The Trusteeship

Member Interview: Dr. Aya Jakovovits

Dr. Aya Jakobovits served most recently as Executive Vice President, Head, Research and Development at Agensys, Inc., an affiliate of Astellas Pharmaceuticals, Inc. which acquired Agensys in a deal valued at $537 million in December 2007. She is currently initiating the operations of her fourth start-up biotech company. She is also serving as a venture partner for Orbimed Partners, a primary healthcare-dedicated investment firm.  Prior to the acquisition of Agensys by Astellas, Dr. Jakobovits served as Senior Vice President, Technology a n d C o r p o r a t e Development, and Chief Scientific Officer at Agensys, which she joined in 1999. Under her leadership Agensys established a large proprietary portfolio of novel cancer targets, developed a clinical pipeline of therapeutic human antibodies in multiple cancer indications, and established partnerships with primary pharmaceuticals and biotech companies.

Before joining Agensys in 1999, Dr.Jakobovits served as the Director, Discovery Research and Principal Scientist at Abgenix, Inc, which was spun out of Cell Genesys in 1996. The company was based on XenoMouse® technology (mouse strains engineered to produce fully humanmonoclonal antibodies) developed under her leadership. At Abgenix she continued to lead the technology development and its utilization for the production of therapeutic human antibodies, including vectibixr marketd by Amgen, Inc, for colorectal cancer.   She initiated the development of X e n o M o u s e ® technology in 1989 at Cell Genesys, Inc., where she was a scientist founder and served as Director of Molecular Immunology. Abgenix was acquired by Amgen in 2005 for $2.2 billion.  Dr. Jakobovits did post-doctoral studies in the Department of Anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco, followed by the Department of Molecular Biology at Genentech.

What motivated you to become a biotech entrepreneur? The challenge and excitement of growing a biotech company are the major motivators for me being “a serial biotech entrepreneur”.  I am motivated by leading a start-up venture based on a novel scientific hypothesis into a successful company, with new technologies or products that benefit patients, and that along the way also earns the respect of the scientific, business and investment communities.  Looking back at the accomplishments of the 3 start-up companies I was involved with fills me with satisfaction and pride.

What made you choose a business rather than an academic career? During a transition period between my post doctoral work at UCSF and returning to Israel to pursue my academic career, I had the opportunity to join an excellent lab at Genentech, where I planned to stay only few months to advance my molecular biology expertise. Very quickly I realized the excitement and benefits of working in a biotech environment and this resulted in my staying at Genentech for 3 productive years, before joining my first start-up company, Cell Genesys. At Cell Genesys, which I joined as the first employee and scientific founder, I helped to establish all strategies and operations related to research, intellectual property and business. This was my first exposure to the excitement associated with building a company from the ground up.

I enjoyed working on demanding but exciting scientific projects directed towards development of therapeutic drugs that would benefit patients rather than focusing just on basic academic questions. I also found that a proper corporate setting can provide substantial resources and expertise in numerous areas, which permit taking on challenging projects and advancing them successfully at an accelerated pace. Furthermore, working in a corporate setting allowed me to combine my passion for scientific and clinical research and development with my interests in business and corporate development, intellectual property, and interactions with the investor community.

You’ve been very entrepreneurial in your career so far; how many more companies do you think you’ll start? I am currently in the process of initiating the operations of my fourth company.

When you’ve occupied a top position in a biotech, did you have time for other pursuits?  What are your other passions? I have tried, not always successfully, to find time for my other passions- adventure travel, hiking, gardening, and ballroom dancing. Sadly, it has been more than 10 years since I have played my piano.

In the biotech world do you think you pay a price for being female?  Do you think you have any advantages being a woman in biotech? Biotech companies provide equal opportunities for women to work and advance through technical and management paths, based on their accomplishments and ambition. However, similar to other business areas, the list of women who hold top management positions in Biotech is still small and it appears that the hurdles to make it to the top may be higher for women.

Are things harder, easier or the same for women in biotech in the US versus Israel? Likely the same.

What is your experience attracting venture and other investors?  Are women at a disadvantage in this realm? I have been fortunate to be involved with companies that gained the respect, support, and funding by both angel and top tier venture capital investors. Throughout my interactions with the investment community I never felt that being a woman was a disadvantage and always felt respected for my knowledge and accomplishments.

What was the scariest, most trying business situation you’ve been in and how did it resolve? Completing the negotiation of a major partnership deal with a pharmaceutical company in time to support the company’s on-going operations.  The agreement was executed in the nick of time.

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