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From a Spice Shop in Thessaloniki’s Ladadika to the Helm of a U.S. Biotech Giant

June 9, 2024

It was 1958, and ten-year-old Stelios Papadopoulos – who frequently took bus number 10 to get from the Harilaou neighborhood to his father’s small business in the Ladadika district in  Thessaloniki – probably couldn’t have imagined that this fragrant spice shop in would prove to be a significant ‘school’ for him. It was the source of experiences that would one day help him take the helm of a biotechnology giant with a capitalization of tens of billions of dollars and negotiate with representatives of corporate giants in America. After turning 15, he started running the shop every afternoon after school when his father and uncle were away on trips, and he remembers how “suddenly as a small child I was among the men, and in my mind, I was a grown-up.” He went to banks, paid bills, made transactions. The lessons he learned from a young age about how commerce works were invaluable, as was his father’s persistent advice: “You, my boy, shouldn’t be like me. You shouldn’t suffer like a slave at work – you should study, and become a scientist.”

A few years later, in 1966, Stelios Papadopoulos left for the U.S. with 200 dollars in his pocket to continue his studies there. To survive, he immediately needed to work. The jobs young immigrants like him did at that time were usually two: waiters in restaurants and ice cream and hot dog vendors on the streets. He felt ready for any job, however, because he had experience in the give-and-take, having already rubbed against the reality of the market as a child. And when, many years later, having completed his studies, he found himself sitting at the same table with big names in American business, he realized that “many of the little lessons I learned at ten years old in Ladadika were useful even at 50, in dealings with the giants of global companies.”

Today, he is the chairman of Biogen Inc., co-founder of Fondation Santé, and is internationally regarded as the ‘patriarch of biotechnology’. However, as he confessed during an event in Thessaloniki, he misses “the Ladadika of that time.”

Of course, many other memories, inside and outside the spice shop, connect him to Thessaloniki. The shop was initially located at Agiou Mina 3 between Katouni and Ionos Dragoumi and later on Olympiou Diamanti street. As he says, his first memory of the city was certainly soccer-related, since he grew up in Harilaou, in the Papastasiou area, opposite the old Osia Xeni. The brand-new stadium of Aris was nearby, and from the age of four he and his friends would play soccer on a small triangle of land of land in the neighborhood. He became a supporter of Aris but not a soccer player, as he was admitted to the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), where he studied for just three months. He then left for the U.S., where he started his studies in Mathematics, Physics, and Biology, completed his master’s degree, and then turned to biophysics.

Initially, he followed the academic path but eventually switched to investments and Wall Street. Such a leap does not seem particularly strange for a man whose driving force is curiosity, as he said himself: “I have tremendous curiosity, which leads to the need for learning.”

Asked if it wasn’t it a huge risk to leave the security of an academic career to enter a completely new field, he said, “certainly, looking back, it was a risk, but many times the decisions we make in ignorance of the situations do not reflect the risk they may entail. My decision to leave NTUA in 1966 and go to America, all alone without any financial support, that was a risk! But I was young, knew nothing, and was eager to go to America, so I left. As for the decision to leave the academic field to go to Wall Street, I had some idea that what was happening around me was significant, it was the beginning. The first companies in the biotechnology field were seeking capital from investors… and I understood that something was going to happen. But as for the huge edifice that was built, I had no idea!” he said, speaking at an event organized by the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises (SEV) and answering questions posed by journalist Tasoula Eptakili.

Dr. Papadopoulos was welcomed to Thessaloniki by the president of Hellenic Federation of Enterprises (SEV) Loukia Saranti.

 

Where is Greece on the Global Biotechn Map?

 

According to Dr. Papadopoulos, to establish biotechnology companies in Greece that will create new drugs for worldwide use, there must first be enough original, interesting, and pioneering scientific research and ideas there, and the right people. As he pointed out, what is least necessary is often promoted as the most important, such as capital or more lawyers knowledgeable about patents.

“Capital follows opportunity. If you suddenly tell American capital that investing in a biotechnology company in Greece will make them money, they will come immediately… So capital is not the problem. The problem is that there are no pioneering ideas, which primarily start from the university sector. We don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have enough high-quality scientists… [Greek scientists] are quite good, and some could have an interesting career abroad, but here [in Greece], with groups that are [too] small and the lack of competition and contact with major centers abroad, it is difficult. Is there even one drug in the history of medicine discovered in a Greek university or company and distributed abroad… No, because we don’t have the infrastructure – and the problems are not solved with startups,” he emphasized. “To establish a real biotechnology sector in Greece requires at least a decade, if not 20 years, to reorganize the university sector. And it requires meritocracy, which I doubt we will ever find in Greek universities.”

He said that a “logical” distribution of research funds to the appropriate scientists is also needed, and added that, “right now, it is so fragmented; ministries of Agriculture, Development, Commerce, Shipping, and Education give funds, but there is no central body that knows where all the money is going and how it is being distributed… A unified body must be created, like an umbrella, from which all funds will be distributed – and we need to establish meritocracy in universities. If these two things happen, in 20 years, we might have teams that can do something significant.”

In response to a question specifically about Thessaloniki and the pillars on which it could base its development prospects, he pointed to two areas: tourism (beyond the ‘sun-sea’ dyad), said, since it is an excellent city with cultural variety and uniqueness, and technology. He described infrastructure developments like the under-construction fourth-generation technology park ThessINTEC as the future, emphasizing that there is no reason Thessaloniki should not host a global research and development center.

Asked if science should be a business, and whether the balance tilts towards profit or the expectation of saving as many lives as possible, he said, “we must distinguish between science [in a business context] and research in the academic field, in universities and research centers, where it is pure science driven by the curiosity of the researcher… This is the research from which original, pioneering ideas start… But once you set up a company that belongs to investors, it is a business. Certainly, none of us will break the law, will not be unethical, but ultimately our purpose and obligation is to return to the investors money worthy of what they invested and the risk they took. Saying that we only care about saving lives is hypocritical. If something we discovered is medically useful but not commercially viable, we can donate the scientific basis to the state or a charitable foundation for further development. However, we do not have the right to become philanthropists with other people’s money,” he replied.

When Papadopoulos is asked where he is from, he does not answer Greece, but Thessaloniki. In response to the question of how one maintains a Greek identity after living abroad for decades, he replied: “To maintain an identity, it is assumed that you once had it. Many of those who lose their identity either never had it or are overwhelmed with experiences from the new place and forget where they started from. America does not so much want to assimilate you as it wants you to give a piece of yourself, as everyone else does. And many of us have a dual identity. I am 100% American in my ways, especially in the commercial part, and at the same time, I am Greek. You don’t have to be just one thing. You can be both… This, of course, requires love for both identities and effort, especially in the language aspect. And something else: There are some who leave and others who leave but don’t leave. I left but didn’t leave. My mind is there, my heart is here.”

In is noted here that through Fondation Santé, its co-founders support Greek researchers and foreign scientists conducting research in Greece. Each year the foundation allocates about half to one million euros, from donations by its creators, other Greeks of the diaspora, and philhellenes.

Material from ANA/MPA was used in this report.

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