Since his boyhood years, Bill Hunter has had a lifelong dream to make a difference in the field of medicine.
Today, the 41-year-old co-founder and chief executive of Angiotech Pharmaceuticals is living that dream, but it transcends anything that he once might have envisioned.
Vancouver-based Angiotech's lead product, the drug-coated Taxus stent, developed in partnership with U.S. pharmaceutical giant Boston Scientific, is taking the pharmaceutical world by storm and making a huge difference to coronary patients. A stent is a wire mesh that keeps surgically cleared arteries open. Taxus stents are coated with paclitaxel, an anti-inflammatory drug developed by Angiotech.
Hunter, a former physician, was a pioneer in the development of drug coating for medical devices, which led to the formation of Angiotech in 1992.
|Bayne Stanley, Business Edge|
|Bill Hunter says Angiotech's drug-coated stent technology evolved after he gave a lecture on drug interactions while in medical school.|
This year, Angiotech is finally reaping royalty rewards from its exhaustive years of research as the worldwide market for drug-coated stents explodes (the company's royalties from drug-coated stents were $41 million US in the third quarter alone). The company is poised to tap into other markets in the field of drug-coated medical devices and biomaterials.
The one-time doctor is delighted - now he has more patients than he ever could have imagined.
1. What was your boyhood dream?
"To play for the Toronto Maple Leafs (laughing) . . . actually, as corny as it sounds, I wanted to be a doctor. It's something I always wanted to do. There were a lot of health-related issues in my immediate family - my dad died when I was a few months old and my sister had a traumatic injury when she was nine. So I guess when you're a kid, you wish you could do something about those things. I was the only boy in the family and, having talked to a lot of people in that situation who lost their fathers at a young age, it seems that there's some pressure there to grow up fast and do things ahead of schedule. I've met a lot of overachievers from that background. I did work as a physician for four years and I loved it. I actually wasn't one of Canada's disgruntled docs. I actually thought it was a wonderful way of making a living."
2. What's your view of the medical profession and health care in Canada?
"I think (health care) is one of those great Canadian sacred cows. I don't think anybody really wants to talk or think honestly about it. Our health-care system is good but it probably ranks far lower internationally than anyone wants to admit. I graduated from medical school in 1992 and a significant number of my classmates ended up leaving medicine and doing other things. That probably speaks to a wider issue. When you graduate, you think you're going to hang out your shingle, be your own little business owner, call your own shots, set your own hours and do things your way. But the reality once you're out there is very, very different. You're becoming more of a civil servant than you are an individual practitioner and you're far more regulated in what you can and can't do, how you do it and how you get paid for it than I think most people thought when they signed up."
3. How did the concept behind Angiotech Pharmaceuticals initially get started?
"One day, while I was in medical school, I was giving a lecture on scientific work I had done in graduate school. The science I'd worked on was about the interaction of drugs. I think everyone in the room was fast asleep but there was one guy at the back of the room who was a radiologist (Lindsay Machan, currently an Angiotech consultant) and he came up to me after the lecture. He said, 'That's what I do for a living, I put catheters and things into tiny little places in the body.' He was working on stents and I was working on drugs and we started to put those things together. The idea was to write a research report, maybe raise some money and develop it to a point where we could hand it off to someone who knew what they were doing."
4. Has Angiotech's business evolved the way you had envisioned at the outset?
"Did we think back in 1992 that we'd have 100-plus employees and a business worth in excess of a billion dollars? No, we never thought that. But since we became more of an operational company around '95 or '96, it has unfolded along the plan that we had hoped."
5. What's your outlook for the market for drug-coated stents?
"We haven't finished our first year of sales in the U.S. but, when we (Angiotech and partner Boston Scientific) complete our first year of U.S. sales, this will be the most successful launch of any medical product ever done in terms of sales, more than Viagra, more than Lipitor or any of the great drugs you've heard of. The growth has been explosive. I would have thought it would have been a little more of interest to people, seeing a Canadian technology taking over the No. 1 spot in that type of field. We took what was already a $2-billion market in stenting and, by adding drug coating to it, we, along with J&J (Johnson & Johnson, a competitor in the drug-coating stent market) probably doubled that market."
6. What did you think of the market's response when Boston Scientific had to recall some of the drug-coated stents in the U.S. earlier this year?
