Life after Immunex
Seattle Times business reporter;
Successful career woman at a hot biotech company reaches a turning point around age 50. Megabucks merger throws her out of work. She's not rich but has enough to retire. Soul-searching ensues. She decides to travel the world and volunteer or consult so that her skills don't go to waste. In the end, she finds fulfillment.
OK, it might be hard to cast Meryl Streep for the part.
Two years after Amgen bought Seattle-based Immunex for $10 billion to acquire the hit rheumatoid-arthritis drug Enbrel, the 1,600 people that made Immunex the region's top biotech company have scattered across the region, following multiple personal interests. Some stayed at Amgen. Some retired young. Some moved to other local companies or gravitated to volunteering, as did Vazquez, president of Seattle's Intiman Theatre.
Nobody has tallied the social and economic difference these people will make in their new lives. But ex-Immunexers with money, goals and newfound time on their hands are propping up pockets of Northwest civic life and biotech. It's not much different from the impact made by former Microsofties, but with fewer people and less money.
"There was a lot of brainpower in that company, and now it's focused outward on the community," Vazquez said. "I don't know how you measure that. But we had a wonderful way of working together, and if we can take some of that into the community, it can make a difference."
The civic impact wasn't part of what people predicted would happen in 2002. At that time, some said the corporate carve-up would catalyze biotech in Seattle by forcing skilled people to migrate to other companies that needed them to grow.
ZymoGenetics Chief Executive Bruce Carter said a similar shakeup in the 1980s led to the "birth of biotech in Britain." Venture capitalists predicted startups would arise.
Two years later, that picture looks overly rosy. Amgen, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., did finish the Helix campus Immunex started building along Elliott Bay and now employs 890 in Washington.
Berlex Laboratories, which bought the lesser-known cancer drug Leukine, employs 150 former Immunexers.
But so far, just two Seattle startups have raised money with former Immunexers in lead roles — Trubion Pharmaceuticals and VLST.
There are several theories why: Wall Street reined in biotech investing in 2002 and early 2003, meaning few companies had money to grow or get started. The pace at Immunex was intense, so many needed a breather.
Some thought they accomplished a career goal: creating a drug to help patients. Others wanted to spend more time with family or on interests shoved aside for years.
Among the crew of local biotechs pursuing the next breakthrough, Carter's company, ZymoGenetics, landed the most Immunexers with 17. Dendreon scored 11. Seattle Genetics made the most visible catch, enticing Immunex chief scientist Doug Williams to take the same role at its company.
But Williams' decision to get back into biotech makes him unusual. Of the 32 top managers listed in Immunex's final annual report, 11 are retired from full-time work, seven remain at Amgen and seven have migrated to other biotech companies. The rest have left the region or are consulting.
Mike Humphries, executive vice president of Waldron & Co., an outplacement firm, said he saw people throughout management follow similar paths when his company advised them after the merger.
Of the four besides Williams who composed Immunex's inner executive circle — CEO Ed Fritzky, Chief Operating Officer Peggy Phillips, General Counsel Barry Pea and Chief Financial Officer Dave Mann — none has taken a full-time job with another biotech company.
Several have kept busy schedules, Fritzky in particular. He serves on the boards of Amgen, SonoSite, Geron, Jacobs Engineering Group and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He has raised money for the University of Washington Business School's new building and sponsored a professorship in leadership there.
He has sold more than $90 million of his Amgen stock in the past two years and still has more than 1 million shares and options left, according to documents from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Fritzky doesn't rule out becoming a CEO again. But he said he's happy serving on a variety of boards, advising entrepreneurs.
Phillips has frequently turned down the headhunters. She still lives in Seattle, and has joined two boards — the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation and Western Wireless. She volunteers for science-education improvement and is writing a novel.
Pea and Mann are not working full time, but both are volunteering and say they could be back.
Alan Frazier, managing partner of Frazier Healthcare Ventures, said he has tried to recruit Phillips to run another company with no luck. "It's a tragedy that someone with her skills didn't go to work somewhere else," he said.
Some wanted to continue in biotech, but not everyone could.
Stewart Lyman, a former director of research collaborations, said he did some consulting after the merger, but despite his experience and connections, he said he has not found a senior scientific job locally.
Several colleagues have also had a hard time, because most biotechs, following the national trend, are tilting away from discovery research and toward clinical trials and later-stage drug development. Many feel underemployed, Lyman said.
One former science colleague, Mike Widmer, agreed that inventive biologists are not as hot as they once were.
"A lot of us have concluded there will never be another place like Immunex. It was a magical place," he said.
Not in a cubicle
Vazquez, a former senior director for Enbrel marketing, said she considered staying in biotech, but her interests led her to volunteer work. Besides her work at Intiman, she has joined a philanthropic group of Immunexers, the Seattle Biotech Legacy Foundation. She also advises a fledgling Seattle think tank, the Women's Bioethics Project.
Vazquez said she doesn't miss the 60-hour work weeks. She bought property in the Methow Valley. She's catching up with friends. She misses the company's intellectual stimulation but said she's content with a life of volunteering.
"You're forgotten in this industry pretty quick if you're out two to three years," she said.
Linda Park, a former scientist who leads the biotech foundation, marvels at the variety of her former colleagues' choices. One went back to school for an MBA. Others have considered teaching high-school science. One is volunteering for environmental causes.
Park's goal is to foster public understanding of science, by bringing a scientific mind-set to community boards. Others have told her they want to accomplish similar things.
"These are folks who are healthy and energetic, who will live a long life and want to do a lot of stuff," Park said. "But it won't be in an 8-to-5 job at one place. Retirement suggests playing golf and eating bonbons. That's not what these people are doing. We have our own rhythm."
Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or email@example.com
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