It’s 9:30 on a Monday morning in May. The previous Wednesday, Michael Abrams suddenly resigned as president and CEO of AnorMed Inc., after failing to ward off a U.S. hedge fund’s proxy battle to replace the company’s board of directors. Today, he is relaxing on the back porch of his family cottage on Lummi Island.
Abrams and his family moved to Vancouver from Philadelphia 10 years ago when his employer, Johnson Matthey, spun off its drug-research division. Abrams, now 49, was the founding president of AnorMed, which acquired most of Johnson Matthey’s portfolio of drug candidates. Today, AnorMed is knocking on the door of commercialization with its drug candidate, Mozobil. Abrams has no management meetings this Monday morning, no investor conference calls. A light drizzle falls as he gazes at the San Juan Islands and takes a few minutes to talk with BCBusiness via cell phone. When you heard that the new board decided to replace you, what was your immediate response? Given where things were going and the nature of the situation over the last six months, it did not come as a huge surprise. But I’d rather not get into the past. I have a lot of confidence in the value of the product and the technology of the company. I’m still a significant shareholder and hope that’s going to be a very worthwhile investment. Do you expect to see more activist shareholders playing a role in the local biotech industry? Whatever is happening is not unique to B.C. or Canadian biotech, but I think there are more shareholders taking active roles in companies. My sense is that it’s more of a trend and it could be played out locally as well. What would you respond to those who say Vancouver biotech has been a cozy club of local scientist/founders, and it’s time for some outside blood? We were attracted here by an attractive financing climate 10 years ago. I would say that the entrepreneurial spirit is certainly not dead or even diminished. And the kinds of people who start companies, there are still plenty of them. I don’t see any reason why that won’t continue. If you could replay your past 10 years, what might you have done differently? When AnorMed formed we were in a very strong position because we already had a drug candidate that was about to enter the clinic: Fosrenol. And we had quite a deep portfolio because we were a spinoff of a drug discovery group that had been operating for 12 years before we started. That being said, would we have gone public when we did? I think not. Because if you look at the development of AnorMed, we had a big disappointment in 2001 when a partner drug in phase two was returned to us and the stock took a big dive. We were successful at reinventing ourselves with a totally new candidate, and the value of the company today is based on totally different technology than it was when we went public in ’99. Today we would have wanted – and the markets would have wanted – more mature data before making the transition from private to public. How has the local investment climate for biotech startups changed in the 10 years since you came here? If you look at the stats, there has been relatively little new-company generation in the B.C. area. I suspect some of that is cyclical. But I think the VCs have become a little wiser in realizing that money invested in biotech startups is highly risky, and they’re looking for a little more data before putting significant amounts of money in. That raises the question: If the VCs aren’t priming the pump, how are things going to get off the ground? I suppose since my AnorMed days are over, this is something that I will be exploring. Does that imply you might be interested in the VC end? My interest is more in starting things, as opposed to the VC end. It was very apparent to me over the last couple of years that it’s the discovery and early-stage end of things that I’m most interested in. This gives me an opportunity to revisit that. Revisit how? What sorts of things would you be looking at? It’s too early to say. This all happened a week ago. I think I have a number of potential options. If there are opportunities to get more hands-on in the invention and discovery aspect, through some of the universities, that would appeal to me. If there was nascent technology that needs some help getting to the next stage, this would interest me as well. I am definitely planning to stay in the area, though. I think this is the greatest place on earth, and don’t want to move. If your interest is more in discovery, were you thinking your role at AnorMed was winding down anyway? I think that’s right. Certainly my passion lies in the invention and early stage. And AnorMed, due to the success we were having with Mozobil, was certainly headed toward commercialization. I felt that ultimately someone whose strongest interest was in building the commercial capabilities was what we would have needed soon. What are your immediate plans? I have two teenage sons, 18 and 19. My younger one is graduating high school in a couple of weeks and right after that, he and I are headed on a trip to China and Mongolia for three weeks. What are you doing right now, as we speak? We have a little cottage on Lummi Island. I’m sitting here looking out at Rosario Strait. It’s very cloudy and actually starting to drizzle a little bit. I can see Orcas Island and Clark Island across the water. Not a bad place to be sitting on a Monday morning.