Striking Gold: Biotech Dendreon's CEO has the 'full package'
Seattle Times business reporter
He gave it up to start a business.
The first company didn't live up to Gold's aspirations of revolutionizing medical records in the Internet boom. But four years later, Gold has taken his audacious attitude into the biotech world — "We're doing God's work," he says — and has done what many thought hopeless. He convinced Wall Street that his company, Seattle-based Dendreon, is not a bunch of dreamers but a crew that can deliver the next wonder drug for prostate cancer.
Gold, now 36, took over as Dendreon chief executive in 2003 from Christopher Henney, a biotech pioneer who co-founded Immunex. At the time, Dendreon's stock was around $5, and the company had a relatively thin $55 million in the bank. It had an experimental treatment that slowed prostate cancer and relieved pain for some patients but had missed its main effectiveness goal.
"When I started, this was a very sleepy company few people knew about," Gold said with a satisfied smile.
A year later, a stroke of good fortune came his way. A follow-up analysis of 75 terminal-prostate-cancer patients in Dendreon's experiment showed that half of them on its drug were alive with minimal side effects after 30 months, compared with 14 percent on a placebo — the largest survival edge ever reported in a terminal-prostate-cancer study.
Gold made the most of it. The telegenic CEO touted the findings that day on CNBC and at a large investor conference in San Francisco. The stock surged to more than $14, and in a frenzy of meetings with 85 banks over four days, Gold and his inner-management circle sold investors about 12 million more Dendreon shares. That raised $150 million for the company, money crucial for drug development.
If Dendreon can corroborate its earlier results in a trial with 275 patients, and the Food and Drug Administration verifies it, Dendreon could bring its prostate-cancer drug, Provenge, to the market in two years.
Gold, so driven he once was called the "Bill Gates of urology" by a leader in the field, carries himself with a confidence some say borders on conceit. He has developed a taste for fine wine, pricey Italian suits and swank restaurants.
When Dendreon's prostate-cancer treatment showed its survival advantage, Gold crowed:
"In 1969, we landed a man on the moon, and it was 'One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' Two years later, President Nixon announced a plan to eliminate cancer. Thirty-three years later, we are now making substantial progress."
But in one-on-one meetings with investors, Gold can tone it down and explain clinical trials and cancer immunology in ways that build credibility.
"There are CEOs who go overboard, and there are others that use lots of modifiers and qualifiers, but Mitch is very straightforward in his ability to explain how this is going to work," said David Miller, president of Biotech Monthly, a Dendreon shareholder.
Gold was born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ill., and grew up among wealthy families of doctors, lawyers and business people. His grandfather founded a successful business manufacturing condoms, and his father continued building it.
Cancer defined Gold's life when he was just 5 years old, when his mother died of breast cancer at age 26. He remembers her seizures, vomiting, hair loss. He remembers her painful death.
When he was 12 or 13, Gold said, he told his dad he wanted to cure the disease.
Gold wasn't serious about school until high school. He went to the University of Wisconsin, where he learned the basics of research by cleaning rat cages for a researcher working on a breast-cancer drug, Tamoxifen.
After getting his medical degree in 1993 from Rush Medical College in Chicago, Gold headed for a six-year residency in urology at the University of Washington Medical Center.
Dr. Paul Lange, chairman of the UW urology department, was so impressed with Gold that he let him leave the urology chief residency early in 1998, forcing others to fill in, so he could be an entrepreneur. Lange thought Gold could make an even bigger difference for patients in the business world.
"He's very sharp and was a very good surgeon," Lange said. "He had interpersonal skills and drive. I knew he was a winner."
Gold's startup, Elixis, never really took off, but he found his calling as a dealmaker, signing partnerships with major health-care companies. He sold the company to Data Critical of Bothell in April 2000 and stayed for a year before walked into Henney's office at Dendreon.
Gold told Henney he was interested in starting on business development but saw himself someday rising to CEO. His first interviews outlined a plan for taking the company to a higher level.
The 'full package'
Henney, 63, said he liked the ambition. He bonded with Gold on business trips and believed Gold had the "full package" — technical smarts, charm, energy, optimism, business instincts, aggressiveness — to run the company.
"It's uncanny sometimes," Henney said. "We're almost invariably on the same page."
Gold made his mark in his first year, extracting a $110 million research collaboration from biotech giant Genentech for the right to co-develop drugs based on a Dendreon discovery. That same month, a Provenge analysis showed signs of its effectiveness.
When Henney decided to step down after seven years of running Dendreon, he recommended to the board of directors that Gold take his place. Questions surfaced about inexperience, but directors say they were swayed by Gold's knowledge of urologists and patients, a valuable asset for the company's future.
Senior managers say Gold has created a more high-pressure atmosphere at the company. Robert Hershberg, the chief medical officer Gold recruited last fall from Corixa, said Gold is hands-on and demanding, and has a confrontational style that makes some uncomfortable. In meetings, Gold asks, "How do you know that?" and presses people to meet deadlines, Hershberg said.
Gold doesn't let emotions cloud his business judgment, Hershberg said. He shut down a San Diego research facility Dendreon acquired, plucked its intellectual property and cut jobs to save cash. But Gold showed humanity by making sure the workers got stock options and outplacement services.
Gold won't concede many weaknesses. He runs 30 minutes every morning and drinks tall glasses of water in his office while he works the phone.
He likes to spend time with his family and tries to be home by 7 p.m. for dinner. He doesn't always make it.
"He's on the cellphone all the time," said his wife, Dawn. "It's amazing how he can multitask. I don't know how he does it. But there are times when he's here (home) but not really here."
Dawn said the boys adore him, and Gold loves goofing around with them, taking them skiing, and coaching their sports teams. He's still competitive on weekends — he plays golf to win — but he can loosen up. He once razzed his friend Hershberg, after he missed a short putt, that "maybe I didn't hire the right guy."
Gold says he's motivated to help cancer patients partly because of his mother's death. But those who know him say he also works hard for himself, to be known — like his mentor, Henney — as someone who built a biotech powerhouse and made shareholders rich.
He has much to prove: Provenge needs to win FDA approval. It needs a partnership with a big drug company. And it needs to sell. But Gold relishes the challenge of building a world-class biotech company.
"Mitch understands his mortality better than most people at 36, and he's going all-out now because he doesn't know what's ahead," Hershberg said. "Some people feel they just need to get by, to survive. Mitch feels the need to make the most of what he's got."
Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company