"Yeah, that's another kind of interesting Canadian phenomenon. If anything goes even remotely wrong, we can get press on an hourly basis (laughing). What we didn't see written was that it only took us about a week to recover. By October, our sales exceeded anything that had ever been done before the recall. Boston Scientific handled it very professionally. They identified on their own a complication that occurred in one in 10,000 patients. And, they diagnosed it and took action. Not that this matters, but the technology actually had nothing to do with what we did for Boston Scientific. It had nothing to do with our drug coating. But it was a huge story. It was in the Wall Street Journal pretty much every day for two weeks."
7. How do you see the drug-coated stent market evolving in the long term?
"Well, heart disease is the most common illness of man. If you take all the ways that you could die, your chances of dying of heart disease is pretty much one in two. Stenting was the most common way to treat drug disease and drug-coated stents made that procedure five or six times more effective - not five or six per cent, but five or six times more effective. There are people who say that our technology will be the standard of care for quite some time and there are those who think that competitive products being developed will be as good or better and they're going to hit the market in the 2007 timeframe.
"So I guess it depends on which school you adhere to."
8. Do you often stop and think about how many lives your drug-coating technology may be saving?
"Absolutely. There are days when we treat 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 people a day. One of the most difficult things I ever did was leave medicine (as a doctor) but then I think that, through the efforts of this company, we treat more patients in a week than I could probably see in the rest of my career. That's very gratifying. Everybody likes to grow a business and everybody likes to see things work out but, in this business, it's nice because you actually hear from people who say how they've had relatives helped by our technologies."
9. Can you talk about the potential for other markets that you're developing drug-coated technologies for?
"Historically, medicine has been divided into people who make medications and people who make hardware such as hips, knees, catheters and IV lines. But nobody ever really spent much time putting those together, using drugs to solve surgical or device-type problems. So we have initiatives going in almost every area of surgery or medical devices you could think of. Probably, our next program to be commercialized will be in gynecology to help prevent pelvic scarring after women have surgery to help prevent infertility. The product after that will be a surgical implant that vascular surgeons can use to prevent failure in bypass surgery patients. We're kind of all over the map because our technologies are broad enough to go into many different areas."
10. Coming from a medical background, how did you learn the business side of running Angiotech?
"By probably making every mistake in the book. Yeah, it was trial and error. I've also been very fortunate that we've been able to attract really great talent. I've always had a policy of hiring people with more experience than me and smarter than I am. We've certainly benefited from that. We've had senior executives from both sides of the border come here and bring the business acumen to us. I've just tried to learn it by osmosis along the way."
11. What's the key to hiring and retaining productive and loyal staff?
"You know, the people we hire could work almost anywhere and that's true for just about any good organization. What really works in our business is having a technology that is novel and exciting and the type of technology they (staff) can be proud of. A good clinical regulatory person, a good development or a good R&D (research and development) person could be offered 20 jobs, but ultimately they're going to take the job at the company they think is doing the most exciting work. For the most part, we have sold people more on what we're trying to do here than anything else - more than on (living in) Vancouver and more than on the financial opportunity."
12. What's your vision for Angiotech for 2010?
"To me, no Canadian company has ever emerged as a significant player in health care. If you look at the G8 (countries), we're the only country that doesn't have a domestic health-care company of any magnitude. Even Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Italy and France all have big companies. In six to eight years, we're not going to move from what I consider small tier to a top-tier company, but it'd sure be nice if we could move into that mid tier. Then, we could be a company that actually brings health-care revenue into the country instead of just exporting it. I'd like to be able to have about five, six, seven, even 10 different (commercial) products out there and be a sustainable, viable, emerging pharmaceutical business.That would be something to be very proud of."
13. What's the next big thing in pharmaceuticals and how do you see it having an impact on Angiotech?
"There are a couple of things. I honestly think we're one of them. We think there's going to be more of a convergence between drugs and devices. There's also probably going to be a convergence between information technology and health care, where treatment regimes become more personalized and we understand that not every drug works as well in every person. We're going to start applying this knowledge that we've gained from other industries so we can come up with more personalized medication plans for patients. For example, I think you're going to see nanotechnology revolutionize drug delivery and you'll probably see health care, over the next 20 years, go through the same type of transformation that IT did over the previous 20 years."
