“I grew up in Illinois,” shares Jay Luly, Ph.D., CEO of Enanta Pharmaceuticals. Luly is being interviewed for a future feature in Life Science Leader, and I started the conversation with a little ice breaker. Luly shares that somewhere along the way in high school, he figured out he wanted to study chemistry. Turns out the University of Illinois (U of I) had one of the strongest chemistry departments in the country at that point. “So many kids go on college trips, and it blows me away with how many schools they might visit today,” he states. But for him, U of I was very obvious, as it was a great school, proximal, and affordable. Upon completion of his undergrad, Luly moved to the West Coast to pursue a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. “That was my first foray to the Bay area.” Back then biotech really didn’t exist in any sort of meaningful way. Cetus Corporation was just getting started, and by the time Luly graduated, Genentech was getting underway. “My Ph.D. is in organic chemistry, which destines you for either academia, or industry, and I just knew I wanted to work for a drug company.” He says that the choices to apply one’s chemistry skills in industry back then were primarily limited to Big Pharma, which is what brought him back to Illinois. “I joined Abbott Laboratories in 1983 and moved to Chicago, but I actually grew up downstate, closer to St. Louis, so getting back home was not why I joined Abbott.”
Luly says he really learned the business of this industry during those 15 years in Big Pharma. And by the end of his tenure, biotechs had really emerged. “That’s when people with good positions in pharmaceutical companies started considering a move to biotech, but few made such a transition.” It was 1997 when he joined LeukoSite, a biotech startup consisting of no more than 30 people. Quite a change from a company with tens of thousands of employees, but he absolutely loved it. Two years in, the company merged with Millennium Pharmaceuticals, and within two years it had almost tripled in size. To Luly, at the time, the people at smaller biotechs and early-stage companies seemed to be having more fun than those at large pharmas — and he missed that enthusiasm and drive. So, he joined the venture capital firm, Oxford Bioscience Partners as an entrepreneur in residence, (EIR), which is how he came to know the company he now leads as CEO, Enanta Pharmaceuticals. But when Luly took the reins back in 2003, the company had just had a significant platform failure, possessed no investable assets, and had some other constraints. Learn how he turned Enanta Pharmaceuticals around by becoming a Life Science Leadersubscriber and reading our March 2021 issue.