The Science of Success
October 28, 2016
The Craigslist ad he placed 14 years ago as a recent arrival in Palo Alto, California, turned out to be serendipitous, but Brian Slingerland (FIN ’00) doesn’t spend much time pondering how that mouse click changed lives forever.
He’s too busy running the cancer drug maker he co-founded: Stemcentrx, a company that was acquired by biopharmaceutical firm AbbVie Inc. in June in a deal valued up to $10.2 billion — and a business that can trace its beginnings to his Craigslist ad seeking someone to share an apartment
Among those who responded was Scott Dylla, then a cancer researcher at Stanford University.
They ended up not as apartment mates but as friends and eventually, after years of dogged persuasion by Slingerland, business partners, starting Stemcentrx together in South San Francisco to investigate and develop new cancer treatments that target cancer stem cells.
Stemcentrx, which employs nearly 200 scientists and technicians, currently has five cancer drugs in human clinical trials. It won an industry award for “Best New Drug Developer” in 2015 and was lauded this year as one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best places to work.
A long way from investment banking
It’s all a long way from investment banking, where Slingerland launched his professional life, moving to California after graduation for an analyst position at Credit Suisse First Boston. Four years later, he was a vice president at Goldman Sachs. In early 2008, he resigned from Goldman Sachs, where he had risen to managing director, to co-found two companies: tech-focused investment bank Qatalyst Partners, with others who included his former Credit Suisse boss, veteran deal maker Frank Quattrone; and Stemcentrx, with Dylla.
Despite his swift ascent in investment banking, with its “invaluable experience” and “fantastic pay,” he was less than satisfied.
He was eager to “be an entrepreneur rather than just service entrepreneurs,” says Slingerland, who recalls the excitement of running his first start-up as a 10-year old in Syracuse, New York: a lawn-mowing business that “captured strong market share” in his neighborhood.
“I admire people who have built, from the ground up, great companies, cultures, and products, especially ones that change the world for the better.” And he also yearned for work with a “meaningful” mission, beyond “just making money.”
The cancer-related deaths of three relatives, including a beloved aunt, brought new clarity to his focus. “After three of these in succession, I frankly hated cancer. And nobody had any good answers for how we were going to cure it.”
That is, he says, until he met Dylla and learned about the stem-cell approach that seeks to identify and kill “the root cells that initiate cancer and perpetuate it.”
Slingerland hardly understood the science at the time, but he was so inspired by its potential that he spent much of the following six years learning and planning. “This was a new approach to treating cancer that had massive potential to be revolutionary and needed a chance to be tested in cancer patients,” he says.
From the ground up
He and Dylla talked for hours in coffee shops after work. The more he learned, the more confident he grew.
He was no scientist, but he did know how to start a company, raise capital, and be a leader. The scientific proposal that he pitched to his first investors, for example, “was wrapped around a very nice business plan with a budget, a timeline, and goals … and it was very much in line with what I learned here at Pamplin.”
He knew that building a company from scratch would be extraordinarily challenging, but he also sensed that it would be very rewarding to shape its mission, vision, and culture.
As a manager, he felt it was imperative to accomplish two goals from the outset: establish “a clear and meaningful mission and plan to motivate the team, drive priorities, and measure progress” and create “a culture that encourages risk-taking” and achievement — and makes for a fun place to work.
“We tried to create a professional work setting that culturally felt more like college,” he says.
Management professor Christopher Neck (now at Arizona State University) “frequently reminded us in class to ‘find a job you love, and you will never have to work another day in your life,’” Slingerland recalls. “I was seeking to align my abilities with a job that I am passionate about and a cause that is important to the world.”
The company’s sale to AbbVie, among the biggest biotech deals in history, drew media attention for its whopping return to investors, including prominent venture firm Founders Fund (Bloomberg.com noted that the deal surpasses what the firm made from Facebook Inc. and the sales of DeepMind Technologies to Google, Climate Corp. to Monsanto, Yammer to Microsoft, and Oculus VR to Facebook.)
“While this was a fantastic transaction for our employees and investors, our mission is not yet complete,” says Slingerland, who continues to lead Stemcentrx as CEO.
