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Captain of Industry

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I did not want to go into industry. I was supposed to be an academic scientist following in the footsteps of my mentors. In the mid-to-late 1970s, nobody I knew went into industry and there were just a handful of biotech firms. But fate stepped in. E.I. Du Pont de Nemours and Co. had decided, in 1980, to go into the life sciences to diversify the company beyond petrochemicals for its bright future. Du Pont hired the best think tanks to figure out what it should do for its future, and they generated stacks of reports pointing to the life sciences and specifying about 10 areas in which Du Pont should focus. One was neurobiology. The company proposed to spend many millions of dollars to build its life science capabilities.

I had put a brief resume together and sent it to FASEB for their job search service. My background, field of interest, and strong publications list fit the profile of what Du Pont was looking for in building their neuroscience program. They called me and asked to interview me at the upcoming FASEB meeting. I told them I had no interest in industry. Indeed, I had checked the box on the FASEB form that said I was not interested in industry. But, they asked to be heard. To be honest, I knew little about industry or industrial scientists-I just knew that I was destined to be an academic researcher. But I agreed to meet the Du Pont representatives anyway.

What they had to offer was too good to be true. They were inviting me to join their Central Research and Development Department (CR&D), the basic research arm of Du Pont, set up originally in the 1920s with the idea that if you put enough bright scientists together you would generate good ideas that would benefit the company in the long run. CR&D generated nylon and kevlar, among other things. Now it was going to generate good life science ideas. Not only would I be doing basic research, but they had earmarked an average of $275,000 per year per scientist and I would never have to write a grant to get it. The salary, while not as high as I had imagined, was about 20% higher than I was seeing in academic departments for an assistant professorship. I signed on Du Pont's dotted line.

In 6 years at Du Pont, I was never told what to do in my lab. I had academic freedom, I could publish papers on my work (with a few restrictions), I had the opportunity to travel, and I enjoyed the company of a wonderful crew of bright young scientists they/we were pulling together.

Many of my ex-colleagues, still in academia, accused me of "selling out to industry." They actually used that phrase, and often with contempt. You see, they knew as little about industry as I did, but they, too, felt that to be pure, one must stay within the ivory tower. However, after about a 5-minute explanation of the complete freedom, the huge financial support, and the lack of grant writing, many of them asked me if we still had openings. It wasn't until the late 1980s, when the number of biotech firms became significant, that the biological science community begins to understand that there were opportunities in industry.

In my 6 years at Du Pont (1980-1986), I was able to do good research. One of the highlights was that, after only one year there, they allowed me to do a 4-month sabbatical in Cambridge, England, at Leslie Iversen's laboratory, following in my Ph.D. advisor's footsteps and working with some bright young scientists. Other skills were picked up in industry, especially an appreciation and understanding of intellectual property, some personnel management related to the 2 or 3 employees who worked in my lab, some human resource skills such as the interview and hiring process, and an understanding of how to work within-and sometimes around-a large bureaucracy.

After 2 years at Du Pont, I found out that the company would pay for advanced coursework if it related to my job. Du Pont took a broad view of related coursework and preferred it to be related to a degree program, not just isolated courses. This generally meant a law degree or an MBA. I was single at the time and had liked school in the past, so I wanted to fill in some of my evenings doing something. I knew I would not like law school and I had no interest in business. But the MBA program was the lesser of two evils. I enrolled in Widener in 1983 for their evening MBA program.

Since I did not think I would like business school, I decided my first course should be the one I was convinced I would hate the most. The plan was to hate the course so much I would get this coursework idea out of my system and drop out. Good plan. So, I took Managerial Accounting. I did not know a debit from a credit (still don't) and felt it was time to learn this. It turns out that this course was in fact about strategic decision making. It included two of the most useful concepts I learned during the MBA program-sunk costs and opportunity costs. I actually liked business school!

I stayed with the MBA program for the ensuing two-and-one-half years. I was doing good, but not earth-shattering, research at Du Pont while finding I enjoyed learning about strategic planning. Also, Widener had a requirement that would drastically alter my career-they required a Master's thesis of all MBA students. I chose to write about the impact of biotechnology on the pharmaceutical industry.

Being a Ph.D., I wasn't about to write a thesis-length paper without publishing it. I had created two databases, one on U.S. biotechnology companies and one on the actions and alliances that biotechnology companies were forming worldwide, as part of my background work for the thesis. I published two papers on the advent of the U.S. biotechnology industry.

Stuff happened. Good stuff. The editor of Science phoned and asked me to write a lead article on U.S. versus Japanese commercial biotechnology. I was called by some international society (I forget which one) and asked to spend a week in the Banff Springs Hotel and give a keynote lecture at their annual meeting. I received a phone call from the Science Indicators Unit at the National Science Foundation and was asked if they could give me money to do additional studies of the U.S. biotechnology industry for their Science Indicators Report. The head of the Wharton School's Management and Technology program called and asked if I could work with him part-time as a Fellow to continue to build the databases.

As a research scientist I had never been asked to write a lead article for Science, give a keynote speech, get unsolicited NSF funds OR become a Fellow of a top school. I had stumbled onto something. I had found a niche. And it was something I liked. A career was born.

At first, I wanted to use my brand-new MBA in strategic planning to help the Du Pont Company reach new heights-after all, they paid for it. But as it turned out, Du Pont did not have any mechanism for taking people who have gained new skills, even skills the company had paid for, and using them for the company's benefit. I was able to land some internal consulting positions, but was told that they had hired me to be a scientist so it was not going to be easy to switch me to a different career path.

Then the unimaginable happened, which made me realize I had to leave Du Pont. They were forming a new group, a strategic planning group for biotechnology. Not only did I have my brand-new strategic planning MBA, but I was becoming known as an expert in biotechnology (not only from my industry studies, but I was also finishing, with two coauthors, the writing of a textbook on molecular biology techniques). Maybe, I thought, I could even head this new group. Du Pont had other ideas. They chose five people, chemists and engineers from within the company, none of whom had background in either biotechnology or strategic planning. I had to get out.

Adding icing to this cake were two pieces of advice given to me by a Du Pont lifer with whom I was asked to complete a special information project. When I wanted to make the database we were creating highly sophisticated and useful, he said "Never give them more than what they ask for." When I wanted to let other groups at Du Pont know about the availability of this database, he said "Never stick your head above water and you won’t get shot." I knew he was right-for this corporate culture-and it meant that I had to leave the company. Also, I was ready to give up my career as a research scientist for something new and exciting.
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