Kendall Squared brings you dispatches from the world’s epicenter for biotechnology and drug discovery.
Thousands of biotech executives and investors are massed in San Francisco this week for the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, discussing gene editing, immunotherapy, and other cutting-edge medical advances.
But a different branch of the field is looking not forward, but backward. The nonprofit Life Sciences at CHF, which has offices in Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco, is interviewing hundreds of industry insiders to compile an oral history of the birth and growth of biotech. Their collection so far comprises around 150 in-depth interviews with biotech executives, scientists, and investors. The goal is to ensure that the tales of the industry’s early days don’t get lost.
“If you want to understand where we’re at, and where we’re going, you need to … look at where things came from,” said Mark Jones, a science historian who leads the project’s research efforts. “When you put all these things together, you have a really detailed, rich portrait of an industry in the midst of creation.”
The foundation, formerly known as the Life Sciences Foundation and now undergoing a merger with the Chemical Heritage Foundation, started collecting interviews about four years ago.
The project was born out of concerns from biotech leaders that the field’s pioneers were aging and that the tales of the milestones they experienced might vanish with their deaths, said Michael Hammerschmidt, who works on philanthropy for the organization. Selections have appeared in the group’s magazine and will fill a book expected to be published this year.
“The question was, OK all these folks are still living — how can we capture their stories before they go?” Hammerschmidt said.
The interviews occur in person and take two hours at minimum, and some have stretched over several days. They seek to capture the biography, both personal and professional, of each subject.
In the transcripts published online, for example, Daniel Adams, the founding president of Biogen, reminisces about his early love of hockey as a kid in Duluth, Minn. Henri Termeer, the former Genzyme CEO, discusses the outcomes of the first patient to receive the company’s drug for Gaucher disease. Julia Levy, founder of one of Canada’s first biotech companies, describes the roadblocks she faced trying to move research from her academic lab into industry.
The University of British Columbia “didn’t have a university industrial liaison office in the 1970s,” Levy said. “The only place you could get advice about partnerships was an office that signed grants, and there was nobody there doing anything. We were nothing but a nuisance for them because they didn’t have the faintest idea of how to connect with the pharmaceutical industry. It was not on anyone’s radar.”
Only nine interviews are currently available online, but Life Sciences at CHF plans to eventually make all of them publicly available. The group has identified another 150 or so people with whom it hopes to sit down.
Other researchers — some of which the foundation has partnered with — have done oral history projects focused on biotech in specific regions or around certain scientific efforts, such as genome sequencing and recombinant DNA.
“I feel very strongly, particularly in a field that is changing so quickly, it’s really important to capture it right now because in the next minute it’s going to be different,” said Sally Hughes, a science historian at the University of California, Berkeley, who has collected dozens of oral histories about the emergence of biotech in the Bay Area. “What has happened in the past is almost always going to shape what’s going to happen in the future.”
Collectively, the histories show some issues might just be perennial: decades ago, executives were weighing issues such as how to price a drug and how to attract investment, topics which are very much alive and well today.
The stories also detail the smaller quirks of the industry that are sure to resonate with biotech insiders, including the frequent travel among laboratories, conferences, and meetings with investors. For instance, Bill Rastetter, the former CEO of Idec, described to a University of California, San Diego, historian how he stayed at the same hotel in Palo Alto every Thursday night for seven years while shuttling between San Diego and the Bay Area.
“I can remember at about year five, stepping into the elevator to go up to my room on the third floor, wondering who the employee of the month would be, because they always had a picture up,” Rastetter said. “And lo and behold, it was I.”