Art Levinson - Calico

A biotech legend goes back to square one

Name: Art Levinson
Title: CEO, Calico

Art Levinson's heyday could well have ended in 2009. After 14 years at the helm of Genentech, a company that helped make biotechnology a household term, Levinson accepted a $47 billion buyout from Roche ($RHHBY), leading to an early retirement from the top post. What followed were a string of board memberships, including high-profile posts at Roche and Apple ($AAPL), and Levinson seemed content to help steer some already gargantuan ships instead of embarking on another early-stage bet of his own.

And then Google ($GOOG) came calling. Specifically, back in September, co-founder and CEO Larry Page hinted at some sort of therapeutic Manhattan Project called Calico, talking big about attacking the problems beneath the problems we've learned to attack and, broadly, working to extend human life. Amid all the vaguery, two facts resonated in the biotech community: The deep-pocketed Google was going to be signing the checks, and Page had recruited Levinson to serve as Calico's CEO.

There is perhaps no better testament to Levinson's clout in the drug development world than the fact that his involvement in Calico gave it instant credibility in an industry quick to snicker at any and all billionaires parachuting into biotech with lofty rhetoric. If Page and partner Sergey Brin convinced Levinson, the thinking went, they must be onto something.

Nearly 6 months later, Calico's mission isn't much clearer (Levinson termed its target as "the challenge of staying youthful, healthy and disease-free for a longer time"), but its CEO's vision is apparently ever more convincing. By November, Levinson had successfully lured Hal Barron, his one-time Genentech employee who rose to lead Roche's R&D efforts and preside over the development of some of the world's most successful cancer drugs. Barron (who made this list last year) left the driver's seat of one of the most well-respected development operations in the industry to serve as Calico's R&D boss and do a bit of what Page described as "longer-term, moonshot thinking."

Rounding out Calico's 5-member team is decorated Princeton genomics professor David Botstein, who will serve as chief scientific officer; Genentech researcher Bob Cohen, who will be a "Calico fellow;" and University of California, San Francisco oncology professor Cynthia Kenyon, who will join as a senior scientific adviser on a part-time basis.

And now Levinson, 34 years removed from his first day as a researcher at Genentech, is back at square one, leading a company with no stated therapeutic targets, no physical address and no website. But, considering his influence, he's nearly guaranteed the industry's rapt attention and the pick of its top talent, and, using Page's logic, that might be enough to change the world with Calico.

-- Damian Garde (email | Twitter)

For more:
Google's Calico poaches Roche guru Barron to steer R&D
Google visionaries ready to invest a fortune in revolutionizing aging process
Google's biotech plan: Partner with legendary CEO, tackle aging, think outside the cancer box

Art Levinson - Calico