Twenty-seven years ago George Yancopoulos was a scientific superstar, a professor of biology at Columbia at age 28. But his father, a first-generation Greek immigrant, kept complaining about how little academia paid.
So Yancopoulos, now 55, signed on with a nascent Tarrytown, N.Y.-based biotech firm called Regeneron–and has since led the invention of four approved drugs and a technology platform designed to invent more. Shares in Regeneron have increased a startling 2,240% over the past five years, and Yancopoulos’ stake has made him a billionaire, the first pharmaceutical research chief ever to hit ten figures. “We were a tiny company, but we had the most powerful technology,” he says. “And sometimes that’s what counts.”
Sanofi, Regeneron’s partner of many 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. Sanofi will also pay 75% of the first $1 billion in development costs. The arrangement of which company does what is complex, but at the end of the day the two companies will split profits equally.
“George sees and feels biology in ways very few scientists really can,” says 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.”
Also key to Yancopoulos’ success: the group of scientists who have stuck with him, and, more than anyone, the man who hired him, Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer (who is himself worth $1.7 billion). Schleifer lauds Yancopoulos for his “immense talent and genius.”
Yancopoulos’ fourth drug, Praluent (for lowering cholesterol in people already maxed-out on statins), was approved on July 24. It’s expected to be a big seller, and Regeneron and Sanofi are focused on what is likely to be a pitched marketing battle with rival Amgen, which could launch its own cholesterol drug soon. But he’s not sitting still: among other things, he’s 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.
He says that he has aimed to be a different kind of R&D chief, and a bit of a throwback to his role model – and Regeneron’s chairman – Roy Vagelos, whose run as R&D head and then chief executive of Merck is legendary. Instead of acting like a portfolio manager, he is deeply involved in Regeneron’s drug discovery, and is the principal inventor on all the technology patents that underlie the invention of all of Regeneron’s drugs.
Yancopoulos still drives an eight-year-old Honda Pilot, does his kids’ laundry and dresses in the worn Oxfords and khakis of an academic scientist. 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.”
Watch Yancopoulos’ memorable panel at last year’s Forbes Healthcare Summit: