The Flight Paths Not Taken

Some might call his career changes turbulence. But for Doug Given, WG’93, his trajectory has been the fortuitous result of charisma and business and medical acumen.

By Lee Gomes

To be a 30-something whiz kid at a Fortune 500 company, commuting to work on a private Sikorsky helicopter, being on a first-name basis with the CEOs in your industry and flying on a career trajectory aimed straight for your own C-suite, is the sort of job people dream about when they sign up for a business school like Wharton.

Unless you’re Doug Given, WG’93, in which case, you had that job before enrolling and, thanks to Wharton, you ended up getting fired from it. But—and thanks again to Wharton—you didn’t mind one single bit.

At 60, Given has made about as many mid-flight career corrections as is possible for someone who largely stayed inside a single industry. In Given’s case, it’s the world of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

As he told the incoming class of Executive MBA students at Wharton | San Francisco during an address at their welcome reception, Wharton made possible all the most important chapters of his life story.

For Given, the School instilled a sense of confidence that allowed him to trade secure situations for risky ones.

“The School helped push me out of the nest. I like to say that because of Wharton, I was able to fly without a net,” he says.

“It was the most exciting educational experience of my lifetime.”

Which in Given’s case is saying a great deal, as he has spent a lot of time in classrooms. Given also earned an M.D. (and board certification as an internist) and a Ph.D. in 1980 from the University of Chicago.

Photo credit: Melissa Barnes

Growing up in Michigan City, IN , a small town on Lake Michigan during the 1950s and 1960s, Given idolized the University of Chicago. His father was a grocer who, already married and with three children, decided he wanted instead to be a doctor. His dad spent his early career as a member of the last generation of old-style solo practitioners, making house calls, delivering babies and even doing the occasional general surgery.

Given was the oldest of three children and stayed true to his regional roots. He attended Wabash College in central Indiana, which remains one of the country’s few all-male liberal arts colleges. Along with his brother, he followed his father into medicine. But he also took his father’s advice about the need for doctors to differentiate themselves because of the growing specialization of the field—hence, his Ph.D. in virology and his examination of the relationship between the herpes family of viruses and human cancers.

After Chicago came the elite world of medical research at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital in the early 1980s. Even as a front-line academic researcher, Given indulged what would become a lifelong tendency to mix business with science and medicine.

Glenn L. Cooper, a contemporary of Given’s at Mass General who has remained a lifelong friend and was an associate in several of Given’s later business ventures, recalls that Given would act as much a banker as a harried post-doc.

“Instead of sitting around in the cafeteria waiting for our beepers to go off, like all the other guys, we’d be sitting with our pagers at the bar at Locke-Ober’s, eating lobster bisque,” Cooper says about the famous restaurant in Boston’s business district. “Doug saw a path where science and business interacted seamlessly. This was before the biotechnology explosion, and at the time in academia, working with industry was like dancing with the devil.”

A few years after arriving in Cambridge, Given followed some colleagues out the door and migrated to the lab bench at Eli Lilly and Co., attracted by the resources available at the pharmaceutical company. Given switched companies a few times, each time moving further from the lab.

“I found myself reading the Wall Street Journal more often than the New England Journal,” he says.

By the time he was 36, he was head of U.S. regulatory affairs for Schering-Plough. He also chaired the Regulatory Affairs Committee, the pharmaceutical industry’s main policymaking committee, serving with colleagues at other companies who were his institutional equals but 20 years older. This is where the private helicopters come in. Given lived in New Jersey but commuted weekly to Washington.

Given’s bosses at Schering-Plough knew he was destined for greater things at the company and urged him to round out his business skills.

Enter Wharton. Given said he spent his elective time at the School learning everything he could about finance. The members of his study group were all from the world of Wall Street, rather than health care management. Having glimpsed the world of risk-taking and entrepreneurialism, Given was unenthusiastic about resuming a career in regulatory affairs and slowly punching his ticket to the top. In the course of wide-ranging discussions about his career back at Schering-Plough, management saw it harder to meet his upward mobility needs and their organizational needs and asked him to leave.

That was the most dramatic chapter in Given’s life story, but he was not nonplussed.

“I was perfectly comfortable because of the skills I had picked up at Wharton,” he says. “I had confidence in my ability to understand how business works and how to be successful in a business enterprise.”

Life became the turbulent ride that is the modern biotechnology industry. Given became CEO of a biotech startup, which between 1993 and 1997 grew, went public and eventually reached an $85 million valuation. But its stock plummeted back to nearly nothing when its product— engineered replacement blood cells—failed to perform as expected, a common risk. Given rode the stock all the way down, not only because of insider trading rules, but “also because of the Eagle Scout in me,” he says.

He took a leave from the industry, spending time as an angel investor with a group that included the early management team of Genentech. In 2000, he ended up at Bay City Capital, a Bay Area venture capital partnership that specializes in the very same life sciences that he has dedicated his life to.

One of his current portfolio companies, Vivaldi Biosciences, is representative of his interests. Before founding it, Given called up an old college mentor, Elliott Kieff, C’63, then co-director at Harvard’s Channing Lab, and asked what Kieff thought was the potential medical project that could have the biggest impact.

Kieff’s response: a more effective influenza vaccine. That led Given to the Mount Sinai School of Medicine researchers who in 2005 had determined the genetic structure of the virus responsible for the 1918 flu pandemic. The team is now using this knowledge to work on a vaccine that the company believes will be twice as effective as current alternatives for the elderly, for whom seasonal flu can be deadly.

Given has other companies too, all of which benefit from what Cooper describes as a “charismatic twinkle” in his eye.

“He gets people to follow him and assemble around him as he needs them. It’s like the scene in The Lion King in which the animals all hear the horn and assemble,” Cooper explains.

He is magnanimous in his pursuit of a value-driven life too. Given’s philanthropic interests are extensive and attracting because of their social impact. He focuses on global public health, hospitals, university-based innovation, higher education and student mentorship.

For his next pursuit, Given might be well-advised to consider looking for the keys to longevity in his own Scottish genetic material. His parents are in their 80s, but both have the several-times-a-week golfing habits of 40-somethings. Given himself is an inveterate skier, frequenting the resorts around Lake Tahoe but venturing once a year to Austria and the Italian Dolomites with a group of pals acquired over the years in the global biotech industry.

Franz Weber, the six-time speed-skiing champion and former world record-holder, is a member of Given’s snow pack. He notes, just as Cooper does, Given’s ability at connecting people. But once everyone is assembled, Given doesn’t insist on hogging the spotlight.

“He is more of a listener and is very observant,” Weber says. “And he is always curious about new things. For example, Doug is already an instruction-class skier. But he is always looking to learn more.”

Besides curiosity, Given is also afflicted with the aviation bug that is common with a certain breed of successful people. He has an Airline Transport Pilot license, which means he has the requisite training to fly citation jets, though most of the time he can be found in the more modest, twin turboprop King Air E90.

Given lives with his wife and fellow skier Kim. The couple has two daughters. Katie, 25, is on track to graduate from the University of Chicago, with, yes, both an M.D. and a Ph.D. Her sister Annie, 23, is already thinking about an MBA after her first year on Wall Street and having joined a California-based startup.

“She’s wondering how to be the best she can be, make an important social impact and find what she really wants to do next,” says Given. “Like her dad before her.”

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