The Billion Dollar Molecule: One Company’s Quest for the by Barry Werth

By Barry Werth

An inside of account of the start-up of a biotechnology corporation describes its fight to carry a lifesaving drug to industry, discussing the dicy financing and profiling the enterprise capitalists concerned. 30,000 first printing.

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Boger’s blunt assurance that he could do what Merck, the most admired corporation in America, could not, was creating on the fly a uniquely confident and ambitious research group. Throughout the time that I was there Vertex was more of a free-lance lab and privatized university-style consortium than a commercial drug business. Nearly everybody, including me, was younger than Boger, and it showed. The company was creating itself to conceive of and design and build small molecules better than the world’s most skilled, profitable, and heavily endowed research organizations and what it took from the scientists was utter commitment, extreme passion, thrilling insight, and fearlessness.

Aldrich told them that Vertex was considering a range of options, but the most promising were its discussions with other drug companies. Vertex had approached eight other companies about the possibility of their underwriting part of its research in return for certain “downstream” development rights. In other words, he and Boger were aggressively talking with potential competitors about the company’s science even before it had unpacked its first test tubes. Standard practice, the discussions nevertheless startled some of the group’s academicians.

Of course, the same was said by the architects of the new companies themselves. Yet still they came. On a warm morning in mid-October, the chief executive officers (CEOs) of more than forty new biomedical companies took their places behind several rows of long cloth-covered tables in the Vista’s ballroom, unhopefully partitioned for the event. Of all the emerging fields Wall Street was cool about, biomedicine was by far the most worrisome. It spent the most money, took the longest time to pay out, and even its successes like Genentech, whose hysterical debut on Wall Street nine years earlier had driven the company’s stock price from $35 to $86 in the first hour of trading, were wanting.

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