The biotech world long has had a feast-or-famine pattern based around the development of breakthrough drugs and investors, despite their desire for steady profits, love chasing potential blockbusters too. But while Mullen wants Tysabri to be the next biotech blockbuster, he has taken incremental steps to strengthen Biogen Idec, adding structure to its research process and developing strategic partnerships to diversify the company’s revenue streams. Mullen believes much of this starts by using a level-headed approach in the unpredictable biotech arena.
An Unlikely Career Path
Mullen’s analytic mind helps to prevent Wall Street’s mood swings from rubbing off on him. “The share price does whatever it is going to do next,” he says. “In every one of these companies, it goes up, it goes back down, and then everybody goes from euphoria to deep depression, and neither one of those things is true. You just have to ride through those waves.”
There’s little evidence in Mullen’s undergraduate years at Rensselaer that he would end up at the helm of a major biotechnology company. “There was little emphasis at all on biology at that point in time, and I did not take any biology courses at Rensselaer,” says Mullen, who received his degree in chemical engineering. “I was probably like the typical student after four years, trying to figure out what to do next.” Although Mullen declines to name any particular class at Rensselaer that had a strong impact on him, he does remember wryly, “I loved organic chemistry at 7 a.m.”
As a member of Rensselaer’s Board of Trustees for the last four years, Mullen is bullish about the Institute’s growing emphasis on biology. “What we see is the realization that the life sciences are really going to be the next 100 years of innovation,” he says. In September, he took part in a colloquy held for the opening of the new Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. “That highlight on the campus is undoubtedly going to shift the thinking of the students. A lot more of the students will be thinking about the life sciences.”
Mullen started thinking along those lines for his own career after weighing job offers and taking a position with the drugmaker now named GlaxoSmithKline in 1980. “I had a choice of different industries and I ended up in the pharmaceutical industry,” he explains. “Relative to the other choices, I decided that seemed a more interesting place to make a career.” Mullen earned his MBA at Villanova in 1984, then joined Biogen in 1989, as director of facilities and engineering.
At the time, the company was a decade old but not the full-fledged pharmaceutical company it is today, with extensive manufacturing and distributing capabilities. A group of biologists created Biogen in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1978, and the firm boasts a strong scientific pedigree: Two founders, Walter Gilbert of Harvard and Phillip Sharp of MIT, have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry and medicine, respectively. In 1983 the company, which had moved to Cambridge, went public. In the 1980s, however, Biogen made its money largely through licensing deals for the treatments it developed including a deal with Schering-Plough for a leukemia treatment, and one with SmithKlineBeecham for a hepatitis drug.
When Mullen joined the firm, Biogen needed managers with a hard-nosed operations perspective, who could help transform it from a research shop into something larger. Mullen supervised the construction of production facilities in Cambridge and at the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Recognizing the global nature of the emerging market, he also built up Biogen’s sales operation in Europe.
“Building plants was the easy part. Creating a real manufacturing organization was more difficult and the real accomplishment,” says Mullen.
These kinds of capital-intensive projects sometimes can be a stumbling block for growing biotech companies. Unlike standard pharmaceutical firms, which assemble medicines from a list of ingredients, biotech firms make drugs by transforming cells through recombinant DNA technology. Avonex, for example, is grown from cells taken from Chinese hamster ovaries. Biogen Idec’s facilities, like others in biotech, contain dozens of huge stainless-steel tanks in which the cells grow in a delicate process. To ensure the integrity of their medicine, biotech firms must maintain immaculate facilities and keep complete records on virtually every piece of equipment inside them.
With this infrastructure in place, Biogen was ready to seize the advantage at the right moment: In 1996, the Food and Drug Administration approved Avonex, whose sales quickly spiked. Multiple sclerosis occurs when the body’s immune system misfires and attacks the body itself and specifically attacks myelin, a fatty protein covering the axons, extensions of the nerve cells. Avonex slows down this myelin erosion and has been so successful it holds a market share or more than 40 percent in the United States, and greater than 30 percent worldwide, with annual sales of more than $1 billion.
By 1996, Mullen was a Biogen vice president, responsible for the company’s international operations. In 2000, he was named CEO. But along with the title and prestige, Mullen faced a unique problem in the history of Biogen, albeit one familiar to other large biotech executives: How do you follow up your company’s smash hit?
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