They arrive as commoners. They leave with the connections and know-how to break into the ranks of ascendant biotech royalty.
The graduates of Vicki Sato’s Harvard Business School course have spun class assignments into companies that raised millions of dollars. Others have launched successful startups with a boost from her sharp counsel or network, or been snapped up by industry titans such as Sanofi, Biogen, and Celgene.
“It would be crazy for [aspiring biotech entrepreneurs] not to want to have a relationship with Vicki,” said Dave Greenwald, who took the course while working on his PhD at Tufts University.
Sato made her name — and plenty of industry connections — in a celebrated 22-year career as a biotech executive, rising to chief scientific officer of Biogen and president of Vertex Pharmaceuticals. But it’s also what she’s done in academia in the past decade that has minted her as the mentor of choice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
“I’ve had students coming back from years ago saying, ‘Hey — do you know anybody who can help me with X, Y, or Z?’” Sato said. Sometimes she tells them, “Sure, I can get you started. Why don’t you try calling so-and-so?”
Sato, 67, had a reputation for being an attentive, no-nonsense manager in industry. Today, she doles out advice with the same efficiency, asking pointed questions and challenging half-baked ideas, her protégés say. She’s also known for being generous with her time and being lightning quick in responding to emails sent at all hours of the day.
Even Sato is surprised by her remarkable success as a kingmaker. Alumni of “Commercializing Science” have gone on to start more than a dozen life sciences companies, according to an informal survey Sato sent to her former students last year. Some have inked lucrative partnerships or sold part or all of their companies, bringing their investors — and themselves — a windfall.
During the course, students self-assemble into small teams to develop a mock business plan around a technology or drug target, such as a protein or molecular pathway that has commercial promise. They can propose their own projects, or choose from those presented by scientists that Sato brings in from local academic labs and the technology transfer offices of Harvard and the Partners HealthCare hospital system. “These aren’t library projects,” Sato quips.
The goal: to teach what it takes to pluck a scientific discovery from academia and turn it into a company — and give students plenty of networking opportunities while they’re at it.
“Vicki has basically trained a generation of HBS alums to go out and take that mindset,” said Michael Schrader, who took the course as a Harvard MBA student.
Just hours after he completed the course in 2011, Schrader met up with three of his classmates to talk about trying to move forward with the business plan they had just finished for a silk-derived protein polymer. With Sato’s input, they fine-tuned their business plan. She helped them get a meeting at the National Institutes of Health and gave them suggestions for people to talk to at biotech companies.
Their business plan turned into Vaxess Technologies, where Schrader is chief executive. His classmates lead the company’s research and development, operations, and policy and strategy. Today, they’re testing the polymer in vaccines for rotovirus and polio, which might allow them to be transported at higher temperatures.
Other business plans from the class have turned into Diagnostics For All, a nonprofit that develops paper-based devices to make diagnostic work cheaper and easier, and Sofregen Medical. That company aims to use a protein to aid in reconstructive surgery for trauma victims and breast cancer survivors.
Alumni who abandon their class projects in favor of different real-world entrepreneurial ambitions have also turned to Sato for advice and connections.
Greenwald, the former Tufts student, sought Sato’s guidance for his side project: Relay Technology Management, a data analytics startup that provided competitive intelligence on the life sciences industry. Sato introduced him to veteran venture capital investor Bruce Booth at Atlas Venture, to which she was then a business adviser. Atlas didn’t end up backing Relay, but the firm introduced Greenwald to a group of investors that poured several million dollars of seed funding into Relay.
“An introduction from Vicki Sato to Bruce Booth at Atlas goes a really long way,” Greenwald said.
Sato teaches her course each fall, sometimes alone or sometimes with a fellow professor, to a class composed of roughly half Harvard MBA students and half cross-registered students or postdocs from Harvard’s other schools or other local universities and hospitals. The course has grown to about 70 enrollees and auditors this semester, up from about 50 in years past, but she’s never had to turn students down due to space constraints.
While programs and accelerators designed to encourage students to become biotech entrepreneurs are plentiful, dedicated academic classes are rarer. Still, Sato’s course is not the only one of its kind. Duke and MIT, for example, have courses designed to teach aspiring entrepreneurs strategies for starting a new venture in the life sciences. Greenwald has taught an entrepreneurship course at Tufts and Johns Hopkins University that he modeled after Sato’s course.
On a rainy morning last month, Sato was in her office on Harvard Business School’s stately campus, preparing her lesson plan for the afternoon’s class meeting. A homemade cocktail recipe from an executive at Diagnostics For All was scribbled on a whiteboard.
A longtime ballet and ballroom dancing enthusiast, Sato wore her dark hair short and was dressed elegantly. Sato and her co-professor, Gary Pisano, bantered back and forth as they planned how to frame the afternoon’s conversation. The planned topic of discussion? The hard choices made in 2003 by a familiar biotech executive — Sato herself. Students had been assigned a case study documenting how Sato and Josh Boger, Vertex’s then-chief executive, had decided which two of four drug candidates — being developed to treat psoriasis, acute coronary syndrome, arthritis, and hepatitis C — to carry forward.
The course ends with a poster session where students present their projects to a who’s-who of the Boston-area biotech scene: investors, pharmaceutical executives, biotech entrepreneurs, and alumni.
Among those presenting next month will be Isaac Stoner and his team. An MBA student at MIT Sloan School of Management, Stoner has high hopes for the science at the center of their business plan: a cellular pathway, discovered in a Massachusetts General Hospital lab, that could yield new treatments for drug-resistant infectious diseases. He and his team are screening possible compounds and have started talking with the licensing office at Mass. General. If they “manage to get lucky and get all those pieces in place,” Stoner said, they will start a company.