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The Faces Behind Biotech

FRONTIERS OF SCIENCE. Inside San Diego's thriving biotech industry. First in a series


If biotechnology is San Diego's new, high-risk upstart industry, the people who provide its brains, heart and soul are upstarts, too.

They are stoked by altruism, by the thrill of scientific discovery or by the potential for striking financial pay dirt through the delivery of a new miracle drug to an ailing world.

Some are visionary executives driven both by a scientific mission and an entrepreneurial spirit. Sci - entrepreneurs , if you will.

They're people like 42-year-old David Hale, who is pioneering his third biotech company in San Diego and who, appropriately enough, lives in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood called The Trails.

Some are the hard-core scientists, like 51-year-old Bill Ripka of Scripps Ranch, whose search for ways to control blood clots will be monitored by fellow practitioners and academicians in science journals, as well as by corporate executives concerned about profit-and-loss statements.

Some are wealthy venture capitalists, people with a special blend of nerve and patience, like 64-year-old Theo Heinrichs of Marin County, who has invested $25 million in San Diego's biotech industry and who maintains a year-round hotel room at the Sheraton Grande in Torrey Pines so he can visit the companies he has helped stake--even if the rewards may be 10 years off.

And there are the starry-eyed, postgraduates-cum-lab technicians, the grunts on the front lines, who cut short their dinner dates to check on lab experiments.

People like 26-year-old Regina McFadden, who remembers her first day in a commercial biotech lab. "I hoped I wouldn't forget what I learned, or how to look through a microscope, or how to do a tissue culture. And on that first day, I remembered it all, and I thought, 'Wow! I really love this!' "

These are the people who bring the character and personality to San Diego's newest and perhaps least understood community--one found not on the corner of some map, but on the cutting edge of medical science.


Bill Ripka considers himself a born-again scientist.

For 25 years, Ripka was a medium-size fish in a very big pond, working as a research chemist in the central research department at Du Pont, a kind of science supermarket that developed everything from floor polishes to fabrics, paints to medicines.

"In the '50s, '60s and early '70s, places like Bell Labs, AT&T and Du Pont were exciting places to work. They were run by scientists with a sense of purpose, a commitment to enlarge the scientific base," Ripka said.

But in time, the scientific mission shifted to one of bottom-line profits, he said. Initiative was sapped; scientists were told not to research the unknown, but to improve the existing product lines.

Science, he said, became a job of making widgets, not a journey of discovery.

"I saw myself getting complacent. I was losing my spark," the 51-year-old Ripka said.

So last year, he became a very big fish in a specialized science delicatessen, joining a small biotech firm in Torrey Pines called Corvas, which is designing drugs to control the formation of blood clots.

He and his wife moved from Wilmington, Del., to Scripps Ranch for the chance to personally design new drugs, and to help build a new company.

It was, he said, the rebirth of the scientist that lurked in his soul.

He left a mega-lab staffed by 2,000 Ph.D.s and 2,000 other lab technicians for a company with all of 35 employees.

"Now I'm surrounded, again, by driven people, people with visions and dreams, and where we can see the results of our work," said Ripka.

Today, he uses a computer to design the molecular structure of hypothetical drug compounds before they are actually constructed in the lab--not unlike a car designer who uses a computer before building a prototype.

In a company as small as Corvas, Ripka can share ideas with other scientists in the next room. "At Du Pont, there was the sense that everything had to filter through lawyers and MBAs. There were meetings after meetings, deciding absolutely nothing.

"And at Du Pont, no matter what you did, it was impossible to stand out. Scientists work the hours they do for the recognition that they've done a good job and have advanced the science. But at a place as large as Du Pont, you couldn't get that kind of singular recognition. At Du Pont, if you synthesized a new chemical, it would go to another group, and to another group after that, and ultimate credit for success would go to the officers of the company.

"If I got excited about something I discovered, before I could tell someone, I'd have to make an appointment with his secretary," Ripka said.

Now, at Corvas, the small cadre of scientists share in one another's discoveries--and frustrations.

Is he having fun yet? "Oh yeah," he said. "I'm recharged."

Ron Evans' wife of 10 years is Ellen.

His mistress of 13 years is his laboratory at the Salk Institute.

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