3 Dynamos Behind Syntex's Success

When I started Syntex Pharmaceuticals in Britain nearly a quarter of a century ago, the triumvirate to whom I reported in Mexico were all youngish scientists themselves, and all paper millionaires by their own remarkable efforts.

By | January 11, 1988

When I started Syntex Pharmaceuticals in Britain nearly a quarter of a century ago, the triumvirate to whom I reported in Mexico were all youngish scientists themselves, and all paper millionaires by their own remarkable efforts.

The chairman of the corporation, George Rosenkranz, not only was one of the founders of the modern steroid industry, but he also had seen himself through the Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule in Zurich by playing soccer for the Grasshoppers, acting at the Stadtsbuehne and playing international table tennis. Apart from speaking at least five languages, he was a formidable bridge player, serving on the United States team against redoubtable international experts such as Omar Sharif, who led for the Egyptian team.

Rosenkranz, Number 2 was Alejandro Zaffaroni, who had already invented the Zaffaroni method of paper chromatography of steroids and made a profound contribution to the Syntex discoveries of the time, which included fluocinolone acetonide (known worldwide as Synalar), the oral progestins that made the birth-control pill possible, non-virilizing androgens such as oxymetholone (still used for the treatment of aplastic anemia), paramethasone and many others. Since that golden time, he has gone on to found a new industry through the influence of his ALZA Corporation in Palo Alto, Calif. (the current home of Syntex), and its work in novel drug delivery systems and bioavailabilty.

The third person was Carl Djerassi, perhaps the most diversified of the lot. When I first met him, he was already a professor of chemistry at Stanford University, with a record of being involved in the discovery of pyribenzamine at age 19, the oral contraceptives at 28 and Synalar at 36. Rumor had it that only bad luck had separated him from a Nobel Prize. He went on to assemble a major collection of works by Paul K lee. By 1970 he had already written six books and 720 papers, and on the side begun to manage a 1,400-acre purebred cattle ranch. I remember that when he came to London once, a friend of mine (to whom he made a present of Winnie the Pooh in Latin) took him to the British Museum. There, Djerassi was shocked at the errors in labeling of some of the pre-Columbian artifacts. He called on the curator, introduced himself, and, as an expert, put a few facts right.

Syntex in Mexico--home of the diosgenin extracted locally from the jungle yam that made most steroids possible--was already legendary for its innovations and its ability to attract brilliant scientists from all over the world. What made it so productive, and why cannot every scientific organization hope for similar success?

Lord Mancroft's commanding officer is said to have written in his record at demobilization, "Men will follow Mancroft any where, if only out of curiosity." Something of the same atmosphere reigned in Mexico City. Rosenkranz, Zaffaroni, and Djerassi worked hard and played hard. The air crackled with ideas and projects. If a humble technician had a problem, he could invoke the huge chemical knowledge of any of them and the difficulty would melt.

In an odd way, though, it seemed that the galaxy of their interests outside work had as much impact as their scientific ability. Human beings, including scientists, do not want to be led by mediocrities because it is hard to feel loyalty to individuals who one can sense are in no way superior to oneself. The ordinary Syntex employees did not feel envious when they heard that some of their directors had rented the Renault yacht-displacing a thousand tons or more--for a Mediterranean cruise. They had become accustomed to such flamboyance, and indeed approved of it, perhaps with the same pleasure that the behavior of the English kings gave to most of their courtiers in an earlier time.

Enthusiasm was another key. At times, all three men could become very animated about steroid problems and their conversations would sometimes dissolve into gales of laughter. And, although the matters discussed were often of the highest medical importance, pomposity was absent. The simple naturalness of their relations with other employees reminded me of another outstandingly successful scientific leader, this time in the United Kingdom. Sir Harry Jephcott of Glaxo reportedly knew the names of at least 5,000 of his employees, and this legacy of concern for the little people seems to me to live on in Glaxo today and to continue to make the company outstandingly productive in innovation.

Finally, there's the element no one can afford to overlook, well expressed byby the cliché, "Success breeds success." In my own managerial life, I have sometimes found it desirable to create a synthetic triumph for a new employee, simply because the result. on his morale and productivity are so dramatic. In Syntex's Mexico days, faked achievements were not necessary. All employees from quite a modest level had access to a stock option scheme, and, while companies from all over the world were battling to get licenses for the oral contraceptive pill and the right to throw money at the Syntex Corporation, even a senior laboratory technician might become a dollar millionaire in short order. On the whole, the discoverer of any particular new compound became the patent holder, and some people had quit, large numbers of patents because of the speed at which things were developing.

Of course, the satisfaction of being associated with something that was of immediate and substantial benefit to suffering man kind, such as the new cortisones, anti-inflammatory compounds such as Naproxen and breast cancer products like dromostanolone propionate, was also a profound spur in the laboratories. I can hardly imagine the same charitable excitement prevailing in the laboratories of a manufacturer of candy or dog food, although I am probably wrong.

Highly regarded for his skill in managing scientists and in capitalizing on therapeutic possibilities overlooked by other companies, Moreau was the first managing director in Britain of Syntex Pharmaceuticals (which specialized in human fertility control) from 1965 to 197O, and chairman of Weddel Pharmaceuticals from then until 1979. Between 1972 and 1980 he was also managing director of the Elga Group, suppliers of high quality deionized water. An Oxford University law and modern languages graduate, Moreau began his career as an export manager for John Wyeth and a market controller for Beecham. He has written three novels, pilots his own plane and is flying correspondent of The Director magazine; as well as a felicitously witty broadcaster on management and associated topics.

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