What are some good books on the founding of biotechs and pharmas?

The most well-known, and one that I can recommend, is “The Billion-Dollar Molecule” by Barry Werth. It describes the founding and early days of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and their efforts to use rational drug design technologies to create a new immunosuppressant drug for transplant patients.

Werth does a great job not only of explaining the science, but capturing the competition and conflict that arises when you put a bunch of very smart people on the same project. Most scientists are used to being the smartest guy in the room, but at the same time tend to be very insecure about their place in the intellectual hierarchy. This dynamic, common at biotech startups, can lead to some pretty unpleasant behavior.

When you consider how central science is to society, it is remarkable how little research is done on the psychology of science and scientists. Gregory Feist is probably the leading exponent of this work. The summary of his meta-analysis of the field:

Scientists are distinguished from non-scientists by being more dominant, arrogant, hostile, self-confident, autonomous and introverted; by the cognitive traits of being open and flexible and by the motivational traits of being driven and ambitious. [1]

That sounds about right.

I should note that I read The Billion-Dollar Molecule on the recommendation of my boss at NeXstar (and later, SomaLogic), Larry Gold. He may have even given out copies. Larry intended this depiction of a ruthlessly competitive working environment to be an example and an inspiration, not a cautionary tale. I never bought into this concept, and tried my best to create a culture of collaboration and trust when I was at MicroPhage.

But you know what? Vertex is a huge success. NeXstar was sold to Gilead for $550M. SomaLogic is still thriving. MicroPhage, despite getting its lead product approved and to market, is bankrupt and dead.

I still think that fostering a culture of trust among scientists leads to greater productivity. But there isn’t any evidence from my own experience that this is true.


[1] A meta-analysis of personality in scientific and artistic creativity.

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