Regeneron: New York State of Mind - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Regeneron: New York State of Mind


Pharmaceutical Executive


Queens connection

George Yancopoulos was in his late 20s when he got a phone call from Schleifer, in 1988. "Len was working out of a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side [of Manhattan], trying to start up this company. And people said I was crazy to be talking to this guy," he recalls.

A Queens, New York native and son of first generation Greek immigrants, Yancopoulos laid the groundwork for his academic career at the Bronx High School of Science, where he was valedictorian. He went on to matriculate at Columbia University, receiving an MD and PhD in biochemistry and molecular biophysics. As a PhD candidate, Yancopoulos worked in the lab of Fred Alt, a geneticist. Alt had recently joined Columbia from MIT, where he'd done his own post-doc work in the lab of David Baltimore, a Nobel Laureate and National Medal of Science recipient. As an early member of Regeneron's Scientific Advisory Board—a who's who of science including several Nobel laureates and National Academy of Sciences inductees—Alt says the call was put out among the board to help find a lead scientist. "I went back and mentioned it to George," says Alt, who is currently a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. "I didn't normally lead my students into industry, but it seemed like a very special circumstance for the right person," says Alt.




Yancopoulos has a slightly different recollection. "I remember Fred sent me up to visit David [Baltimore], to talk me out of it," he says. "My hero, my scientific grandfather, sat me down and said, 'George, you have such a promising future in science. You can't walk away from this. If you go and do this crazy thing, you'll never be heard from again.' And I remember walking out of his office, sort of quaking and nervous, and thinking, wow. But then I thought, if it doesn't work out, I'm sure I'll be able to find something else to do."

Upon accepting the job with Regeneron, as founding scientist, Yancopoulos walked away from a faculty position at Columbia, a $2 million grant, and eight years worth of research funding to roll the dice with Schleifer, who had dreams and ideas but not much money. Yancopoulos and Schleifer agreed on the business proposition, which was to put science in the driver's seat.

Schleifer is also from Queens, "about a mile or so" from where Yancopoulos grew up, he says. Both men exhibit a certain New York City frankness and grit. They argue a lot. "We recognize that we're in this together, and we try and come up with a unanimous view on the path forward," says Schleifer. "If we don't both agree, we argue it out until we do agree."

Core principles

They agree about the importance of taking risks as a company. At the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in January, Schleifer told attendees that to stop taking chances in R&D is to initiate a company's decline. "Some people enjoy adventure and don't see risk and failure as endpoints. It's just something along the way," says Yancopoulos. "If you're afraid of it, then you avoid things that have a high risk of failure."

There's a difference between risk-taking and outright temerity. Regeneron built itself a safety net by constantly improving the technology and processes it uses to discover and assess potential drug candidates, which allows its scientists to safely step out on the high wire. "There's been a singular vision since day one about combining cutting-edge biological science and developing cutting-edge technology that together would provide the opportunity for an endless supply of clinical candidates," says Neil Stahl, Regeneron's SVP, research and development sciences.

Yancopoulos says Regeneron's approach to developing technology in the service of science comes in large part from Fred Alt's lab back at Columbia. "As soon as I started hiring people, I tried to put in place a system where technology was at an even level with the science," says Yancopoulos. The goal was to "not just provide a technological service, but to develop better technology."


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