New CEO at Osiris toiling as clock ticks

Achievements: They abound in William H. Pursley's resume, and now he hopes to compile another by reviving Osiris Therapeutics Inc.

September 26, 2002|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

William H. Pursley, William H. Pursley has enjoyed considerable success as a biotech executive. Now he faces a raft of challenges as the new chief executive officer of Osiris Therapeutics Inc.

The Baltimore-based company, which develops treatments designed to renew injured connective tissue such as muscle and bone, has its third CEO this year and fourth since 1994, when Maryland officials used a $3.1 million state-backed loan and a $500,000 equity investment to lure it from Cleveland.

Morale has suffered as management turnover has eclipsed Osiris' scientific achievements, including discoveries that could one day promote the regeneration of cardiac muscle damaged by heart attacks.

What's more, the company's co-founder and its lead investor are embroiled in a court battle. Osiris has yet to put a product on the market, and it is seeking new sources of cash as the stock market hunkers down. Pursley has asked for forbearance from lead investor Peter Friedli, but the venture capitalist isn't known for infinite patience.

A breakthrough is needed, and the clock is ticking.

Pursley is wasting no time. By the end of his first sleep-deprived week at the job, he had met with key employees, outlined a clinical development plan for Osiris' experimental products, hired a chief medical officer and promoted one of the company's key scientists to head its research efforts. He also had adopted a quiet resolve.

"There are some long-term and special scientists here," he said in an interview in his Fells Point office, where moving boxes lined a shelf. "They deserve to get managed across the goal line."

Whether Pursley, 49, can lead Osiris to getting a product on the market remains to be seen. But he has demonstrated repeatedly that he can identify a good product and sell it, a trait that should come in handy as Osiris attempts to sell investors on the company's promise.

The company's 70 employees aren't the only ones with an economic interest in its success. State officials long have considered Osiris one key to establishing a meaningful hub of biotechnology companies in Baltimore.

While Pursley acknowledges the pressure, he also feels a sense of deja vu.

"This reminded me of what Genentech looked like in the early days," he said of Osiris.

Pursley was one of the first 20 salespeople at Genentech Inc., a South San Francisco biotech pioneer. It was his job to overcome doctors' early skepticism about Genentech's genetically engineered drug.

He did, outselling nearly all of his colleagues.

Success at Genzyme

He went on to organize and lead the first biopharmaceutical marketing team at Genzyme Corp., helping position the Cambridge, Mass., company to become one of the nation's largest biotech companies.

As head of commercial operations at tiny, Cambridge-based Transkaryotic Therapies Inc., he forsook the usual marketing partnership with a big pharmaceutical company when it came time to sell the company's first drug - a niche-market remedy for the rare disorder Fabry disease - in Europe. Instead, he championed setting up a majority-owned marketing business, ensuring that Transkaryotic could keep more profits.

"He's fearless," said Matthew W. Emmens, who hired Pursley for his first sales job at Merck, Sharp & Dohme in 1979 and is now a division president at Merck KGaA, a German company. "Whenever there was a new process, a new sales technique, Bill raised his hand and said, `I want to try it.'"

Former teacher

Pursley, the third son of a Louisville, Ky., life insurance salesman and a homemaker who worked a variety of jobs, began his career as a high school science teacher.

He lacked a firm career plan, but he was smart and had a knack for recognizing opportunities. He would work at them with the same discipline he demonstrated in his youth as a member of the Plantation Swim Club, where he spent hours each day practicing his sport before and after school.

"There's no doubt it had a tremendous impact on self-discipline," said Pursley, who swam on teams for 16 years.

While a brother, Dennis, went on to direct the U.S. national swim team, Bill Pursley settled on teaching high school science after getting a biology degree from the University of Louisville.

When he lost that job in a busing-inspired reorganization of Louisville's schools, Pursley had no money, $300 in credit card debt and the science background that Merck was looking for in sales representatives.

Confident, effective

He exuded a confidence that bordered on cockiness in his job interview, then sold enough muscle relaxers and other drugs to earn Merck's highest performance rating every year before moving into sales management. Emmens wasn't surprised when Pursley made the "smart move" to join Genentech on the cutting edge.

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