Want to make the big bucks in R&D? Join the industry

George Yancopoulos

When George Yancopoulos walked away from Columbia University to join Regeneron ($REGN) in 1989, the decision to leave academia for industry was at least partly motivated by the pay differential. The move paid off and then some, with Yancopoulos becoming the first billionaire biopharma R&D head at a time when the best-paid research institute chiefs are pulling in just north of $1 million a year.

GEN has compiled a list of the 20 top-paid research institute leaders today, the figures in which compare starkly to FierceBiotech's tally of who in biopharma R&D took home the biggest paycheck last year. Yancopoulos topped the list of industry R&D chiefs with compensation of $35.5 million, well down on the $81.5 million he pulled in in 2012 but still enough to lead to Forbes crowning him the first billionaire R&D chief. In contrast, Robert Tjian of Howard Hughes Medical Institute tops the research industry list with a paycheck of $1.4 million for the fiscal year ending August 31, 2014.

Tjian will step down from his post at the end of 2016, vacating the top spot on the pay leaderboard and starting another phase of a career that has seen him try his hand at being a biotech entrepreneur. In 1991, Tjian teamed up with Genentech alumnus David Goeddel to co-found Tularik, which went on to be acquired by Amgen ($AMGN) for $1.3 billion. The other occupants of the upper echelons of the list of top-paid research institute chiefs are no strangers to industry either, with the second placed David Chao having spent time at Novartis ($NVS).

Chao now calls Stowers Institute for Medical Research home and collected $1.3 million in the 2013 calendar year. The rest of the top 10 includes some well-known names, with the Broad Institute's Eric Lander occupying fourth spot after seeing his compensation jump 40% in the financial year ending June 30, 2013. The jump took Lander's paycheck to a touch over $1 million, a significant sum but 85% less than the tenth best-paid biopharma R&D chief--Alexion Pharmaceuticals' ($ALXN) Martin Mackay--made in 2014.

Of course, to compare the roles in purely monetary terms is reductionist, with many preferring the discovery for discovery's sake ethos of academia to life in the biopharma trenches. But taking such a position entails turning your back on financial opportunities.

- read GEN's list

Special Report: Biopharma's 10 highest-paid heads of R&D