In the middle of the past decade, a neuropathologist at Harvard was frustrated with the slow pace of academic research. Studying the mechanics of multiple sclerosis in the brain, Kari Stefansson wondered if there was a way to hasten the development of genetic-based tests to predict and better understand MS and other diseases.
Like other scientists with an entrepreneurial bent, Stefansson’s solution was to turn to commerce as a way to further his science. In 1996, after leaving Harvard, he founded deCode Genetics in Reykjavik, Iceland, his hometown.
His idea was in part an experiment to see if genomic research–then all the rage as scientists raced to sequence the human genome–could lead quickly to new drugs and thus to profits. This was a subset of the grand experiment of biotechnology itself, which over 35 years has seen scientists sink tens of billions of dollars into mostly early-stage projects that in some cases has provided breathtaking cures but more often has not. As an industry, biotech has suffered losses every year except one.
In 1996, deCode’s plan was to scour the genomes of Iceland’s 300,000 people in search of genetic risk factors for common maladies such as heart disease and cancer. The project was made possible by a controversial act of that country’s parliament allowing the company access (with consent) to citizen’s medical records. In 2000, the company went public on the NASDAQ for $18.00 a share, eventually raising $172 million. In the first day of trading, the stock popped up to $29.00.
At the time, a major venture capitalist and a lead investor in deCode told me that deCode and other genomics companies such as Millennium and Celera represented the future of medicine.
Nearly 13 years after deCode’s founding, Kari Stefansson may be the last man standing from the original genomics crowd–and his company is in deep trouble.
A few days ago, the company announced that it had only $3.7 million left in cash. “The company believes it has sufficient resources to fund operations only into the latter half of the third quarter,” reported a recent deCode press release.
But Stefansson says deCode is not yet ready for an obituary. “We are restructuring to focus on our core activities,” he says, having told investors in a call on August 10: “We are making good progress in recasting deCode as a leading gene-based diagnostics company.”
Perhaps more important is the precarious position of deCode’s genomics research effort. For more than a decade, it has produced a prodigious number of important papers identifying genetic risk factors and published their findings in journals such as Nature and Science.