Venter out at Celera as mission changes

Genome sequencer seeks leader skilled in drug research

January 23, 2002|By Julie Bell and Michael Stroh | Julie Bell and Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

J. Craig Venter, the brash scientist who gained international fame when his upstart Celera Genomics Group sequenced the human genome, has left as the company's president as it seeks a leader better equipped for its new mission focused on pharmaceuticals.

A number of analysts greeted Venter's departure as a positive for the Rockville-based company, saying Celera's mission as a discoverer of drugs and diagnostics is far different from when Venter co-founded the company in 1998 and led its sequencing efforts.

Celera's chief executive officer, Tony White, has temporarily taken the title of Celera president while the company seeks a permanent replacement with expertise in drug discovery and development. White, who also heads Celera's parent company, Applera Corp. of Norwalk, Conn., said in an interview that Applera's board of directors made the decision to seek a new president at its meeting Thursday.

The company announced the change before the start of trading yesterday, prompting its shares to dip more than 8 percent before rebounding to close at $22.30 on the New York Stock Exchange, down $1.54, or 6.5 percent.

"Since the formation of Celera, I have remained committed to doing whatever is needed to advance the business as quickly as possible," Venter said in a statement. "We are now at a critical juncture where my best contributions can be made in a scientific advisory role, allowing the rest of the organization to continue Celera's progress toward becoming a successful pharmaceutical business."

Venter's statement said he would devote more time to his role as chairman of the Institute for Genomic Research, a Rockville nonprofit organization that sequences various organisms. TIGR, as it is known, is working on sequencing the genome of anthrax, among others. Its president is Venter's wife, Claire M. Fraser.

Celera said Venter was on vacation and unavailable for further comment.

But some who know Venter wonder whether he may have grown weary of the daily grind of running a company now that the race to sequence the human genome is over. In sequencing, scientists used data-crunching computers to help them spell out, in order, the more than 3 billion bits of DNA found in the nucleus of every human cell. The achievement has been compared, in terms of its scientific significance, to the completion of the periodic table of the elements.

"Perhaps this wasn't his bag. Perhaps he's looking for new worlds to conquer," said Victor A. McKusick, a genetics pioneer at the Johns Hopkins University who sits on Celera's scientific advisory board.

McKusick, who said he saw Venter several times at board meetings and scientific conferences last year, said he thought the Celera chief "seemed a little bit depressed" the last couple of times he encountered him. But McKusick said neither Venter nor anyone else said anything to indicate that Venter might be leaving. The first McKusick learned of the departure, he said, was in an e-mail yesterday morning.

"He's a very able guy, full of ideas," McKusick said. "I'm sure this isn't the last we've heard of Craig Venter."

Venter's leadership of Celera's sequencing efforts prompted a government-funded sequencing project to speed its efforts, as well.

Celera and the Human Genome Project, the publicly funded sequencing effort, announced at a White House news conference in June 2000 that they each had substantially sequenced the genome, the genetic instructions necessary for building and running a human body. Celera's initial plan was to make money largely by selling the resulting information to scientists studying new ways of combating disease. It does so today through subscriptions to its online databases of genomic information, which brought in much of its $27.3 million in revenue during the fiscal first quarter, which ended Sept. 30.

Celera, which is scheduled to announce its second-quarter earnings after the close of trading today, posted an after-tax loss of $15.6 million, or 25 cents a share, in its first quarter.

By last summer, White and the company's directors had embarked on a plan to make Celera more profitable in the long run by using its genomic databases to discover drugs and diagnostics itself. The board formed a new division, Celera Diagnostics, and brought in former Roche Molecular Systems President Kathy Ordonez to head it. Celera also announced in June that it would acquire Axys Pharmaceuticals Inc., a South San Francisco-based company with expertise in identifying and testing drug candidates in the laboratory. And Celera continued to develop its own protein "factory" in Rockville, part of a program to discover and characterize proteins important in fighting disease.

But, despite Celera's focus on discovering drugs and its plan to work with existing pharmaceutical companies to develop them, it did not have anyone in its leadership ranks with experience developing drugs.

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