When interviewing George Yancopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., president and chief scientific officer at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, for the upcoming June feature in Life Science Leader magazine, we discussed a wide range of topics, such as how the company goes about finding top talent. Unfortunately, one of the realities of print publishing is space limitations. This is why we created our exclusive Beyond The Printed Page online section of the magazine. And while this component remains free, to read the feature article involving Yancopoulos still requires a subscription. Consider becoming a Life Science Leader subscriber today. As for now, we hope you enjoy this latest Beyond The Printed Page installment involving one of the most accomplished biomedical scientists in the world — George Yancopoulos.
When striving to develop the VelocImmune mouse at Regeneron, was there ever a point when you thought it might fail?
Yes. And we have experienced that throughout Regeneron’s history. Our CEO, Len Schleifer, has often said, after 30 years of working hard and building this company, people seem intent on turning Regeneron into an overnight success story. But we’ve had plenty of failures and struggles along the way that have shaped what we’ve become. Science fails most of the time. But you can’t look at it as real failure, but an opportunity to learn what can go wrong, and then figure out how to re-engineer to get back on track. This has happened countless times at Regeneron, and continues to blossom in the projects we are currently working on. Perhaps this is why we have developed a bit of a saying, “We never really fail. If we don’t win, we try to learn from it and build upon it, as this is the scientific process.” There have been plenty of times where we had setbacks, and things seemed to really be getting hard, and maybe things weren’t going to go the way we wanted. But by taking a long-term view and finding top talent willing to buy into a mindset of reinventing around the problem, exemplifies Regeneron as an organization.
How do you find top talent willing to take part in Regeneron’s team approach to science?
While many might say it comes from talking with people, it also must involve listening. For during the process of active listening you can quickly determine who really wants to take part in our team approach to science, as they tend to say things like, “This is how it should be, this is how I want it to be,” or “This is the scientific world I want to participate in.” You also will pick up on the people who want to do it differently. During the process of recruiting top scientists, it is important to pay attention to their style. There are plenty of people who have learned the academic scientific model and prefer running and being in charge of their own little empires. And while that is fine, it’s just not how Regeneron is approaching science. The people who perform best at Regeneron are the ones who take advantage of synergies. This is something we deem as extremely important, as you’re much more powerful if you have an army of people backing you up, than if you’re trying to do it on your own. I believe it is fairly easy to identify people with that type of phenotype, especially when you observe how they work in an environment. For there will be those who flourish, while there will be others who want to keep everything close to the vest, are resistant to engage with others, and not willing to ask for help. Those types of people tend not to become leaders at Regeneron, and typically end up moving on. This is one of the reasons why we like internships, as both sides get to try before they buy. We want people who buy into a synergistic environment where it is not them versus the world, but us collaboratively trying to solve the challenges of science that lead to breakthroughs.
You stated that you can’t imagine retiring, but wouldn’t it be irresponsible to not be doing leadership succession planning?
First of all, our role model is Roy Vagelos, M.D., who is 88-years old. Some people were trying to get him to retire 30 years ago, and if he had, how much would have been lost? He’s an amazing human being, and I have to say, he almost makes me feel a little bit bad about myself — that I’m just never going to measure up to be the next Roy Vagelos. I believe it is possible for people to keep going, and I certainly hope and intend to. But the beauty of our approach at Regeneron, unlike a lot of other places, is that senior leaders who had a lot to do with building this place, making big contributions, shaping the culture and so forth, are still here. Yet we are constantly assimilating new contributors and new leaders. Hopefully we’ve built a self-perpetuating culture that is not only constantly being built, but molded and reshaped by these new people who are becoming part of the process. I’d love to think that I am so unique and instrumental as to be irreplaceable. But we’ve built an incredible company of people who have mastered group brainstorming, and many of the new people are as good as, if not better, than me at doing this and taking advantage of the process. I just hope they continue to buy in, as I have seen how effective and empowering it is. And while I hope I’m still around for a long time, should I get hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow (God forbid!) I think the system and the culture will live on, as we have an incredible leadership team. There are times when I have had to skip a few meetings, and they go on, and are just as productive when I’m not there. I imagine they will continue long after I’m gone. We’re in good hands, as we have some of the top scientific talent in the world that continues to manage our science as a group, and at this point I’m just another one of the leadership team.