Thursday, March 22, 2012

Biotech business reading list

On behalf of my employer, today I did an online recruiting seminar for KGI — aimed at prospective master’s students who have an undergraduate science background and were interested in our business programs. On one slide, I list the various industries we serve — biotech, pharma, medical devices, diagnostics — as well as a few areas beyond human health, like biofuels.

One student asked about learning more about life science industries. As an economic historian, I’m big on business histories, so I said I would recommend some books. (A half dozen of the participants asked for my list.)

When the webinar was over, I went to my office bookshelves and looked at what was there. It turns out they’re all about the biotech industry. I also went down the hall to visit our resident expert on biotech industry history, Steve Casper, to see what he had that I don’t. Together I came up with a list of seven books — most of which assume little or no prior knowledge of the industry or its science.

One book stands alone: From Alchemy to IPO. The first book about the business of biotech, it summarizes the key developments in the 20th century biotech industry, including histories of Genentech, Amgen, Genzyme and the Human Genome Project. Yes, it’s now more than a decade old, but nothing provides such a complete picture of the industry for those without any prior understanding.

Another book — Science Business — offers what may be the definitive view of the economics of the biotech industry. Harvard Business School professor Gary Pisano tries to explain why biotech is so hard, and thus why most biotech companies can’t make money. (It’s the most advanced of the books and thus probably not the best choice for someone without a business background).

Two books are about Amgen, the SoCal biotech company with closest ties to KGI (they’ve hired 1/6th of our graduates). The Amgen Story is a coffee table book and authorized history of the company’s first 25 years. Perhaps a more useful source is Science Lessons, the memoir by Gordon Binder of his years (1988-2000) as Amgen CEO.

Surprisingly, only one book has been written (so far)about Genentech, the company that converted the Cohen-Boyer patent into a new industry. The newest book on the list, Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech documents Genentech during the 1970s and 1980s, based on UC Berkeley’s unprecedented archive of interviews with early California biotech pioneers.

Steve had two books that I didn’t. One is The Billion Dollar Molecule, a story of the successful efforts by Vertex to develop therapies for AIDS and hepatitis C. (I guess this is biotech’s version of The Soul of a New Machine, sans Pulitzer).

The one he highly recommended is Invisible Frontiers, an early book that documents the race between Harvard, UCSF and Genentech to clone the gene that would allow synthesis of human insulin.

The only one I’ve read so far is From Alchemy to IPO. I won’t be able to make a dent in the list this semester, but I’m going to take some for my long trips this summer.

  1. Cynthia Robbins-Roth, From Alchemy to IPO: The Business of Biotechnology, Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus, 2000.
  2. Gary P. Pisano, Science Business: The Promise, the Reality, and the Future of Biotech, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006.
  3. David Ewing Duncan, The Amgen Story: 25 Years of Visionary Science and Powerful Medicine, San Diego: Tehabi Books, 2005.
  4. Gordon Binder and Philip Bashe, Science Lessons: What the Business of Biotech Taught Me About Management, Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008.
  5. Sally Smith Hughes, Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech, Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2011.
  6. Barry Werth, The Billion Dollar Molecule: One Company's Quest for the Perfect Drug, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
  7. Stephen S. Hall, Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene, Redmond, Wash.: Microsoft Press, 1988 (originally published in 1987 by Atlantic Monthly Press, and also published in 1996 by Genentech and most recently in 2002 by Oxford).

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