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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.