14. What's the most valuable lesson you've learned in this business?
"That you can't know all of it and really have to know what you don't know. There's so much that goes into making a drug. You have to build manufacturing facilities that adhere to very high standards, you have to do very complicated, long and involved clinical trials and you have to raise a lot of money. So no one person can be an expert in every field. So this is the type of business where you have to get good people and you have to be willing to let go of control in areas where you're less comfortable. If you sat down and thought about every step it takes to get a company from startup to commercialization, you'd never even try. So you have to climb each of the hills as they present themselves and not think about the global pictures. Probably the best way to approach this business is to jump in with both feet and take it as it comes."
15. Ideally, how long do you wish to remain CEO of Angiotech?
"I don't really think much about it. I'm 41 years old so it's not going to be an age phenomenon. If the business reaches a point in time where it's clearly better run by somebody who understands sales and marketing and more of the commercial side opposed to the clinical and R&D side where I'm more comfortable, that might be a good time. But I don't have any plans to leave right now. I'm having too much fun."
16. Is this a stressful business for you personally?
"Sometimes it is. Mother Nature is a very impartial evaluator. It doesn't matter how smart you are. It doesn't matter how good your scientists are. It doesn't matter what you think you know. Ultimately, when you go into a clinical trial, it either works or it doesn't. You still have to find out if you had the right piece of biology or if you were wrong. I've been on both sides of that equation. We did MS (multiple sclerosis) trials where I was sure we were bang-on and it didn't work. The (drug-coated) stent, though, turned out to be a huge hit. So it's stressful enough because there are no guarantees for success. Even big pharma companies go into a clinical program knowing that seven, eight or nine out of 10 things they try are going to fail. So there's a lot of anxiety associated with that amount of risk. On the other hand, it's tremendously rewarding because when you're right, you're so right."
17. How do you deal with the anxiety?
"My wife would say red wine (chuckling). I don't know. The more time I'm in it, the less it bugs me. I find it pretty exciting. There are days when it's tough but I would say 95 per cent of the time it's more exciting than it is stressful. It's a lot of fun to be a part of it."
18. If you had to trade jobs with one other CEO for one day, who would it be?
"I'd probably trade places with Jim Tobin at Boston Scientific. He has presided over a remarkable turnaround at one of the world's biggest medical device companies. I would find it fascinating to understand how bigger, longer-standing businesses function because it's quite different from how a startup growth company functions."
19. How important is money to you?
"Personally? Not much. I've been fortunate that anything I've ever wanted has already been taken care of. That's not because I was born into it. I was born into quite the opposite (financially), actually. But it's because of the success of Angiotech. So I'm fortunate because I go to work now because I find it fun to do and maybe that's why I don't find it stressful."
20. What's your most important goal beyond business?
"I've got three young kids and I'd like them to grow up having the desire to go out and fulfil the things that they want to do and chase their goals with a lot of vigour. Since they've been raised with a lot of advantages, I still want them to be hungry as if they weren't."
THE COMPANY: PHARMACEUTICALS
* Brass: Bill Hunter, president/CEO; David Hall, chief financial officer.
* Profile: Angiotech is a pioneer and world leader in the emerging field of drug-coated medical devices and biomaterials. Its premier formulation is a stent coating to prevent renarrowing in coronary arteries (a stent is a wire mesh inserted in surgically cleared arteries to keep them open). Angiotech has exclusive licensing agreements with two U.S. companies - Boston Scientific Corp. and Cook Inc.
* Accolades: Angiotech was honoured this year as B.C. Biotech's life sciences company of the year.
* Stats: Angiotech's third-quarter revenue was $44.3 million US, including $41 million in royalties, primarily derived from royalties from Boston Scientific's sales of the Taxus stent.
* Recent Stock Price (TSX:ANP): $22.70 (52-week range, $18.92-$70).
* Website: www.angiotech.com
* HQ: 1618 Station St., Vancouver, V6A 1B6.
* Phone/Fax: 604-221-7676/221-2330.
IN PROFILE:BILL HUNTER
* Title: President/CEO, Angiotech Pharmaceuticals Inc.
* Born/raised/age: Toronto/41.
* Education: University of British Columbia, master of science, medical degree.
* Family: Wife Cathryn.
* Career: Hunter co-founded Angiotech Pharmaceuticals in 1992 and was chief scientific officer until 2002 when he was appointed president and CEO. He also spent four years as a physician.
* Moonlighting: Hunter is on the boards of Neuromed Technologies, Vigil Health Management, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and the biotechnology MBA program at University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business.
* Accolades: Hunter is a former winner of the Canadian Venture Capital Association's Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
(Gyle Konotopetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)