NEW YORK – George Yancopoulos, born and raised in Western Queens and proud of his Greek roots, is one of the world’s leading biomedical scientists. The company he co-founded with Leonard S. Schleifer, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, has had brilliant successes with drugs such as EYLEA for age related macular degeneration, ZALTRAP for colorectal cancer, and ARCALYST.
But Yancopoulos, who has developed not only its drugs but the company’s foundational technologies, has only just begun, driven a sense of mission inspired by his grandfather, and John F. Kennedy.
“What distinguishes us as a species is the fact we can learn about ourselves and we can use science, together with the other thing that makes us human, our soul and spirit, to try to positively impact the human condition, and there is nothing better for society to be investing in than human knowledge and science,” he told TNH.
Lest Yancopoulos’ achievements be considered accidental or miraculous – he was the 11th most cited scientist in the 1990s and is reportedly the first R &D head at a pharmaceutical company, according to Forbes, to become a billionaire – some family history is in order.
His father’s family were well to do and adventurous. His grandfather George Danis Yancopoulos was born in Kastoria before it was liberated from the Turks. “He escaped to Austria… taught himself German somehow and remarkably got a degree in electrical engineering.”
The he returned to Greece and with his business partners built many of the Greek world’s first electrical power plants.
He started with nothing, reached great heights, and then fate took it away. “This is the story of his life,” Yancopoulos said. The story includes building two power plants near Smyrna, which were lost in the Asia Minor Catastrophe.
He then built a series of plants all over Greece – only to lose everything when the Germans invaded and seized them.
His mother’s family were furriers. Like her husband’s, her education was interrupted, but she went back to school in her 60s and graduated valedictorian of her class at St. Joseph’s college. She followed her son’s example: he was valedictorian at both the Bronx High School of Science and Columbia University.
His sister Sophie Sophie has a Ph.D in theoretical astrophysics.
Yancopoulos humbly also credits his era for firing up his success. Born in 1959, he recalls being inspired by the sky-is-the-limit speeches of JFK and being fascinated by the space program.
When Yancopoulos was told that while Greek children in Greece are encouraged to become scientists – the next Greek Nobel prize is likely to be in the hard sciences – Greek American parents tend to steer children down paths more likely to be lucrative, he replied, “That was sort of true with me.”
When he was growing up, his father encouraged education. “He saw through his father that education and technology could bring great value to countries and individuals,” but he did not want his children to struggle the way he did.
The Yancopoulos family in America was of humble means, but the parents overpushed, and their childrens’ academic achievements caused them to fear they would become high achievers with low incomes – “as my father put it: eggheads.”
But love and brains found a way to reconcile the dreams of father and son.
“I was getting more and more interested in science and he was getting more desperate,” but when Yancopoulos was about 16 his father gave him an article from the paper – “He didn’t read the American newspapers, he read The National Herald.”
It was about Dr. P. Roy Vagelos leaving Washington University to join Merck as head of R & D.
“If you are going to become a scientist, at least become like Roy Vagelos,” he said. “We Greeks did not have many heroes growing up, but he gave me Roy as my role model.”
His father also gave him a mantra for times when the path to success got bumpy or crooked. “’Why don’t you call Roy Vagelos. I’m sure he would help you out’ – it’s like telling a kid in computers, call Steve Jobs, he’ll help you out and I would tell him ‘you don’t understand’” how it works.
“Remarkably enough,” Yancopoulos said, father does know best, but he had to recruit Schleifer as an ally.
“In the early days my dad was always coming to the company and giving us grief, telling both of us what a bad job we were doing, and he would tell us both: ‘call Roy Vagelos, he’ll tell you how to really run a company.’”
At a certain point, about five years after its founding , the company was not doing well. “Schleifer was panicking, I wasn’t, but he said ‘George, maybe you are not ready to be the next Roy Vagelos yet, so maybe we should call up the real one.’“
Schleifer did just that, and left a message. “I never thought he would get a call back, but Roy called – I am sure it helped that a young Greek guy was involved that he established a fatherly connection to – and he ended up joining us. He has been our chairman for the past 20 years. I think he is just as proud off what he has helped us do here as he is of what he did at Merck.”
TNH asked him why he poured his talent into science.
“It’s a passion. You can’t convince a kid if they were really interested in something, if that’s what drives them and that’s the direction they want to go, that‘s where they are going to go.”
“My dad, without really knowing it, lit the flames when he told me how great my grandfather was, and essentially my grandfather’s story was one of science – using science to bring electricity to a country that didn’t have it – that’s pretty big.”
“I will never forget sitting on his lap – he was a powerful man with big arms – and he would tell me how he fled Turkish slavery and went to Vienna, and when he saw electricity – the awe and inspiration of seeing the lights – and with no education, he knew he would devote his life to electricity.”
Yancopoulos also has vivid memories of going to the World’s Fair in 1964 and seeing the exhibits that promised to transform the world through science.
“How could I not become fascinated and addicted to the power of science, and the idea that you could use science to do good and better the human condition…our president told us that…I was one of those,” he told TNH. “And I still believe in the power of science.”
And he knew it was part of his Greek heritage.
His father used to tell him that all the time too, “they brought enlightenment to the world. There is nothing greater for the human condition…what makes us different as a species is that we build knowledge, and build on the foundation of the work of others.”
Yancopoulos likes to give talks in that vein to school children.
The conversation shifted to the situation in Greece. “It think about it and talk to my children about it a lot,” he said.
His daughter Ourania Sophia, who is studying international politics and statistics, is interning at the Cypriot Embassy at the UN and spent the summer in Greece. “She is committed, in terms of her life, to this challenge of helping Greece’s economic and business development,” her proud father said.
“What we talk about as a family – I have four wonderful and talented kids, Ourania, Damis George, Louca Achilles, and Demetra Alexis – is what inspired my grandfather and me. I thought the most important science of our time was biology, that fact that we can clone genes and cure disease and make a difference – I still believe in that – but my three youngest talk about how the sciences of the future are the environmental sciences and new energy sources. And wouldn’t it be great to tie the next generation sciences to Greece and make Greece a leader?”
Yancopoulos’ initial research interests at Regeneron was neuron regeneration– hence the name. The paths they pursued did not lead to breakthroughs in that field, but the spectacular successes of the company in other areas keeps him in the regeneration game.
“Once you are interested in something, it is hard to give it up, so we are still very interested and hoping we will make a difference fighting Alzheimer’s’, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig disease, and others.”