Biotech leader outlines career opportunities

By Katie Cicchetto

If a career in medicine is what you’re after, the field offers more than just being a doctor, the father of San Diego’s biotechnology industry said last week.

Speaking to about 200 La Jolla High School Science students, Ivor Royston share his insights on alternatives to being a practicing physician, ranging from starting a company to being a venture capitalist. Following the presentation, he met with a small group of students to answer more questions.

“It was in high school where I first got interested in medicine and found out I wanted to be a doctor,” he explained. After growing up in Washington, D.C., Royston attended undergraduate and medical school at John Hopkins University and then came west to Stanford University. “It was at Stanford in 1975 where I was first introduced to the biotech industry,” Royston said.

Setting a goal

“I was very interested in cancer, and thought I could find a cure for the disease,” he added.

In 1977 he went to do research at the then-new cancer center at UCSD. While he was at UCSD, Niels K. Jerne, Georges J.F. Kohler and Cesar Milstein were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery on controlling the immune system and producing monoclonal antibodies, or in simpler terms, for discovering how to create an unlimited amount of antibodies.

Royston said he figured that the antibodies could be used to help cure cancer, remembering, “I said we could clone antibodies like we can clone genes.”

Creating an industry

In 1978, Royston became one of the first professors to create a business while working at UCSD and with Howard Birndorf took technology they developed at the university and formed Hybritech.

According to Royston, they got started right away, “and within six months we were able to create those antibodies.”

The turned their efforts toward a test for prostate cancer and took the company public.

In 1986, Eli Lilly purchased the company for $480 million, sending the partners and all of their managers off to form new companies and build the base for San Diego’s world-renowned biotech industry.

Royston went on to become a co-founder with Birndorf of IDEC Pharmaceuticals, and the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. In 1993, he founded Forward Ventures, and is one of five partners in the venture capital firm that has invested in more than 50 companies.

Zeroing in

Royston advised the La Jolla students who are interested in pursuing a career in medicine to be open to the diverse industries within the field, telling them the important thing is to accomplish your personal goal.

Looking back, Royston said, “Our dreams to help cancer were ultimately fulfilled,” although he aspires to continue to work to help cancer.

Students who met with him after the presentation in teacher Rachel Tanenbaum’s classroom were interested in the importance of patenting, the competition in biotech companies, the process of offering information to the public and how much risk the business entails.

One of the students, John Savage, said Royston’s presentation reaffirmed his goal for a career in biomedicine.