FivePrime Therapeutics Executive Offers Start-up Advice

Lewis "Rusty" Williams

Former UCSF physician-scientist Lewis T. "Rusty" Williams, MD, PhD, founder and executive chairman of FivePrime Therapeutics Inc., says it wasn't money that motivated him to leave academia it was his eagerness to"move discoveries in the lab to patients for their benefit" faster. Williams, who has felt a passion for science since he was 12, was the guest speaker at the "Scientist to CEO" talk on April 19, part of an ongoing series hosted by the UCSF Center for BioEntrepreneurship (CBE). About 150 people gathered in Genentech Hall to hear Williams, who had a very distinguished academic career at UCSF where he was a professor of medicine and director of the Cardiovascular Institute. Williams took the opportunity to announce the relocation of FivePrime's headquarters from South San Francisco to the second floor of the J. David Gladstone Institutes building at Mission Bay. The Gladstone building opened last year right across the street from UCSF's 43-acre life sciences campus. FivePrime's impending move is another sign that UCSF is leading the way to establish Mission Bay as a regional biotech cluster, where biomedical research is advanced through public and private-industry partnerships with researchers working together for human health. UCSF Executive Vice Chancellor Eugene Washington welcomed Williams to Mission Bay and talked about the potential for UCSF and its research colleagues in the private sector. "Discovery is not enough," Washington noted. "If we are really true to our mission to improve public health, then we need to translate research discoveries into public benefits." Relocating FivePrime to Mission Bay, Williams said, gives his company opportunities to interact with world-class scientists at both the Gladstone Institutes and UCSF and to take advantage of the city's progressive economic policies. With City support and UCSF's campus as a centerpiece, Mission Bay seems to be gaining momentum as a health sciences sector. In March, Sirna Therapeutics, a Boulder-based company specializing in therapeutics based on RNA interference technology, announced plans to move its headquarters to Mission Bay, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. And Alexandria Real Estate Equities, a real estate investment trust that specializes in life-sciences projects, is expected to open a five-story building, including space for use by start-up biotech firms, next year in Mission Bay. In May, UCSF will find out if San Francisco can win its bid to attract the headquarters of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine created by voter approval of Proposition 71 last November. Such a move would signal a major turning point in UCSF Mission Bay's burgeoning role in biotechnology. Anecdotes and Advice In a speech peppered with anecdotes and advice, Williams shared his experiences as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at UCSF, co-founder of his first company, COR Therapeutics, and as an executive manager with Chiron Corp. At Chiron, Williams rose through the ranks to eventually head all of research and development with 1,000 people reporting to him. But as he found himself getting further away from science - wearing a necktie in meetings with Wall Street analysts - Williams became increasingly dissatisfied. He also grew frustrated with the slow timeline to translate research discoveries into marketable products. After taking a year off to get organized and obtain financial support, Williams started FivePrime Therapeutics in 2002. Today, he leads research and development efforts, spending most of his time doing science, unless he's called off the bench to help raise money. With some $85 million raised so far, Williams said FivePrime is well financed to carry out its mission to discover and develop a sustainable pipeline of innovative therapies made from proteins and antibodies to tackle cancer, diabetes and immune diseases, among other health problems. Williams says it's critical to get savvy business leaders to help start a biotech company along with a team of dedicated scientists. "No matter how smart a scientist you may think you are," Williams quipped, "it's critical to get expert business advice. There are some people who aren't scientists who are smart. It took me years to figure that out." He also says it is crucial to "get a really outstanding group of investors who share your vision and will stick with it long enough so you can realize it." Taking a cue from comedian David Letterman's humorous top-ten lists, Williams revealed the reasons he decided to start another biotech company despite warnings by friends and colleagues about the many challenges, such as risks to personal income and the stress of uncertainty. Although tongue-in-cheek, his reasons ring true. Williams' top five reasons to start a company are: 5) Doing a lot of menial tasks helps keep me in touch with my inner self. (As a top executive and UCSF faculty member, he had assistants to answer the phones and make copies for him.) 4) Reducing my income by 70 percent helps me keep my priorities straight. (He notes that salaries of those who start a company are relatively low until the company reaches financial stability.) 3) Enjoy the thrill of connecting my laptop to projectors in conference rooms full of potential investors. (Again, initially, start-up founders have to be multi-skilled and multi-taskers.) 2) Dealing with venture capitalists makes me feel warm and fuzzy. (Actually, Williams says that while pitching a scientific idea, "More than half of the people you are talking to don't have any idea what you are talking about.") 1) Invigorating feeling of waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. (The sheer weight of responsibility of personal and employee livelihoods is tremendous, Williams said.) In closing, Williams stressed that it is critical in both business and science to be "brutally honest," especially about research results, and emphasized that making useful drugs is very hard work. "It's really a tough business, but the end result is so gratifying that it is worth it for many of us," he said. Source: Lisa Cisneros

Related Links

UCSF Mission Bay's Quest to Become the Bay Area's Biomedical Research Center, (SF Chronicle) FivePrime Therapeutics Inc. The Center for BioEntrepreneurship