promise in the technology, as it had in Genentech’s work with recombinant DNA, Kleiner Perkins decided to back the company.
Getting Hybritech off the ground had a huge impact, Cafferty says. “In a way, (Hybritech) created a model that we still follow to this day, and it’s a very common model today: You talk about where’s your investment going to come from, what’s your idea, what’s the business model, who’s the team, how long will it take to get through approval processes and things of that nature, what markets are you targeting…but they were doing all that blind,” Cafferty said.
Despite the pushback, Royston persisted. “For a lot of us, (that) was a confirmation that this technology was something that was going to be very important,” says Hale, who joined Hybritech in 1982. “Ivor was willing to make this commitment and then as people started to join, it was a really outstanding group of young executives, all in their 30s.”
After Hybritech was acquired for more than $400 million by Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY) in 1986, its management team fanned out, with many launching more companies. The list includes life sciences companies, of course, but also firms that would go on to back San Diego startups, including BioVest, started by the company’s founding CEO Ted Greene and Tim Wollaeger, another Hybritech executive.
That group of entrepreneurs who struck out once more after the acquisition included Royston, who still yearned to use the new technology to treat patients. Hybritech had attracted Lilly’s attention because of its success in diagnostics rather than therapeutics, developing the PSA test that’s still widely used today to detect prostate cancer.
Royston teamed up with Birndorf and others again to co-found San Diego’s Idec Pharmaceuticals. Work done there led to the discovery of rituximab (Rituxan), the first monoclonal antibody cancer treatment, for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the most common form of blood cancer in adults. In 2003, the company merged with Cambridge, MA-based Biogen in a deal valued at more than $6 billion to form Biogen Idec, the third-largest biotech after Amgen and Genentech at the time.
Having helped start up two wildly successful San Diego biotechs, Royston said he found himself in demand as a sounding board for other entrepreneurs.
“The idea of helping young physician scientists was very intriguing,” he said.
He eventually formalized those activities, founding Forward Ventures, which functioned for a time as what he terms a “hobby fund” but it eventually evolved into an institutional fund that raised hundreds of millions. (The fund was named after Forward Street in La Jolla’s Bird Rock community, where Royston was living at the time.)
In the meantime, he started the nonprofit Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, which he headed until 2000, when he left to focus on Forward’s venture investments. (Years later, struggling to fund its work, the center filed for bankruptcy; Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, then the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, absorbed some of its researchers and assets.)
Now, more than 40 years after Royston started studying the origins of cervical cancer, he’s back to working on cancer viruses. He is CEO of Viracta, which is developing treatments for cancers linked to the Epstein Barr virus—the same virus he studied decades ago at NIH. Viracta’s experimental drug, nanatinostat, is being tested in a Phase 1b/2 trial in combination with an anti-viral called valganciclovir on patients with lymphoma. The company was the last one in which Forward Ventures invested; Royston became chief executive in 2017.
“To have Ivor still here in San Diego as a visible part of the scene, and to feel like and know that the role he played at that time has become a little bit of a textbook role in San Diego as to how our biotech industry looks and feels to the rest of the world, I think is just a really special thing,” Cafferty said.