Prior to sitting down to interview John Leonard, M.D., president and CEO of Intellia Therapeutics, we had an informal conversation over the phone to develop an angle for the story. During such calls, especially when someone is willing to be transparent about their work and personal life experiences, you can learn a great deal about what makes them tick. For example, Leonard recounted the story of how he found out his wife had MS (she had an episode where she couldn’t walk). At the time, he was working at the NIH, and their son was only a year and a half. “As a result of my wife’s illness, we ended up with a lot of medical bills, and my fellowship salary was $30,000 a year.” Leonard says he had been wavering on the decision to pursue a career in academia or something in industry. But it was his wife’s illness and the resulting financial challenges that tipped him toward a career in industry.
Years later, he found he had an entrepreneurial spark when he met a New York bond trader from Argentina who wanted to start a working ranch. Together, with several former colleagues, the group bought land in Bolivia, and the ranch became Leonard’s first entrepreneurial venture. But he quickly learned that to be a successful entrepreneur, there is much more required than a mere desire for adventure. Turns out, the lack of infrastructure in Bolivia made it very difficult for the ranch to accomplish what was necessary transportation wise. And though the ranch didn’t turn out quite as anticipated (i.e., it’s now defunct), Leonard still feels the experience was worth it.
A few years later, he again tried his hand at being an entrepreneur, this time a little bit closer to home. After meeting Greg Hall, the former brewmaster at Goose Island Beer in Chicago (where Leonard was living), the two, along with partner Stephen Schmakel and other investors, built Virtue Cider, a craft cider company in Michigan. The company today is wholly owned by Anheuser-Busch via its “High End” craft and import division.