Gordon Binder's Science Lessons

A book by the past CEO of Amgen? Awesome! Buying this book and reading it was somewhat of a no-brainer for me, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in a career in the biotech industry.

Similar to other great books such as Invisible Frontiers (Genentech) and Billion Dollar Molecule (Vertex), this book offers an intimate view of these early biotech companies with drama and business lessons scattered throughout.

However, Science Lessons really stands out. It's written by CEO Gordon Binder himself so it is direct insight. Second, it focuses on the management and leadership lessons Binder learned supported by the narrative - rather than the other way around as in the other two books.

While learning the history of these firms has been not only valuable, but fun to read, Binder's insight provides the thinking and decision making process in some of Amgen's key strategic moves that made it so successful.


The beginning of the book focuses more or less on the history of Amgen in the context of the nascent biotech industry. There's great general information on the unique aspects of the industry (regulators, $$$ needed for drug development, etc) and the different stages of development (clinical trials, NDA, IND, etc). Review for those in the industry, but a great primer for scientists and non-biotech people who may not have a solid grasps on all the terms.

Sneak Peak at the Lessons 

1) According to Binder, people were key to Amgen's success. In listening to podcasts (Stanford's E-Corner is a great one - thanks Su Jun!) from successful VCs and entrepreneurs, they all cite assembling a balanced and effective team as key to success. In biotech, managing the scientific team and striking a balance between advancing the science and business is important. Binder spends many pages giving examples on how Amgen dealt with this, and explains how Amgen found success by being mostly science-driven.

2) Ethics is number one and is more important than profits. Binder cites pragmatic examples on this subject and shows that being ethical and fair builds strong relationships and respect between entities and is mutually beneficial. For example, these relationships can affect the outcome of intellectual property litigation, which is commonplace in the industry.

3) Talent trumps experience. This was semi-surprising to me, but was a refreshing opinion: "It took me years to learn that experience alone isn't a reliable barometer of someone's expertise; it could mean only that he has taken a lifetime to perfect mediocrity (p185)." An important lesson is that employers much hire for tomorrow, and past experience quickly becomes irrelevant, especially given how fast high-tech industries evolve.

4) Grassroots approach to management. This means that getting everyone involved in making key decisions, so that they own the decision and will stick with it or spend more energy to seek solutions in case something goes wrong. An example I remember off the top of my head was that an Amgen policy was to have people interview potential supevisors.

5) Managing impulse to micromanaging. Glad to hear that someone as successful as Binder views this as a major challenge to overcome. Reading this book offered a fresh perspective on management in biotech, confirming some of my own lessons, but more importantly, helped me project 10-15 years in the future to start thinking about issues I have yet to face.

Highly recommend picking up a copy. Find this book on Amazon.

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