One night in 1978 in the middle of the energy crisis, Garo Armen was driving home from his job as a research associate in photosynthesis at Brookhaven National Laboratories in Long Island, NY, when he stopped at a gas station. "I noticed that gas pumps only had two digits [for the per gallon price]," recalls Armen, now CEO of New York City-based Antigenics. "Realizing that continued rising prices would force the pumps to be replaced in the near future, I borrowed $5,000 to invest in gas pumps." Soon enough, virtually every gas pump in America was replaced – and Armen had made $20,000. His interest in business was piqued, and had already paid off.

Armen earned a PhD in chemistry in 1979, but with an interest in financial markets kindled, he moved to Wall Street in 1981 where he worked for financial services firm E.F. Hutton as a chemical and...

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