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Investigating gene regulation
Founders Robert Tijan, David Goeddel and Steve McKnight
It all started on the banks of the Tularik River in western Alaska when fishing buddies David Goeddel, a star scientist at Genentech, suggested to Bob Tijan, a biologist at U.C. Berkeley, that they form a startup together. Tijan responded, “No, I’m not really interested, because how are we going to be better than Genentech?” Tijan eventually accepts the challenge, and with Goeddel, establishes Tuklarik in 1991. The company develops drugs, using gene regulation technology, for cancer, viral diseases, inflammation, immune disorders, diabetes, and obesity.
During the summer of 1996, the company contemplates going public, but decides that the market for biotech stocks is weak. Instead, they do the impossible and raise $60 million from institutional investors. According to one financial analyst at the time, “this is one hot company.” Tularik is headquartered in South San Francisco and quickly acquires an all-star staff of veteran scientists and young Ph.D. talent. Steve McKnight, a researcher at the Carnegie Institute in Baltimore who specializes in cell biology and medicine, completes Tularik’s founding team. Bob Swanson, one of Genentech’s founders, is persuaded to chair the board.
McKnight describes Tularik’s drug discovery strategy as “a simple story”: “We’ve all got the same genes, and diseases almost invariably are traced to the misexpression of genes. And if you knew and understood it well enough to flip it – no gene therapy, none of that stuff, just a pill to do that – you could really make hay.” Tijan’s expertise in transcription factors, proteins that turn genes on and off, is crucial to this strategy.In 2003, without a single drug on the market, Tularik is acquired by biotech giant Amgen. Amgen sees in Tularik excellent science and extraordinary scientists: “We’re interested in Tularik for the broader strength of their research talent, not for any particular molecule in their pipeline.” The deal gives Amgen access to T131, a promising, but experimental, diabetes pill developed by Tularik. Goeddel still leads the company’s research and is confident of future success: “My intention is to see the drugs we put 12 years into become a success."