The Bering Sea was angry that day. The Viking Rover, an Alaskan fishing boat, was pitching and yawing in violent swells. John King, an ivy-league-educated greenhorn from Cape Cod who had spent nearly a year hauling king crabs onto the Rover's deck, wasn't sure if he would make it back to shore alive. Waves heaved the boat onto its side, its stern, its bow. In the process, the vessel lost its rudder and thousands of pounds of crabs in the hold. "That first year [of crabbing] was essentially lost," King recalls.
King made only $8,000 crabbing that first year, 1974. Despite this setback, King, an anthropology major at the University of Pennsylvania, made Alaska his home for the next eight years. It was a fascination with the Alaskan landscape and its indigenous people that initially lured King to the northern state, and fishing that kept him there. The Alaskan fishing industry made him wealthy, but in his second year on the Rover, his path began to change.
In 1976, a young University of Washington PhD student studying molecular thermodynamics named David Harry came aboard the Rover to work its deck and serve as its cook. Harry took every opportunity to tell King about that research, which involved using Protein A from Staphylococcus aureus bacteria to stop immunoglobulin G immune complexes from acting as immunosupressants and causing the host immune system to essentially overlook tumors. "Conversation inevitably got around to the work that I did and the potential for therapies and the market for things like that," Harry, now a pathologist at the University of California, Davis, says. He and King would even talk immunology in the engine room and while clearing crab traps on the pitching deck of the ship.
"Meeting him actually changed the course for me," King remembers. As his interest in biology grew, King's yen for fishing was waning. "I was legitimately getting fascinated with science as business," he says. Though by 1981 he owned two fishing boats, King had gotten married and had decided it was time to return to the lower 48 states.
Frank Jonas, an immunologist friend of Harry's, contacted King. Jonas knew King from the fisherman's frequent trips to Seattle during the off-seasons, and had been successful in treating feline leukemia using Protein A. King recalls, "Frank Jonas called me up and said, 'You know what? Let's start a biotech company'."
In October, 1981 the two young entrepreneurs started Imre, a company founded on a biological blood filtration system called the Prosorba Column. "We struck gold," King remembers. The company was funded by Charlie Allen of Allen and Co. fame, and the Prosorba Column proved effective in treating a variety of autoimmune diseases. Five and a half years later, Imre went public. "I decided I wanted to do it again," King says.
King went on to found three more biotech companies, each more successful than the last. Rosetta Inpharmatics, King's most recent startup, was eventually acquired by pharmaceutical giant Merck. Wayne Wager, a former capital venture investor, invested in King's second company, Biotope. "[Being an Alaskan fisherman is] a pretty impressive, unique background for somebody in biotech. I kind of valued [King's] other experiences," says Wager, now the CEO of diagnostics company Confirma.
"The most important thing I learned [as a crabber] was to be comfortable taking risks," says King. He also sees similarities in the competitive natures of fishing and biotechnology. "With fishing, you really develop this aggressive hunter-gatherer attitude about getting your share. That's an important thing in business."
After four years of making some significant changes to Merck's research arm, ending up as Merck's senior vice president for research planning and integration, King decided to take a break from the business world. While on what he's calling a "sabbatical" on Cape Cod, where he spent last summer sailing the waters off Massachusetts in his personal skiff, he's leaving his options open. "I'm pretty certain that I'll reengage in some way in the not too distant future," he says. "The important thing is that [any future project] is meaningful and contributing to the common welfare."