Dr. Chiang Li is not the kind of guy you'd expect to beliving on a minimum-wage salary. A graduate of the Harvard-MIT Division ofHealth Science and Technology and Harvard Medical School, he completed hisresidency and fellowship at Brigham & Women's Hospital/Dana-Farber CancerInstitute and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center before moving on to found orco-found Cyclis Pharma and Cequent Pharma, both of which were later acquired,and ArQule Oncology. Li has more than 60 inventions to his name and hastranslated a number of his medical innovations to patients for the treatment ofcancer and other life-threatening disorders.
Would you like fries with all of that?
Li is not some down-on-his-luck life-science casualty of apoor economy, though. Quite to the contrary, he is the founder, chairman, CEOand chief medical officer of Boston Biomedical Inc. (BBI), a privatebiotechnology company with a clinical-stage product pipeline targeting cancerstem cells based in Norwood, Mass. So why is he subsisting on a minimum-wagesalary?
In 2006, when Li learned that he and about 30 otheremployees of ArQule Inc. were on the chopping block due to a companyrestructuring, Li decided to take a major leap of faith. He approached ArQule'sexecutives with a novel idea: He would form a new company that would, via aneight-month, $5 million contract with ArQule, perform the early research workthat ArQule no longer wanted to handle. Li would use that $5 million to startBBI and give jobs to the nearly three-dozen employees facing layoffs—savingArQule significant costs, negative media reports and shareholder disappointmentin the process.
"It truly was a win-win situation," Li tells me. "Still, theidea made sense, but no one had ever done this before," he concedes. "We werenot going to be a spinoff, so there was some concern about who was going tolead the new company. I volunteered myself to lead this initiative."
BBI successfully completed its outsourcing contract withArQule, but there were other challenges waiting in the wings. By late 2008, theeconomic recession hit with full force. BBI temporarily downsized itsemployees, but then hired them all back—and to ensure that no one lost a job,Li cut his own salary down to minimum wage.
"It was a tough time to be an entrepreneur," admits Li, wholived on this meager salary for five years, until last month when theunexpected happened: Top Japanese pharma Dainippon Sumitomo Pharma Co. Ltd.(DSP), with whom BBI had an exclusive product option license agreement for thedevelopment of a cancer stemness inhibitor program in Japan, swooped in toacquire BBI for a cool $2.6 billion (see "Pharma pink-slippers find pot of gold,"on our cover this month).
"To be honest, we were not looking to be acquired—we werejust mainly focusing on product innovation," Li says. "But after partneringwith us on BBI608, the team liked what they saw, not just from the program'sdata, but also with how BBI operates. Our teams collaborate so well together,so an M&A felt very natural. We came to the conclusion that teaming up withDSP was a good idea because of its resources, expertise in other areas andtrack record would help us accelerate this program."
All BBI employees get to keep their jobs when theacquisition closes, and with $2.6 billion in the can, Li can probably givehimself a much-deserved raise—but he laughs, "truthfully, right now I am toobusy to think about getting my salary back."
Knowing what he knows now, would Li have done anythingdifferently?
"If I had to do this all over again, I might be more scared.If I knew that one year later, the recession would hit, I probably wouldn't doit," he admits. "But sometimes, the best solution is to take a risk. Sometimes,the risk is not taking a risk. From an executive's standpoint, I am excitedbecause we have created a world-leading portfolio that provides a new directionfor cancer stem cell treatment. From a business manager's standpoint, I'm gladthings worked out so that no one was out of a job. The moral to our story isthat this provides an example of what can be done."
And a biotech story with a happy ending is something we canall enjoy.