Barry Werth's Billion Dollar Molecule

Billion Dollar Molecule: One Company's Quest for the Perfect Drug is a book that describes the formation and early days of Vertex, a biopharmaceutical company based in Cambridge, MA. The company currently has revenues of $1.4 billion and 1,800 employees worldwide. Vertex has been making headlines with their recently FDA-approved hepatitis C and cystic fibrosis drugs. 

The book starts at around 1989, when Joshua Boger, a senior director of Chemistry at Merck, wanted to do structure-based drug design. He met up with an investor, recruited some of the brightest chemists from Merck, and started selling his new idea to the world.

The book dives right into the early days of Boger flying around the country seeking funding and attracting superstar academic research chiefs to his team. It's worth noting that around this time the financial markets in the US were under recession (1989-1992). I won't go into many of the details of the book, as Werth's storytelling is exceptionally captivating and don't want to spoil the excitement and drama - I think I finished it in 3 weekdays. It's amazing and an important lesson in entrepreneurship how Boger and his team successfully sold their dream that would change how drugs were discovered. I will reveal that when Vertex managed to secure an important strategic deal, I couldn't help but cheer - all due to the awesome storytelling of Werth.

There are lectures in basic science here and there when needed. Scientists will relate to the many frustrations that Vertex's early scientific staff had to deal with, especially as the biotech industry was still in its early stages back then and many of the reagents that we take for granted were created in-house. There are also quite a bit of strategic aspects of choosing scientists on boards and managing competing interests and egos.

The business lessons in this book are there, but are more implicit than, say, Science Lessons, by Gordon Binder. This makes sense, as the book is essentially a story, or a piece of history. The book does a fabulous job of taking the reader through all aspects of company formation, from courting investors, recruiting science rock stars, managing the board, recruiting and managing employees, etc. I highly recommend picking up this book and reading it casually.

The only letdown from this book was that it ended in 1994 (The book was published in 1995). Vertex was still a young company then, and I would have loved to learn more - a bit like the many movies that end abruptly and leave the viewer wanting more.

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