In 1988, biochemist Israel Charo got swept into the vortex of the biotech world when he took a promising target for blocking platelet aggregation and helped launch the company Cor Therapeutics. In short order, he was overseeing Phase I trials of Integrilin, an intravenous therapy for patients with acute coronary syndrome. The drug, a GPIIb-IIIa antagonist, went against the odds for biotech success and made it to market in 1998. In 2002, Millennium Pharmaceuticals acquired Cor Therapeutics. Last year, sales of Integrilin hit $315 million, according to Schering-Plough, which now markets the drug in the United States.
In 1991, the year that Cor went public, Charo, a former investigator in the platelet and thrombosis group of The J. David Gladstone Institutes at the University of California, San Francisco, had a change of heart. "I was not prepared to end my career as a basic scientist," he says. "And because Cor was a small company, [it] could not afford to have a big effort in basic science." So he approached Robert Mahley, Gladstone's president, with the idea of returning to the institute to start new investigations into the origins of atherosclerosis. "He was very enthusiastic," Charo recalls. Shortly after, he was back. He returned to his former assistant professorship to start a new research program focusing on cytokines, and at a salary that was a bit higher than what he made before leaving. (Charo declined to talk about how he fared financially at Cor Therapeutics.)
The whole experience helped him reaffirm his first love: basic science. "I personally find it more exciting to be working in areas which are, maybe, one or two steps removed from a clinical application," he says.
But Charo is likely the exception. Leaving the academic life to risk it all in biotech and then return to academia is not a feat that faculty scientists perform very often, or with great ease. Academic scientists are notoriously independent; industrial scientists often work in teams. Academia nurtures basic science; industry values discoveries that can be brought to market. "The two environments are very different, and the motivation for being in one environment versus the other is also very different," notes Maureen Kerber, president of the Kerber Group, a Kirkland, Wash.-based recruiter for the biotech industry.
During the biotech boom of the 1990s, startups were awash in cash and willing to take a chance on academic talent; academics able to adapt to industry's demands were able to carve out well-paying careers. But, "it was generally perceived that going to industry was a one-way ticket," observes Molly B. Schmid, a professor at the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, Calif., which trains scientists to enter the biotech industry. Still, some of them did come back to successful academic careers, she adds. Although it's difficult to quantify the movement of scientists from academia to industry and back, observers say it is relatively rare.