Money men turn into 'medicine men' Venture capitalists invest heavily in boosting Md. biotech industry

July 26, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

The money men of HealthCare Investment Corp. work the Amtrak line, whizzing back and forth between Maryland's biotechnology corner in the Washington suburbs and Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston.

Along the way these venture capitalists have staked hundreds of millions of dollars on the dreams of science and founded companies with breathtaking speed: Genetic Therapy Inc. in 1986, Molecular Oncology Inc. in 1988, MedImmune Inc. in 1988, and Pharmavene Inc. in 1990.

That's just in Maryland. There are 20 others scattered along the path of the Metroliner, and by the end of this year they promise to start three more biotech companies in Maryland, including one in Baltimore, with another three due by 1995.

If their early success is any predictor of the future, some say, this private, low-profile, venture company -- among the top 30 in the nation -- will help lay the foundation of Maryland's biotech industry. All this and a 40 percent return to their investors, they claim.

So who are these guys? And why do they like Maryland so much?

First of all, says Charles Newhall of Baltimore-based New Enterprise Associates, don't think of these men as venture capitalists. They are really medicine men dressed up to look like money men.

Four of the six officers of the HealthCare venture funds are former pharmaceutical company executives with close ties to the scientific community. Take James H. Cavanaugh, a 55-year-old medical doctor who heads HCIC's investment in Maryland. He was president of SmithKline & French Laboratories-U.S., president of Allergan International, and deputy chief of the White House staff under President Ford.

Then there is Wallace H. Steinberg, the 58-year-old who started HealthCare Investment Corp. after spending 21 years at Johnson & Johnson, including a stint as director of research and development for a major business unit.

Mr. Steinberg and another Johnson & Johnson executive, Harold R. Werner, founded HCIC in 1986 in Edison, N.J., a three-block walk from the Metro Park, N.J., Amtrak station. The idea was to build venture capital funds targeting the health care business. With $1 billion in assets and four funds, HCIC is the largest venture company exclusively devoted to health care in the nation, its founders say.

If some of their career paths are unusual, so is their investment strategy.

"We don't wait for some scientist or private businessman to come to us with an idea to finance," Mr. Steinberg said. Instead, the group focuses on the most promising areas of research. Then they found the company around the idea, search out a good chief executive and mine the nation's finest medical and research institutions for good scientists.

Their lineup of scientific alliances might not be as instantly recognizable as the Orioles' pitching staff, but they include such heavy hitters as W. French Anderson, a National Institutes of Health scientist who conducted the world's first trials in gene therapy using Genetic Therapy Inc.'s technology; Bert Vogelstein, a Johns Hopkins scientist who has discovered the genetic base for colon cancer and is working on a test to detect the disease with Pharmagenics Inc.; and Dr. Craig Venter, an NIH scientist who is working on identifying gene sequences and will receive funds from Human Genome Sciences Inc., a new HCIC company.

"They tend to play in the sandbox most venture capitalists don't play in," said Alan G. Walton, at Oxford Bioscience Partners, a venture-capital firm in Stamford, Conn., which has invested in Genetic Therapy.

Traditionally, venture capitalists have tried to minimize the high-risk game by investing in a broad range of companies and forming syndicates with three or five other venture capitalists in order to start a company. But HCIC has focused entirely on health-care businesses and usually goes it alone, providing all the money for a start-up company and continuing to hold a majority interest until the company has a secondary public offering.

"They are willing to take high risk for higher rewards," said the chief executive of one of their companies.

Their approach appears to have paid off. Of HCIC's $350 million in capital, they have invested about $50 million in Maryland companies. MedImmune, a company that is focused on developing vaccines to fight diseases such as Lyme disease, acquired immune deficiency syndrome and cancer, already completed a second offering that brought in $87 million to the ground-floor investors and $22 million to the company.

In addition, MedImmune has started selling Cytogam, a drug to treat a disease in kidney patients and had product sales of $5.6 million last year.

Genetic Therapy was founded on the idea that one out of every two drugs in the future will function by turning genes either on or off. But there was no product in sight -- nothing except raw science, the passion of NIH researcher Dr. Anderson, who is an adviser to the company, and the management experience of chief executive Dr. James Barrett.

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