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Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Same People

When you invest in biotechnology, you are investing in people. The Cargo Cult you invest in is a group individuals who will be spending your money.

H. Stewart Parker is a 55 year old seasoned veteran of the cargo cults of Seattle. She's a pioneer. She was the first employee at Immunex right around the beginning of biotechnology. She went on to be the CEO of Targeted Genetics, a spinoff of Immunex. Before her reign ended, Targeted had ran up a deficit of $310 million. She left her cocoon in 2008 to become a consultant, as most execs do after their companies tank. She moved on to WBBA, the local biotech promoting organization of the Northwest. Today she announces an end to that moonlighting job so she can work full time as the CEO of the Infectious Disease Research Institute.

Let's break down her place in the Seattle field of leaders. The nonprofit she'll head up was founded by immunologist Steve Reed in 1993. Steve Reed is the Executive VP of Immune Design, and co-founder of Corixa. Bruce Carter, former CEO of Zymogenetics, is the Chairman of the Board for Immune Design. Other Corixa co-founders include Ken Grabstein of IL-15 fame and CSO of local Allozyne and Steven Gillis, co-founder of Immunex. Steven Gillis hired Ms. Parker straight out of college (UW). The names of the companies may change but the people (who spend your money) remain the same. They are all still here, running companies and enjoying the excess of the massive funding that comes and goes in the cargo cults.

This group has done well for themselves but have done little in terms of creating a career path for scientists. The business people have the job of telling the story that is intended to be told from the inception of the company. That is the career path that Seattle biotech cargo cults nurtures and structures. The career of the scientists is to come in as needed and fill in a piece of the puzzle and then go away. If a scientist can't tell the story, they can easily be replaced.

How can we find success in biotechnology when the leadership seems to be making it all up as they go along? Ms. Parker has had an experience. Since the beginning of biotechnology she has worked as a leader. She remains a leader. She has experience. But unlike a winning Superbowl coach, her experience will not land her a book deal on managing a winning team. But it will get her another CEO job in Seattle.

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