With his casual clothes and slightly disheveled hair, Mark Levin doesn’t stand out in the scientist-infested Cambridge, MA, neighborhood that’s home to his company Millennium Pharmaceuticals. In biotech circles, however, the 51-year-old Millennium CEO and cofounder is known to be somewhat of a character.
First, there’s his professional background, which includes not only the typical stints as a drug company biochemical engineer, a manager at Genentech and a venture capitalist, but also forays into brewing and computer sales and marketing. Then there’s his uncanny ability to cut lucrative deals for Millennium with big pharmaceutical firms like Bayer and Pfizer, deals that have brought in some $2 billion and that, in some cases, give Millennium 50-50 rights to any drugs developed-arrangements unheard of before Levin hit the scene. And then there are the Halloween parties (Levin reportedly tends to show up in drag) and the CEO’s unending fondness for shoes, which he explains this way: “My dad had a bunch of shoe stores, tiny little stores, and so I actually grew up selling shoes. There’s nothing I like more than going shoe shopping.”
There’s an odd parallel between what excites Levin about the men’s shoe industry today and his vision for the future of medicine. Just as he lauds the proliferation of shoe styles and colors that lets customers choose a very individualized look, he looks forward to a day when one-size-fits-all drugs will be replaced with a wider variety of treatments, each specially tailored to an individual’s illness and genetic makeup. And with a staff of 1,500 and a 2001 R&D budget of $400 million, Millennium is one of the largest companies to throw its weight so decisively behind this idea of “personalized medicine.”
Technology Review senior editor Rebecca Zacks spoke with Levin a day after his eight-year-old company’s first drug had been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Critics note that the anticancer drug did not originate in Millennium’s pipeline (the company acquired it when it bought a firm called LeukoSite in 1999). Still, its approval is an important step toward realizing Levin’s vision of a “biopharmaceutical” company-a biotech firm that actually produces therapeutic products. Levin’s enthusiasm for that vision, as well as his years of experience as a salesman, were plainly evident as he discussed his company, the drug industry and personalized medicine.