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ZymoGenetics CEO Bruce Carter Retires, Promotes Doug Williams, Says Sad Goodbyes to Biotech “Family”

Xconomy Seattle — 

It’s a sad day for Seattle biotech. One of the charismatic pioneers of the local life sciences cluster, Bruce Carter, is retiring from his job as CEO of ZymoGenetics.

“I’m quite sad,” Carter says. “I’ve been here a long time, and it’s sort of like my family.”

The news is really no surprise. Carter, 65, is handing over the responsibility of the company’s top executive job to Doug Williams, 50, a former chief scientist of Seattle-based Immunex who has been groomed for this role for years. Carter isn’t completely riding into the sunset—he will retain his ties to ZymoGenetics by serving as non-executive chairman of the board, and serve on the boards of Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, the Hyderabad, India-based generic drugmaker, and on the nonprofit TB Alliance. He will continue to live in Seattle with his famous wife, KING-5 TV anchorwoman Jean Enerson. Carter plans to catch up on some favorite leisure activities, namely gardening and getting back into shape with rowing. His exit from the company (NASDAQ: ZGEN) will be official on Jan. 2.

What he won’t be doing is looking over his successor’s shoulder and telling him what to do. “If you hire a lion, you shouldn’t roar yourself. Let the lion roar,” says Carter, a native of Great Britain, with his usual flair for metaphor.

Carter, a microbiologist by training, played an instrumental role in building ZymoGenetics into one of the region’s top biotech companies. He departs at a vulnerable moment in the company’s history, as it has been whipsawed by investors who were disappointed in the sales of its first marketed product, recombinant thrombin for surgical bleeding. ZymoGenetics has had to make layoffs, sell off land, settle a patent dispute, and hand over rights to its lead drug candidate to a partner this year to compensate for the disappointing performance of the drug, which is expected to generate just $7 million in sales this year. ZymoGenetics also suffered a painful setback in October, when that lead experimental drug, atacicept, failed in a clinical trial of lupus for the kidneys because it raised the risk of infections. The company’s stock market value has been slashed by more than 70 percent this year, and it now has less than two years’ worth of cash reserves on hand. Its stock closed yesterday at $3.22.

That means Williams will have a tough job, especially in this grim economic climate. But no one can argue that Carter has accomplished big things at ZymoGenetics, which now has 500 employees. Carter joined the company in 1986 as vice president of research and development, following a stint at British pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle. He experienced the thrill of the 1980s boom in biotech, and was in line to get rich through an initial public offering in 1987, only to see that hope dashed by the stock market crash that year. A year later, ZymoGenetics agreed to be acquired by Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk, the world’s largest maker of insulin for diabetes. Novo continued to invest in ZymoGenetics as its U.S. research wing, and Carter presided over the branch from 1988 to 1994. He was then promoted to chief scientific officer of the parent company, giving him access to the inner management circle, allowing him the clout to get ample scientific resources for his scientists in Seattle, as well as colorful artwork spread throughout its South Lake Union headquarters.

In 2000, he led the effort to spin off ZymoGenetics as an independent company, and helped nail down $150 million from private investors that included George Rathmann, the founder of Amgen, the world’s largest biotechnology company. Carter later took ZymoGenetics public in 2002.

That’s just the business side. ZymoGenetics scientists have made key contributions to six genetically engineered protein drugs currently marketed by other companies, generating a total of more than $3 billion in annual sales. Its science led to genetically engineered human insulin, and Factor VIIa, a genetically engineered protein that’s used to treat hemophilia. Both are marketed by Novo Nordisk. Under Carter’s leadership, it built a pipeline of its own, with drugs for cancer, autoimmune diseases, as well as surgical bleeding.

Carter, a broad-shouldered man of about 6-foot-4, has wavy blondish-gray hair, and a penchant for pinstriped suits. He has always cut a dashing figure in a somewhat bookish industry. Bruce Montgomery, the senior vice president of Gilead Sciences, an accomplished industry veteran with five FDA approved drugs under his belt, once memorably said that when it comes to biotech in Seattle: “He’s Bruce #1. I’m Bruce #2.”

Carter has long been active with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, serving a stint on that trade group’s executive board, as well as years on the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association’s board. He most recently led a search group that recruited Chris Rivera to be the local association’s new president.

He is known for quoting former British prime minister Winston Churchill, often enough that I’m sure the quotes make many employees groan. One of my favorites came when I was reporting for The Seattle Times on his efforts to transform the company’s culture from a dreamy university-style research center into a hard-charging, focused drug developer. He drew on Churchill for inspiration. “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning,” he told me.

Like a lot of people in Seattle biotech, I owe Carter some small debts of gratitude. It’s mainly for being generous with his time, and being patient enough to carefully explain his industry when I was just starting out.

I remember asking Carter what advice he had for young biotech executives. (What I didn’t tell him is was that I was hoping to maybe pick up some advice for my own career.) He told a story about setting goals, on the crew team. He and his teammates decided to set a goal of rowing in the Mexico City summer Olympics. It forced them to think hard about what sort of practice and training would be required to accomplish such a feat. Once the plan was in place, they stuck to it, no matter how hard it was to get out of bed early to go rowing. “You have to first figure out what you want to do. Then go do it,” he said at the time.

It’s good advice that has stuck with me to this day.