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Donny Strosberg Straddles the Worlds of Science and Business

By Eric Sauter

Donny Strosberg, a professor in the Department of Infectology at The Scripps Research Institute's Florida campus, recently spent half a week at the BIO international conference in Washington, DC. The conference, which bills itself as the largest global yearly event for the biotechnology industry, offers tips on deal making and networking. It is about the business of science, not, strictly speaking, about science itself.

Strosberg, who has helped shepherd more than 15 biotechnology firms into various stages of development, feels at home in both places—in the boardroom and at the bench.

“I go to these BIO meetings because I find new cultural and even social developments at them,” Strosberg said, “For example, open innovation—a new, interesting concept— describes pre-competitive collaboration among companies and with academia before companies feel they have to keep proprietary secrets; it reduces investment and risk, and the universities receive support to work with new concepts, technologies, and active compounds well before they become generally available.”

By the time he arrived at Scripps Florida in 2005, Strosberg was well known as the co-founder and CEO of the French biotechnology and services company, Hybrigenics—he still sits on the board—and as a driving force of several other start-ups. But before that, he had established himself as a respected academic researcher with important discoveries to his credit, including creating the first rabbit monoclonal antibodies, producing the first murine monoclonal antibodies against Legionnaires’ disease, and discovering and cloning the human beta 3 adrenergic receptor. All in all, he had published more than 400 peer-reviewed papers, obtained more than 20 international patent families (several   licensed to industry), and helped train more than 40 PhD students and 80 postdoctoral fellows before he arrived at Scripps Florida.

Lately, he said, he has been looking back, not nostalgia per se, but more like taking stock of where he has been before he moves forward. His life right now resembles Janus, the Roman god whose twin faces look in opposite directions simultaneously—one to the future, one to the past.

Some of the companies he has helped start have become familiar names in the biotechnology landscape—Biorelix, Hybrigenics, Incyte, Praecis, Neurotech—and all hold a unique place in his memory, no matter what their outcomes.

“The definition of failure and success—there are so many,” he mused. “Did these companies thrive, expand, take on a second life in another structure? Did they develop drugs or diagnostic kits? Did they achieve social benefit for their employees? Did these collaborators go on to create other start-up enterprises? The great majority of the companies I started have done well—four went public, seven were sold—so it’s not a bad record.”


Strosberg’s own personal record is very much a 20th-century European one. Born in 1945 in a Swiss refugee camp, his parents escaped the Holocaust by seeking refuge in that mountainous sanctuary.

"My mother, a descendant of the Spanish Jews fleeing the medieval Inquisition, was one of the 25,000 refugees accepted by the Swiss, while my father escaped from a French internment camp to join her," Strosberg said. When the war ended and his parents took him back to their home in Belgium, they learned that half the family had died in Nazi concentration camps. He never knew any of his grandparents.

After that rough beginning, Strosberg earned his doctorate in Belgium, did his postdoctoral work at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, and became a professor at the Free University of Brussels in 1973. A few years later, he took another professorial position at the University of Paris. The commuting life ended in 1980 when he settled full time in Paris, first at the university and then at the renowned Pasteur Institute.

That was when the business side of his life began. Before joining Pasteur, Strosberg had helped start AES-Chemunex SA, which is still producing tools for rapid industrial microbiological analysis. Later, because of his research on cell surface receptors, he regularly spent time in the United States as an advisor to Genentech.

As his involvement in the business side of biotechnology grew, so did the Pasteur Institute’s concern; its scientists were not supposed to involve themselves in industry. By 1990, Strosberg had moved his entire laboratory to the nearby Cochin Institute, which took a more liberal attitude towards the dual nature of his work.

Then in 1997, something remarkable happened. The same people from the Pasteur Institute who had regretfully seen him leave a few years earlier approached him for help in starting biotechnology companies. Strosberg said “yes,” up sprang Hybrigenics, and he found himself managing the company, now publicly listed, that runs clinical trials for prostate cancer and psoriasis drugs.

But the story did not end there.

The New World

In 2004, Scripps Research President Richard Lerner was thinking of shaping the institute’s new campus in Florida as a hybrid academic-drug development operation, a place that would serve as a kind of platform for the study and early-stage development of medically useful compounds. And he wanted Strosberg to join him, in part to build a bridge to biotechnology companies.

When Strosberg joined Scripps Florida in 2005 to run a lab focusing on hepatitis C, he also started Biorelix, based on riboswitch technology from Yale University. However, that company remained in New Haven, in part because of the lack of appropriate lab space near Scripps Florida. Strosberg realized it would take more than time and state funding for biotech to arrive in Florida. To begin, he helped address the space issue by convincing the well-known lab builder Alexandria to refurbish a building close to Scripps Florida with lab space. “This building is now almost filled up, but it has taken much longer than we thought,” Strosberg said.

Meanwhile, at Scripps Florida, Strosberg had rediscovered his scientific side.

“One thing I’ve learned is that you can do many things at once, but you can’t do many things well,” he said. “In the years I’ve spent here in Florida, I have been able to devote more time to research. I have felt more like a young postdoc and it has been wonderful.”

In the lab, Strosberg has been developing a highly novel approach to attacking the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which infects more than 170 million people worldwide. Because the current interferon-based treatment is extremely limited, a number of alternative molecular mechanisms are actively being pursued as possible drug targets.

With this in mind, Strosberg took a closer look at the virus’s core protein. The core protein is the most conserved among all HCV genotypes and plays several roles in the viral cycle within the host cell, particularly in the assembly of the hepatitis C nucleocapsid, an essential step in the formation of infectious viral particles.

In 2009, Strosberg’s laboratory developed novel tests for monitoring these viral protein-protein interactions with the goal of identifying inhibitors that would block virus production. The tests were adopted by the pharmaceutical industry, leading to the discovery of small organic molecules that strongly inhibited HCV. “We discovered a new tractable target for HCV, which is a pretty good thing, especially now that a combination therapy of hepatitis C with target-specific drugs increasingly looks like the way to go in the future. Six years ago I wasn’t doing anything like that.”

Even though he has had opportunities to return to Europe or to join industry, Strosberg no longer thinks that much about it.

“In France, I managed up to 85 people, now I manage three,” he said. “I could very well sit back and enjoy myself the rest of the time, but my enjoyment is to get out and get more things done. The three days I spent at BIO were a lot of fun and also very useful; I met a number of potential partners for our HCV research.”



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“My enjoyment is to get out and get more things done,” says Professor Donny Strosberg.