He may never again face a task as daunting as mapping the human genome, but Peter Barrett continues to challenge himself. His latest: learning to navigate the unfamiliar world of venture capital.
Barrett is best known for leading the team at Celera Genomics that won the arduous race to map the human genome. Now he’s the newest senior principal at international megafund Atlas Venture. At 49, the new kid on the block is charged with proving that he can identify and grow startups just as successful as Celera.
Embarassment of Riches
Barrett is one of four Atlas principals charged with investing $625 million in new early-stage life sciences companies over the next three to five years. That sum represents 40 percent of the $2.5 billion Atlas has under management. If Barrett and his colleagues are successful, they could put 22-year-old Atlas into the vanguard of genomics, proteomics and drug discovery investors.
Atlas already has more than 40 companies in its life sciences portfolio, including CropDesign NV, an agricultural genomics company based in Zwijnaarde, Belgium, deCode Genetics Inc., a population genomics company based in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Variagenics Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., company that uses genetic variances to create drug targets. Although the firm also has invested in medical device and drug delivery companies and will continue to do so, Barrett’s addition to the firm deepens its expertise in the emerging genomics and drug discovery sectors.
He is serious, focused, and driven. He will make several efforts to return a single phone call and in conversation, rarely strays from a given topic. When he laughs, the joke is usually about biotechnology. Boston-born, Barrett spends four days a week in Atlas’ Boston office and then commutes back to his home in Connecticut for the weekend.
Peter Barrett Senior Principal, Atlas Venture
Born: October 12, 1952, in Boston. Education: B.S., chemistry, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, 1974; Ph.D., analytical chemistry, Northeastern University, 1979; completed Harvard Business School’s Management Development Program, 1986. Work history: Started out in the atomic spectroscopy at Perkin-Elmer (now Applera Corp.) in 1979. Became its director of lab automation, new business initiatives in 1985. Promoted to vice president of its life sciences division in 1990 and led the company’s $200 million acquisition of Applied Biosystems in 1993. Co-founded Celera Genomics in 1998 and helped take public in 1999. Served as chief business officer and executive vice president from 1998 to 2001. Helped take public in May 1999. Joined Atlas Venture as a senior principal in January 2002. Venture focus: Genomics and proteomics-based drug discovery technology. Board seats: HuBit Genomix and Genecore. Biggest accomplishment: Launching Celera Genomics. Biggest mistake: Made incorrect assumptions when Perkin-Elmer launched its lab automation business in 1985. The initiative folded in 1988. Personal: Married with three children, will read “anything” by Tom Clancy, and his favorite flick is “Top Gun.” Did You Know? He came in third place in a downhill race with Perkin-Elmer’s European managers in 1989 on the slopes at Cortina, Italy.
He’s anxious to meet this latest challenge. “It’s really the type of thing I’ve been doing within a big company – intrapreneuring’ vs. entrepreneuring,” he says. “I can transfer a lot of the same skills of building new businesses and creating new platform technologies into this world.”
Barrett brings a personal network of scientists and researchers to Atlas from which to build management teams and boards, and a community of investment bankers and analysts familiar with Celera that are willing to watch his companies grow and even take a piece of the action. Celera, for example, had both capital and technology behind it when it was launched, but it was missing a scientific strategy until Barrett recruited Dr. Craig Venter and his team to lead the mapping effort.
“The right combination of money, talent and technology – that’s what makes a great company,” Barrett says. “I can provide that management expertise, but ultimately, in building a new company it’s more important to have the network to find the right people to lead those companies and to create the right match between experience, technical capability and leadership.”
With no startup experience beyond Celera, Barrett will initially act as an advisor to the startups he backs. He will advise on strategy and development, but it will be up to the startup’s management team to execute. Before making new investments, he will take over some of the 10 board seats held by senior principal Jean-Francois Formela, the firm’s only other U.S.-based life sciences investor. Barrett will remain a director at HuBit Genomix and Genecore.
Although he resists labeling himself a specialty investor in genomics and proteomics, Barrett plans to target investments that leverage both genome and protein-based research to better interrogate biological systems and then identify targets for therapeutic intervention.
His principal focus will be on three kinds of startups. The first includes companies creating platforms from which to discover what is causing a disease and then to intervene at the molecular or genome level. The second group creates genomic assays and algorithms with predictive toxicology capabilities to better predict how biological systems will react to drugs or therapies before a product gets bogged down in clinical trials. The third group of companies is working on ways to better manage genomics information as research moves from the mapping of a composite human genome to the mapping of individual human genomes.
“Companies that take a singular approach to understanding drug targets are not going to be successful,” he contends. “Instead of people looking at one gene at a time, now it’s about looking at multiple genes and starting to build tools to study them and using that information in applied ways and using it to create assays.”
Barrett’s ties to the scientific and investment communities are unquestionably deep. And while his operating experience is strong, it is limited to running a company under a corporate umbrella: Celera spun out of Applera, formerly Perkin-Elmer, where Barrett worked for 20 years.
Celera created much fanfare in February 2001 after being the first to the finish line in a muchpublicized effort to map the human genome. In the years since its founding in 1998, the company launched a bioinformatics business, selling its database of genomes to researchers and then launched an initial public offering of a Celera tracking stock in May 1999 for $7 per share.
The stock price soared to $251 by February of 2000, but investors weren’t convinced a database-driven business could sustain the stock’s value and it spiraled to an all-time low of $19 last September.
Feeling the heat of shareholders, Celera began to change its business model, acquiring Axys, a small molecule drug discovery and development company, and launching internal and joint efforts to commercialize its genome-based research. Once Celera’s new trajectory was set into motion, cofounders Barrett and Venter ceded control to a new team, and Barrett was free to move to Atlas.
The megafund already had been pursuing him for about a year. Barrett met Formela through a mutual friend at an executive search firm. At the time, Atlas was on the heels of closing its largest venture fund, the $967 million Atlas Venture VI, and was in the market for new partners. Barrett, still busy changing the company’s strategy, was not ready to leave Celera yet.
But Formela was persistent and drew Barrett in as a consultant on a project-by-project basis for due diligence and advice. Then, six months ago, Barrett took a seat on Atlas’s scientific advisory board. The relationship grew more intricate and complex, and by September, both were ready to sit down for a serious conversation.
“It’s a bit like dating,” Formela says. “You date, sometimes you take another date, sometimes you get engaged, and sometimes you get married.”
Joined firm in 1995. Began VC career in 1991 with SED Ventures, which focused on international life sciences investments. Previously worked as an auditor at Arthur Andersen and at Credit Lyonnais in Paris. Sits on six boards, including Actelion Pharmaceuticals Ltd., Immuno-Designed Molecules SA, and Neurotech SA.
Joined firm in 1993. Previously served as senior director of Medical Marketing and Scientific Affairs at Schering-Plough. A medical doctor, Formela once practiced emergency medicine at Necker University hospital in Paris. Sits on 10 boards, including CellZome GmbH, DeCode Genetics, Inc, and Structural GenomiX, Inc.
Joined firm in 1987. Holds a master of science degree from the University of Groningen. Sits on seven boards, including CropDesign NV, Glaucus Proteomics BV, and Impella Cardiotechnik AG.
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