With a penchant for creating world-class drugs, George Yancopoulos, 55, has gone from doing research at Columbia to superstar status in his industry, and made himself a billionaire doing it.
Pushed by his father, a first-generation Greek immigrant who complained how little the university life paid, Yancopoulos in 1988 jumped ship to a small Tarrytown, NY Biotech firm called Regeneron and helped its worth rocket 2,240 percent in the past five years.
His career, featured in Forbes magazine, showed how his scientific ability and humility combined to help him develop drugs for patients with illnesses from asthma to cancer and made the company a force to be reckoned with in its field.
“We were a tiny company, but we had the most powerful technology,” he says. “And sometimes that’s what counts,” he told the magazine.
Sanofi , Regeneron’s partner on most of its drugs, just re-upped on the value of the technologies Yancopoulos has created. On July 28 it announced it would pay $640 million to kick off a new partnership in which Regeneron will invent cancer drugs that harness the immune system.
“George sees and feels biology in ways very few scientists really can,” said Elias Zerhouni, the President of Global R&D at Sanofi. “It is this creative intuition combined with scientific rigor that makes him special in my view.”
Yancopoulos defers to his team of scientists and the man who hired him, fellow billionaire Leonard Schleifer, who said his find has “immense talent and genius.”
Yancopoulos’ fourth drug, Praluent (for lowering cholesterol in people already maxed-out on statins), was approved on July 24 and expected to be a big seller.
He’s also working on a big project to sequence patients’ DNA and Deutsche Bank estimates that his experimental drug for allergic conditions could generate $10 billion in annual sales by 2025.
Yancopoulos said he wanted to be in R & D what his role model, Regeneron’s Chairman, Roy Vagelos created.
Yancopoulos works at his science like a scientist, not a man interested in the money it brings and is deeply involved in Regeneron’s drug discovery, as well as a principal inventor on all the technology patents that underlie the invention of all of Regeneron’s drugs.
It hasn’t gone to his head. He drives an eight-year-old Honda Pilot, does his kids’ laundry and dresses in the worn Oxfords and khakis of an academic scientist, Forbes wrote.
He is uncomfortable discussing his wealth but hopes that the very thought of it, generated by lifesaving drugs, might serve “as an inspiration to kids who (might) otherwise become hedge fund managers.”