LSF Magazine: Spring 2012
Genex CEO J. Leslie Glick
Oral histories are narrative accounts of events and historical processes as told from the point of view of eyewitnesses and participants. They preserve the experiences, recollections, and testimonies of history-makers.
LSF is assembling a virtual oral history archive. We are recording, transcribing, and publishing interviews with leading figures in the biosciences and the biotech industry. These documents contain stories about the history of biotechnology that have yet to be heard by scholars, journalists, and the general public. This month, we are adding to the collection an interview with biotech pioneer J. Leslie Glick.
Les Glick received undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in biology from Columbia University and performed postdoctoral studies at Princeton. He subsequently became a faculty member at SUNY-Buffalo with a joint appointment at the Roswell Park Memorial Institute. In 1970, after five years as an academic, he was “bitten by the entrepreneurial bug,” and co-founded a cell-culture manufacturing company called Associated Biomedic Systems (ABS). He became Chairman and CEO three years later.
In 1977, Glick came across an ad in Science: “Wanted: CEO for a genetic engineering ﬁrm.” He knew of Genentech and Cetus, and was intrigued. He answered the ad, and learned that there was not yet a company, but that a Princeton, New Jersey entrepreneur named Bob Johnston was eager to start one.
Glick called on David Jackson, a University of Michigan biochemist whom he had met at a scientiﬁc conference in 1975, for an opinion on the prospects for such a business. Jackson was well-positioned to make an assessment. As a postdoc in Paul Berg’s Stanford laboratory in 1972, he had helped create the world’s ﬁrst recombinant DNA molecule. Jackson suggested an unexploited niche: employing genetically-engineered bacteria to improve the manufacture of specialty chemicals, amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, and hormones for industrial uses.
Glick conducted further research on fermentation techniques and identiﬁed opportunities across a variety of ﬁelds – chemical processing, food processing, animal health, waste treatment, and the production of cleaning agents, for example. Glick decided to proceed. Bob Johnston secured funding, Glick established the company in Rockville, Maryland, and Genex went on to become one of the largest and most successful biotech operations of the early 1980s.
Dr. Glick’s oral history tells the full story. To read the transcript in its entirety, visit LSF’s online oral history archive at biotechhistory.org. Below is an excerpt in which Glick discusses his decision to leave academia and go into business at ABS:
This was something I knew absolutely nothing about. I told my father about it. I was doing pretty well as an academic, so he said to me, ‘What do you know about business? How can you go into business?’ I said, ‘I know nothing about business. We’ll do it for six months, we’ll go bankrupt, and I’ll go back to academia.’ He must have scratched his head on that.
It was an experiment. You try things and if they don’t turn out right, you pick yourself up and you do it all over again. At the end of three years, my partners went back to academia, but I was like a duck in water at that point.