Vical Incorporated, a biotech firm based in San Diego, is one of many companies chasing, among other things, these two elusive medical goals. But blending a public company’s quarter-to-quarter survival with the all-consuming pursuit of scientific discovery is no small task, and life for biotech firms is getting more complex as the industry matures.
The task of keeping Vical on track falls to CEO Vijay Samant, who left a 20-plus year career at pharmaceutical giant Merck before joining 15-year-old Vical in November of 2000. He is charged with ensuring that Vical — which had revenues of a mere $11 million dollars in 2001, versus $47 billion for a company like Merck — will survive. The company is still immersed in the arduous period of trials and scientific development required for any biotech company to grow from compelling technology to the huge revenue generation that characterizes major pharmaceutical firms.
What’s obvious from an hour spent with Samant is that although biotech is often compared to high-tech as a fast-growing industry, building and managing a biotech firm couldn’t be more different from building and managing a high-tech business.
“In the high-tech arena, as long as you knew the concept and you had the vision and you were on the cutting edge, you could deliver and you could float a company because it was the idea that you were selling,” says Samant. “The biotechnology field that I’m in is a different field. It requires a lot of historical knowledge, and the knowledge is expanding very rapidly.”
Samant is a chemical engineer by training and graduate of University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT) at the University of Mumbai. He is fiercely proud of his school, and also proud that he stayed with his field and didn’t migrate like so many to the high-tech industry.
He counsels graduating students: “Stick to your field of education. Don’t be a mechanical engineer or a chemical engineer then go off and become a software programmer in Silicon Valley!”
Though many high-tech companies are based on complex technologies, the idea of a technology that takes a decade or more to develop and commercialize — as is often the case in the biotech industry — puts Biotech in a league of its own. How can you convince investors for a decade that your products and technologies will one day become a commercial reality? That, in essence, is what Vical has done.