At a number of venues over the years I was able to observe and briefly speak with George Yancopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., president and chief scientific officer at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. For example, in 2015, I attended the Klick Health Idea Exchange at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Yancopolous served on one of the panels, and I recall him discussing the human genetics research collaboration Regeneron had established with Geisinger Health System. At some point during the panel he said, “I know how to make drugs.” I liked his confidence, for at the time the company had only two FDA approvals. But soon after that meeting, Regeneron got Praulent approved, and the company’s stock rocketed past $500/share. At another event I watched Yancopoulos explain why big pharmaceutical companies were no longer relevant as biopharmaceutical R&D innovation engines, and the primary value they had was that of a bank. The fact that several of his fellow panelists were heads of R&D from those same Big Pharmas did not deter him from sharing his rather candid opinion. At this year’s annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, during the Regeneron breakout session, his impassioned response to a “blue-sky scenario” question regarding the Regeneron Genetics Center served as the inspiration for the blog, Does Drug Development Require A Passionate Commitment? I personally find it endearing that an obviously brilliant scientist, who also happens to be fairly wealthy, is willing to challenge convention, remain passionate, share opinions transparently, and not get too caught up on trying to be politically correct all the time. Here are 10 of my favorite Yancopoulos quotes from our recent interview.
When talking about the Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS), Yancopoulos, an alumnus of the event some 42 years previous, recalls doing his own STS project and the important role played by a high school science teacher:
“I’m thinking back, holy cow. Her name was Mrs. Strong. How incredibly crazily committed was she that she’d be coming in two hours early, just to let some kid into the labs and start the project and helping him along? Without people like that, you don’t get scientists.”
When asked about roadblocks and internal challenges when developing foundational technologies versus drugs:
“Unfortunately, in this business, a lot of people start at the end. Where’s the medicine? Where’s the new drug? Starting at the end limits a lot of companies in what they do, and this is why so many companies are one-trick ponies.”
On the decision to join Len Schleifer in building Regeneron Pharmaceuticals:
“He made a commitment to me that we were going to learn based on the science, and we were going to start and be willing to invest and commit to building scientific technologies and platforms that we thought to be game-changing, not just focus on the end game.”
On what makes Regeneron’s board different:
“Our board which, unlike any other board of any large public company in America, is a majority of scientists, and not only scientists, a majority of the people on the board are members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).”
When discussing having dinner with the then department chair at Columbia where he had accepted a faculty position, and being informed he wouldn’t be able to continue publishing with his mentor, Fred Alt.
“He’s like my big brother. We bounce ideas off each other. Now you’re telling me that you want me to prove that I can do it without Fred Alt? What’s the point of that?”
When asked why he decided to leave the faculty position at Columbia and join Len Schleifer in building Regeneron Pharmaceuticals:
“I was looking for people to do things with, not to do things against.”
When asked what’s a normal Regeneron day for him like:
“My day involves going from one research team meeting to the next, where I get to actually see the data, along with a ‘think tank’ of our top scientific leadership, and we just brainstorm.”
When asked if he was ever worried about failing:
“Science fails most of the time. But you can’t look at it as real failure, but basically an opportunity to learn what could go wrong and then reinvent around it to get back on track.”
On why he prefers doing science as a collaboration.
“I came from a big sports background, and playing on other teams and the like in college where it’s all about the team. Science should be a lot more like that.”
On being referred to as a visionary.
“Nobody’s more visionary than Roy freaking Vagelos!”