Gilead’s Lung Drug Ace, Bruce Montgomery, Hits Free Agent Market, Scopes Startup Ideas

Xconomy Seattle — 

Bruce Montgomery, the prolific drug developer and a leader of Seattle’s biotech cluster, has become a free agent, Xconomy has learned.

Montgomery, 57, has told colleagues at Gilead Sciences that he is resigning from his full-time operating job as senior vice president of Gilead’s respiratory drug division in Seattle. He plans to continue working for the Foster City, CA-based biotech giant (NASDAQ: GILD) as a part-time senior advisor. Montgomery tells me his last full day at Gilead will be Aug. 15. He plans to spend the next few months figuring out his next career move—which could be as a CEO of an existing company, a founder of a new biotech startup, or maybe as a venture capitalist.

“I accomplished what I wanted to do at Gilead,” Montgomery says. He added: “I want to start something. I just have to figure out what that is. That’s my next step.”

Montgomery has the kind of track record rarely found in biotech, having played a role in developing six FDA-approved drugs on his resume. One venture capitalist I quoted in The Seattle Times in 2004 called him a “rock star” of drug development. That was when Montgomery was out raising cash for Seattle-based Corus Pharma, a company he founded in 2001 to develop an inhalable antibiotic for cystic fibrosis. He sold Corus to Gilead for $365 million five years later. Before that entrepreneurial venture, Montgomery, a board-certified pulmonologist, played key roles in the development of inhalable tobramycin (now sold as TOBI by Novartis), Genentech’s dornase alfa (Pulmozyme), and most recently, Gilead’s aztreonam lysine (Cayston).

“He has shown that smarts, dedication and tenacity can create life-saving drugs,” says Kirby Cramer, the former chairman of Corus.

Gilead, the world’s largest maker of HIV drugs, invested big money in Montgomery and his team in Seattle. The company set up the group of 150 people in a new $50 million respiratory disease research center along Lake Union that the company just moved into in March. Montgomery talked in some detail earlier this year about the portfolio of products he and the team assembled at Gilead, during a presentation we covered in January.

Bruce Montgomery

Bruce Montgomery

No successor has been named for Montgomery at the helm of the Gilead Seattle operation, and that’s something Montgomery says he’s working on. Montgomery downplayed any impact his departure might have on operations, saying that most of the people in the Seattle operation report into matrixed teams in Foster City and at other locations, and that will continue.

“We are thankful to Bruce for his leadership and many contributions to Gilead and to the field of cystic fibrosis,” said Gilead’s chief scientific officer, Norbert Bischofberger, in an e-mailed statement. “We are pleased that Bruce will maintain his involvement with Gilead as a senior advisor. His scientific foresight contributed to a valuable body of work that will continue in Seattle as we evaluate the use of Cayston for Burkholderia infections in CF patients and for bronchiectasis and as we advance other respiratory programs.”

“Bruce will be working with me to identify his successor, who will be based in Seattle,” Bischofberger added.

While Montgomery’s work has been less visible in the four years that he’s been inside Gilead, he still has his fingers in a lot of pots in Seattle. He’s the former chairman of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, serves on the board of trustees of the state’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund, and recently joined the board of Seattle-based ZymoGenetics (NASDAQ: ZGEN).

True to form, the always loquacious Montgomery was happy to chat and joke around over the phone yesterday. He says he’s circled Halloween on the calendar as his target date to figure out what to do next. It might be in the field of respiratory drugs, which he knows best, but it could be something related like antibiotics, infectious diseases, or something else.

One thing he knows already—the world of biotech venture capital has changed dramatically since he started Corus in 2001. That company raised more than $145 million in venture capital, for one really visible asset (Cayston), and a bunch of people with talent and experience to do more.

“The VC environment has changed dramatically, the same old business models don’t seem to work, Montgomery says. “Corus wouldn’t work today, healthcare reform has changed the rules. I’ll have to ask if there is a business model. I’m not sure there is one.”

I asked Montgomery what he considered his ideal working environment, given he’s done both the startup life and the big company. He noted that the benefit of being at Gilead is that it has virtually unlimited resources to throw at a scientific or medical problem, but the downside is bureaucracy. A small company’s lack of bureaucracy is wonderful, but if you burn through $20 million on a hard problem and fail, you’re toast. He doesn’t miss the stress Corus suffered when a giant company (Chiron, now Novartis) almost bled his startup company to death through a trade secrets lawsuit before Gilead saved the day with a strategic investment. (The suit was ultimately settled after Novartis bought Chiron).

“At Gilead, $20 million is a rounding error,” Montgomery says. “It spoils you and softens your hard-nosed thinking, because you can take big bets and not really worry about them.”

Although I pressed for detail, Montgomery says he doesn’t have any firm idea he’s locked into yet, or what kind of company structure he might need to mobilize. He has a non-compete agreement, so he can’t poach any of his talented colleagues who currently work at Gilead today.

One thing Montgomery isn’t doing is taking some time off to recharge his batteries. He already took a couple weeks of vacation earlier this summer, which he says is a lot for him. He’s currently working about 80 hours a week, and anticipates dialing back his Gilead work to about 20 hours a week as an advisor. But really, there’s a good possibility he could take that commitment down to zero hours a week at some point in the next couple of months, depending on what he decides to do.

“It took me a couple months to figure out what to do last time,” when he was between jobs, Montgomery says. “I’m going to read a lot, figure out what’s going on. I don’t have any brilliant ideas at the moment.”

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