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Wheeling and Dealing

Tim Beardsley

From Alchemy to IPO: The Business of Biotechnology. Cynthia Robbins-Roth. xv + 253 pp. Perseus Publishing, 2000. $26.

People who enjoy scanning lists will like Cynthia Robbins-Roth's From Alchemy to IPO: The Business of Biotechnology, which is studded with them. But for everyone else, especially those already convinced that biotechnology will transform our lives, the book is likely to be a frustrating read. Robbins-Roth, founder of BioVenture Consultants and a well-published journalist, makes clear early on that she too believes that a revolution is in the making. (She manages to use "incredible" or "incredibly" five times in one breathless 1,000-word passage.) But in 22 patchy chapters she never quite gets around to explaining why the potential is so impressive.

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Her book is strongest at the outset, where she provides engaging accounts of the inspirations and the wheeling and dealing that led to the creation of the companies in the first wave of biotechnology successes—Genentech, Genzyme and Amgen. As a former Genentech employee, she knows inside stories and where the bodies are buried, and the book may be worth reading for these accounts alone. For readers unfamiliar with the arcane world of venture capital, where windows open and close for mysterious reasons that have nothing to do with science or even with the market prospects of a drug, these chapters will be eye-opening. Take, for example, the fact that, despite the legendary and record-breaking initial public offering of Genentech stock in 1980, most major pharmaceutical manufacturers remained wary of biotech through the 1980s. Investment banker and biotech maven Stelios Papadopoulos has a point when he tells Robbins-Roth that "the denials of big pharma throughout the '80s allowed the biotech evolution [sic] to happen. If big pharma had had half a brain, there never would have been a biotech industry."

After this promising start, however, thin accounts of some current areas of biotechnology follow. Several chapters barely whet one's appetite before coming to an abrupt halt after only three to five pages. Explanations of the basic science of genes, which could helpfully have been woven into the stories of Genentech and Amgen, only now make their appearance. The promise and tribulations of gene therapy are sketched all too briefly; the chill that befell that field after the tragic death of a volunteer patient in September 1999 apparently came too late for the book's press deadline. And surely tissue engineering, an astonishing field if ever there was one, deserved more than two pages of text. Likewise, the impressive therapeutic possibilities of stem cells, although admittedly still a few years from fruition, merit more than a single passing reference.

In light of these missed opportunities, it seems odd that Robbins-Roth chose to devote a bizarre chapter to the prospects for biotechnology in space. And that chapter's introductory explanation of monoclonal antibodies, coming as it does after an earlier discussion of that very topic, only reinforces the impression that the text would have benefited from tighter editing.

The author is clearly more in her element when she talks about the business side of biotechnology than she is when she discusses the science. Her anecdotes about drug development and the roller-coaster world of biotech financing do convey a flavor of the industry, but it is hard to see the value for any reader of all of the out-of-date numbers. (Admittedly, it is impossible to be current in a period when the potential of genomics is becoming widely recognized.) The space given over to tables would have been better devoted to a careful discussion of the important issues of biotech intellectual property protection or the public-relations problems of genetically modified organisms. Also, my confidence in the numbers was undermined when I noted several obvious errors in the tables.

Wanna-be biotech investors unfamiliar with the complexities of the tightly regulated drug industry may well pick up some good questions to ask from this book, which includes worthwhile reflections on investor psychology. One arresting observation, for example, is the strategic importance of being within a short plane ride of a major financial center: Investment bankers apparently do not like to take long flights. But readers of From Alchemy to IPO should not expect technical insights or even a careful attempt to analyze key industry issues.

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