Avid Radiopharmaceutical founder Skovronsky combines science with entrepreneurship
At 37, Daniel Skovronsky seems impossibly young for his accomplishments. There is the molecular biochemistry degree from Yale, the medical degree and doctorate in neuropathology from Penn, the groundbreaking work in Alzheimer's research, and now Avid Radiopharmaceutical Inc., the University City company he founded, nurtured, and grew until its sale Nov. 8 to Eli Lilly & Co. for up to $800 million.
At 37, Daniel Skovronsky seems impossibly young for his accomplishments.
There is the molecular biochemistry degree from Yale, the medical degree and doctorate in neuropathology from Penn, the groundbreaking work in Alzheimer's research, and now Avid Radiopharmaceutical Inc., the University City company he founded, nurtured, and grew until its sale Nov. 8 to Eli Lilly & Co. for up to $800 million.
Along the way, he has garnered myriad awards for his success in business, a discipline in which he has no formal training.
"I didn't have much of an idea of what I was getting into, which was very helpful," Skovronsky said in an interview last week when asked about the leap from scientist to entrepreneur. "It would have been much harder if I had any sense of the challenges ahead."
There he is, self-effacing, drily witty, and not a hint of the depths of his skills.
"He is a very brilliant guy," said Hank Kung, a mentor and professor of radiopharmaceutical science at the University of Pennsylvania. "The cream of the crop."
Skovronsky is one of those rare individuals, blessed with surfeits of talent and drive, who manage in short order to excel in multiple arenas. In this instance, medical science and business.
He has combined both in his work developing a diagnostic tool for Alzheimer's disease.
The end product - a dye that identifies evidence of the disease in the brain - will prove to be the "medical innovation of 2011," according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Ernst & Young L.L.P. has given its imprimatur to Skovronsky the chief executive officer, naming him the entrepreneur of the year in 2009 for Avid Radiopharmaceutical, which he launched in 2005.
Married to an ophthalmologist and the father of two young girls, Skovronsky grew up in Fairfax, Va.
The son of a pathologist, he followed his love of medicine and science, first to Yale, then to Penn.
While training as a neuropathologist, Skovronsky devoted his study to Alzheimer's disease. Specifically, he was driven to find a foolproof way to diagnose the disease in living patients.
At the moment, the only sure diagnostic method is to perform an autopsy to determine if there had been a buildup of amyloid plaque in the patient's brain. The presence of the plaque is the hallmark of the disease.
Eleven years ago, after advances of other researchers, Skovronsky and Kung began developing a radioactive dye that would bind with the plaque and be visible on a brain scan. Their work would form the platform from which Avid was launched.
Earlier this year, Avid successfully completed tests that showed the dye could accurately identify plaque in patients. The product, florbetapir, is now being reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for final approval.
Eli Lilly thought enough of it to buy Avid for $300 million for outstanding stock and up to $500 million more if the company hits predicted benchmarks.
That is a far cry from the early years, when Skovronsky the researcher was scratching about for funding.
"This was such a long-range and risky project that funding was never enough," he recalled. "I remember saying, 'I bet if we started a company, we could get tons of money.' Everybody laughed."
By 2004, he was convinced that was the path to take. Kung feared his colleague was tossing away a brilliant academic career on a pipe dream.
"I said, 'Dan, you have a wife and kids. You're crazy,' " Kung remembered.
Skovronsky wasn't dissuaded.
"I saw it as a way to have a big impact," he said. "To take my ideas from the lab and see if we can get them out there and have an impact on millions of people."
It was still a toss of the dice, not the least of which was the transition from researcher to CEO.
"He took a huge, huge gamble," said Michael Weiner, a professor of medicine at the University of California who is leading the National Institutes of Health's Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative.
"It meant he was not only responsible for the scientific development, but also for raising funds and the business management of the company."
Sure, he had no formal business training, Skovronsky said, but with only one employee at the start - himself - he had time to "ease into managing people."
As for raising money, he concedes being "pretty naive."
"I thought a couple of million dollars and a few years and we will get this done," he said.
It ultimately took $70 million and now more than five years. Along the way, the scientist had some pleasant surprises as well.
"I had a pretty cynical view of the financial community," Skovronsky said. "I quickly learned that investors are really smart. They do their homework. They knew the science."
Over time, Skovronsky built his company until it now has 53 employees, housed in offices at 3711 Market St.
"I work pretty hard," he said. "I'm in at 7 a.m. and rarely leave before 8 or 9 at night. You learn that is what you have to do when you are responsible for a lot of people."
Despite the sale to Eli Lilly, he plans to stay on as chief executive.
There is still more to be done on Alzheimer's as well as on Parkinson's disease and diabetes, two other targets of Avid's research.
So much more to accomplish.