Seattle’s Pharma Godfather, Ben Shapiro, Sees Potential Here To Transform Medicine Despite Setbacks

Xconomy Seattle — 

Not many people in the world have played a leading role in delivering 23 new drugs and vaccines to the U.S. market. Bennett Shapiro is the only person living in Seattle who can say it.

Shapiro, 69, spent the first chapter of his career as a biochemist at the National Institutes of Health, followed by a 20-year run at the University of Washington. He left the chairmanship of UW’s biochemistry department in 1990 to become a leader at Merck. He was executive vice president of basic research during a golden age for the company, and oversaw the emergence of the ill-fated pain reliever Vioxx, and a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, Gardasil. When he left, he was in charge of global in-licensing, where it was his job to identify the most exciting biomedical research in the world happening outside of Merck and bring it in.

He rarely does interviews, but I spoke with Shapiro in a fascinating 45-minute phone conversation last week while he was in New York. The point wasn’t to reminisce. It was to get up to speed on all the leading-edge science Shapiro has his fingers on right now. For starters, he’s a partner with one of Boston’s leading life sciences venture firms, Puretech Ventures. He’s also on at least a dozen boards to lend his advice to a younger generation of scientists and entrepreneurs at places like Celera, Fate Therapeutics, Ikaria, and the Mind & Life Institute.

“This is a wonderful time in life for me, having both experience and energy,” Shapiro says. “I try to be useful. That’s the name of the game in life.”

If you look carefully at which organizations Shapiro has joined, it shows he has omnivorous interests in a wide variety of life sciences. He has a view of more precise genetic diagnostics (Alameda, CA-based Celera), adult stem cell therapies (San Diego-based Fate), and hibernation-on-demand that could save people from bleeding to death (Ikaria, which has significant operations in Seattle). Another company, Tel Aviv, Israel-based Vascular Biogenics, is developing a novel pill to tamp down the inflammation that causes heart disease to turn deadly. He also has a taste for global health, through the nonprofit Geneva, Switzerland-based Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, which has developed two new drugs for malaria in Africa as well as Asia and Latin America, with only about $70 million of investment. The drugs cost 25 cents for kids, and 50 cents for adults, he says.

I get the impression that a few more Seattle companies would like to tap into Shapiro’s experience more of the time, but he’s careful about how he doles it out. Carl Weissman, president of the Seattle-based startup incubator Accelerator, said that Arch Venture Partners’ Bob Nelsen has had the most success getting Shapiro to lend his advice to young companies. “Ben’s years of experience in developing drugs is not something you find in very many people in Seattle. There aren’t many people around here hanging out at Starbucks who have experience of taking 20 drugs onto the market,” says Weissman, who served with Shapiro on the board of Cambridge, MA-based Elixir Pharmaceuticals.

All this activity requires that he spend a lot of time on airplanes, but Shapiro still spends about one-third to one-half of his time at a waterfront home in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. It’s a refuge, with inspiring views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, where he likes to read and host friends for dinner. He still skis and hikes in the Cascades, and says one of his favorite things to do is sail on the Sound by the San Juan Islands. “I love Seattle,” he says.

While he was at the UW, Shapiro told me, he never thought he’d leave Seattle. When Merck came calling, he said he had “leftist” ideas about price-gouging pharmaceutical companies, and he wasn’t very interested. “I didn’t think working in the pharmaceutical industry would be a noble undertaking,” he says.

When he got to Merck, though, he saw inspiring work going on to develop the first generation of protease inhibitor drugs to fight AIDS. “I saw how an excellent business organization can transform a plague into a manageable disease,” he says. “These big companies have transformed healthcare and saved millions of lives. I went through a psychological evolution.”

Merck in those years enjoyed the reputation as the most innovative of the pharmaceutical companies, but also a reputation for being somewhat insular and isolated from the rest of the world. “Merck did about 1 percent of the biomedical research in the world,” he says, so under Shapiro, it sought to form partnerships with academics and biotech companies to enhance what it already was working on.

He left Merck a year before controversy erupted over Vioxx’s link to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The company’s woes have been well-documented since, including its recent decision to slash 7,200 jobs, and close several research centers, including one with 300 workers in Seattle.

These days, Shapiro sees action in biotech where a lot of VCs are afraid to tread. He has hit it off with Nelsen, the Arch managing director, who has bucked the trend of more conservative VCs who gravitate toward drug candidates only if they are in the late-stage of development, because of the high risk of failure. “Arch is one of the few remaining VCs that do early stage stuff,” Shapiro says. “Bob has good taste. He’s an interesting guy.” He says the same of PureTech Ventures, which doesn’t think about investment “exits” so much as trying to assemble some of the best minds in science to build companies around big problems like pain, obesity, and Alzheimer’s.

“I’m totally interested in innovation, in how you start from zero with an idea, and see how that can be manifested,” he says.

Given how much he values innovation, I thought he might be disappointed in the job losses and clinical trial failures that have plagued Seattle biotech in the last few years. Wrong.

“Amgen’s buying of Immunex is huge, they’ve invested a lot here,” Shapiro says. “Icos was a great success. There are a lot of smart, creative people here that are quite independent, and don’t follow the herd. We have a very interesting mix of people here.” He singled out Mark Roth of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who pioneered the hibernation-on-demand technology that Ikaria is developing a few blocks away in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.

When measuring a nexus of innovation, Shapiro says he doesn’t put too much stock in conventional measurements like product revenue, patents, jobs, or market capitalization. “What drugs or treatments have really transformed therapy? It’s not just things that are commercially viable,” he says. “If you look at bone marrow transplant that came from the Fred Hutch, that transformed therapy. Enbrel, for blocking TNF, absolutely transformed therapy for rheumatoid arthritis. There is a lot going on in Seattle that can change people’s lives.”

Seattle doesn’t have nearly as much venture capital as Boston, and biotechnology there benefits from “extremely sophisticated” technology transfer at MIT, Shapiro says. The San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego are other hotspots on his radar, along with New York and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. Ultimately, Seattle should do fine because it attracts talented people with big ideas, just like the other places. “Good ideas can come up anywhere,” he says.