URC Profile

Howard Birndorf

Company: Hybritech Inc.
Year started: 1978
Industry: Biotechnology
Offices: San Diego, CA
Activity: Develops and markets monoclonal antibodies used in making diagnostic and medical monitoring tests to identify infectious, viral and cancer-related diseases.
Annual Revenue: Sold to Elli Lilly in 1986 for $450 million
Degrees: B.S., Biology, Oakland University, 1972; M.S., Biochemistry, Wayne State University, 1974
Company website: hybritech.com

“We were there at the right time. Today, it seems more difficult for biotech companies to get funding, especially early stage investment, although great commercial-oriented science will always get funded.”

Howard Birndorf, along with his partner Dr. Ivor Royston, are credited with founding Southern California’s biotech industry—the second largest biotech hub in the nation behind Boston. The company that they started in 1978, Hybritech, was the world’s first monoclonal antibody company for diagnostic applications. Hybritech is probably best known in the biomedical field for its PSA test to detect prostate cancer.

In 1986, Eli Lilly and Co. bought out Hybritech for $450 million. Birndorf went on to establish six more successful companies, including Gen-Probe and IDEC Pharmaceuticals Corp., one of the nation’s largest biotech firms. Birndorf later founded Ligand Pharmaceuticals and Nanogen, was involved in the formation of Gensia (Sicor) and was a founding director of Neurocrine Biosciences. Birndorf was among many of the executives at Hybritech who became serial entrepreneurs, going on to start several hundred companies in the San Diego area and employing thousands of people.

“I’ve had a few very influential mentors in my life, each critical to my success.”

Birndorf didn’t start off with dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. A poorly motivated student from a middle-class family, he started out as a political science major at Oakland University, then switched to biology with the intention of following in his uncle’s foosteps and becoming a doctor. Upon receiving his undergraduate degree, he applied to numerous medical schools but was rejected. He did, however, receive a scholarship to Wayne State University’s biochemistry program.

Given his family’s inability to afford further education, this was a turning point. Birndorf earned his master’s degree in two years at Wayne State, while at the same time working at the Michigan Cancer Foundation as a researcher. In 1975, Birndorf received a job offer at Stanford University in Palo Alto (CA) to do oncology research. It was there that he met the man who became his mentor and future partner, Ivor Royston. The two were both interested cancer research, so when Royston got an offer to go to UC-San Diego in 1977 as an assistant professor, he asked Birndorf to go with him and start a lab to conduct research on monoclonal antibodies. Birndorf agreed, but after a year he became restless. Together they decided that they might be able to build a business around the technology.

Birndorf admits to knowing nothing at the time about how to start his own business, but he also knew he didn’t want to be a lab technician the rest of his life. The two men bought a “how-to” book and wrote a six-page business plan to try and find financing so that they could make antibodies to sell for research purposes. Royston’s wife knew financier Brook Byers, who persuaded his firm, then called Kleiner Perkins, to invest $300,000 in Hybritech, which was more than the amount the founders requested. Byers became Birndorf’s third and most influential mentor in his life. The two have been friends doing deals together for over 30 years, while making investors a lot of money along the way.

Photo credit: Robert Benson