“Stemcentrx will be an important pillar in AbbVie’s oncology franchise, which is expanding significantly,” he says. “We will drive the discovery and development of more oncology drugs and benefit from the 28,000 AbbVie employees and operations in 170 countries, which will help support development of these drugs to help cancer patients globally.”
Research and Collaboration
Of the five drugs Stemcentrx has in human trials, three — for breast, ovarian, and lung cancers — are far enough along to show clear benefits in patients, he says. One of these drugs was developed with the help of a Virginia Tech connection and the Carilion Clinic.
“The aggressive nature of small-cell lung cancer makes it nearly unresectable” or impossible to remove with surgery, Slingerland says. “The patients are typically in late stages of the disease when it is diagnosed, and tumors are inside the lung, making them difficult to extract.”
Which also means that quality tumors for research purposes are hard to come by.
Carilion Clinic doctors Edmundo Rubio and Michael Boyd “carried out a novel protocol for us to receive this rare lung tumor tissue that served as a foundation for our discoveries,” Slingerland says.
Biopsied through a needle, the tiny fragments of tumor tissue were shipped overnight on ice from Roanoke to San Francisco. “These tumor cells were used to establish patient-derived xenograft tumors in mice, which led to our discovery of DLL3 as a cancer drug target,” he says.
Expressing his appreciation for Rubio and Boyd, Slingerland says: “We have a great collaboration with Carilion and look forward to other potential opportunities to collaborate over time.” He is also grateful to Minnis Ridenour, Virginia Tech’s former executive vice president and chief operating officer, for introducing him to the doctors.
Slingerland met Ridenour during his student days and was impressed with his leadership. “We became friends at that time and have stayed in touch over the years.” He has also maintained ties with his former teachers Chris Neck and finance professor Greg Kadlec, who was also a faculty advisor to SEED, the $5 million student-managed stock portfolio for which Slingerland served as chief investment officer.
They both love the outdoors, San Francisco, and Virginia Tech, Kadlec notes. “But the truth of the matter is, I now go to Brian for business advice more than he comes to me.”
Recalling two traits that differentiated Slingerland from other students, Kadlec says: “I could see right from the start that Brian was a natural leader. First, in addition to his intelligence, he has a self-deprecating way about him that makes others feel both at ease and equally important. Second, despite being a student of finance, his motive has never been about making money — it has always been about making things better.”
Kadlec believes these qualities are partly why Slingerland has been so successful.
“If you want people to commit themselves to the level of effort that it takes to build a successful company, they need a higher calling than the financial payoff. They need to feel good about what they are doing — and finding a cure for cancer fits that bill.”
That I May Serve
Tom Tillar, retired vice president for alumni relations and currently special assistant to Pamplin Dean Robert Sumichrast, says Brian Slingerland was an exceptional student leader who continued serving Virginia Tech through the Alumni Association, including two terms on its board of directors.
He recalls visiting Slingerland during his first year in Palo Alto and asking how he was settling in to life on the West Coast.
“He shared with me that on each Wednesday after work, he would visit patients at the Stanford Hospital who were terminally ill,” Tillar says. “To me, that was an example of his extraordinary humanitarian qualities as a servant leader living our university’s motto.”
Heading Into A Strong Future
“An even stronger business school that serves as a catalyst for more entrepreneurial ventures based on discoveries happening on the Virginia Tech campus” — that’s what Brian Slingerland thinks his alma mater could become, and he may be interested in helping to make it a reality.
“I would like to see Virginia Tech become more like Stanford University in creating a culture that encourages and facilitates the formation of new companies from great academic ideas,” he says.
“Stanford has licensed technology to and invested in many of the ventures formed on its campus. These efforts have generated billions of dollars of returns for the university that have enabled strong growth of its endowment, which is now valued at more than $22 billion.
One of the unique aspects of Stanford and Silicon Valley is the efficiency with which engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and financiers willing to take risk come together to share ideas and start ventures that have world-changing impact.
I believe that Virginia Tech has a lot of these discrete components in place and now needs to establish a culture that encourages transformational entrepreneurial activity.”