Biotech Pioneer Steve Gillis on Life as a VC, How Today’s Entrepreneurs Can Make It, and Seattle’s Future in Life Sciences (Part 1)

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and your limited partners’ money in the companies, so you want to make sure they do well.

X: How do you think you can make a difference from this chair here at Arch, versus being a CEO or anything else you could have done?

SG: To a great degree, the management of the companies where I represent Arch’s interest actually want my involvement. While they don’t listen to all my recommendations or follow them 100 percent down the line, I think they’re interested in what I have to say, and interested in drawing on my experience set so they can avoid mistakes I’ve made and do things better, quicker, cheaper, because that’s in everyone’s interest.

X: Not a lot of VCs have a 25-year operating track record, so how does that inform the way you advise an entrepreneur?

SG: I can attempt to tell them, “Look, I’ve been faced with this similar problem, and I’ve made this similar mistake.” Or, faced with this problem, you can bring up several ways to deal with it, and I’d recommend Door No. 1, because I used Door No. 1 myself once, and it worked.

But it’s becoming increasingly common that people with long track records in operations are now partners in venture capital companies. Traditional VCs find a benefit of having people around the table who have actually had operating jobs and have taken products into the clinic, and have gotten products out the other end.

Another case in point: somebody I work with a fair amount, Jeff Leiden at Clarus Ventures, was head of R&D at Abbott. It’s not as uncommon as it used to be.

X: You think you’ll ever go back to running a company?

SG: A long time ago, I learned to never say never. So I won’t say never. But for now, I really enjoy this. I have had a couple stints as acting CEO of portfolio companies. I was acting CEO of Ikaria for about nine months as that company went through its financing, which led to an acquisition of a major division of Lindy, the gas company. I was acting CEO of one of our portfolio companies in Boston when the CEO left and before we hired a new one.

Actually, I enjoy that. I enjoy it a lot more in Seattle than I do 3,000 miles away. But once again, it gives you an opportunity to get closer to reality and dealing one or two levels below what you might see at a board meeting. I still enjoy seeing primary data as opposed to just conclusions. It keeps your hand in the game.

The world is certainly different now than it was when I was involved with starting Immunex and Corixa. For one, there’s no public market anymore for development-stage companies. So you go in starting a company knowing that nine times out of 10, or maybe 19 times out of 20, your only route to liquidity is through acquisition. So that has to color your investment decision. If I was going to start another venture, everyone would have to be clear that that’s the outcome, and would know that’s the outcome from Day Zero. I wouldn’t want to delude investors or fellow entrepreneurs that we’re going to be the next Immunex, or the next Amgen.

X: I would imagine that’s a different mentality than the one you had when you were 28 years old and starting Immunex, probably thinking you’ll go public and build a great big company.

SG: Absolutely. Yeah, or at least, we’ll be a drug company. There’s a chance today, but the chance in today’s financial realities, is about as close to zero as it’s ever been.

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2 responses to “Biotech Pioneer Steve Gillis on Life as a VC, How Today’s Entrepreneurs Can Make It, and Seattle’s Future in Life Sciences (Part 1)”

  1. Evidently, Mr. Gillis knows nothing about Fleischmann, Pons and cold fusion. Their discovery was not a “goof up.” It was replicated in hundreds of major laboratories such as Los Alamos, China Lake and BARC. Thousands of papers have been published describing these replications, including 1,200 in peer-reviewed journals, which I copied from the library at Los Alamos.

    Gillis should read the scientific literature on this subject before commenting on it or reaching a conclusion.

    Our web site,, has a bibliography of 3,500 papers and about 1000 full text papers on cold fusion.

  2. shrikant Deshpande says:

    It was good to read the article about Steve Gillis. I liked him very much when he was at Corixa where I worked.