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This article by Christopher Mario was prepared for the August 25, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Man of the Future Charts a Future in Princeton
Famed management guru Tom Peters has hauled in buckets of money telling us that change is good. That today’s manager should expect to have five, eight, whatever number of careers in his or her working life. That people who do one thing day in and day out for their entire careers are people who simply lack imagination.
If you’ve got $100,000 burning a hole in your pocket, you can have Tom visit your next office party to tell you and your coworkers how great changing careers and taking risks can be. Or, you can just show up at the U.S. 1 Technology Showcase to hear from a guy who unlike Tom Peters has actually walked the walk.
That guy is Dr. Gregory Stock, and his resume could give you whiplash.
Best-selling author. University professor. Bioethicist. Professional expert. And those are just the day jobs. He’s also run for Congress, holds a few patents for dental devices invented in a "brainstorming" session with a dentist friend, and was asked to advise ex-President Clinton about "the challenges of the next century."
But it’s not enough. There is one more mountain to climb for this 54-year-old Ph.D. in biophysics and father of a 9-month-old baby. Greg Stock is moving to Princeton to become a captain of industry.
Which explains how we got a guy whose speeches and media appearances take up more than seven, single-spaced pages on his resume to show up as speaker for the luncheon on Thursday, September 2, at 11:30 a.m., part of the U.S. 1 Technology Showcase and the Princeton Chamber of Commerce Expo at the Westin Hotel in Forrestal Village.
Stock has been featured on CNN, USA Today, the New York Times, People Magazine, and the front page of the Wall Street Journal; he’s had heavily promoted public debates with the likes of famed historian Frances Fukayama, notorious anti-technology Luddite Jeremy Rifkin, and Leon Kass, who heads the President’s Council on Bioethics; he gets paid five-figure honoraria to talk about cloning and the human genome at legal, biotech, and investment conferences. Heck, he’s even been on Danish National Television.
Yet he ‘s doing the Princeton Chamber and U.S. 1 Technology Showcase for free. Why? In part to share his view that radical technological developments like cloning and deciphering the human genome are the beginning of a fundamental alteration of our understanding of what it means to be human.
But more than that, Stock is coming to the Showcase in Princeton to introduce himself to our business community. He appears to harbor no doubt that his new biotech company here, Signum Biosciences, is going to be big. And given what that company is up to, he just may be a man Princeton needs to know.
The son of intellectual parents who "valued research and science a great deal," as he recalls, Stock was raised in California, Arizona, and England before his family landed in Baltimore. An overachiever from an early age, Stock skipped his senior year in high school to enroll as a 16-year-old at Johns Hopkins, where his brother, Jeff, now a professor of molecular biology at Princeton and the co-founder of the new Signum Biosciences venture, was already a student.
Although he describes himself as "a very social person," missing his senior year in high school did not faze Stock. "I have always been forward looking, not backward looking," he says, and he was more interested in getting on with things than missing out on high school parties. "I get excited about the possibilities and opportunities I see in front of me," he says.
It would be the first of many abrupt jumps in his life, and in what would become characteristic of those later jumps, Stock wasn’t really sure where it would lead.
"I suspected I would be doing something in science," he recalls of his arrival at Hopkins in 1966, but he wasn’t sure what. "I have always been very good at math and science, very much a questioner. Figuring out how things work, and the way they are put together has always fascinated me."
Stock ended up majoring in biophysics with a minor in physics, embarking on an educational journey that would last until 1977, when he earned his Ph. D. in biophysics at Hopkins with a dissertation on how to use laser light scattering to monitor the swimming speeds of bacteria and sperm. This was followed by three years of post-doctoral research on limb regeneration in newts.
"If you cut off one of their limbs," Stock says of newts, a kind of small salamander, "they grow another. Their cells have to go back to a primitive state to regrow the new limb. But, how do the cells know where they are and what they have to do? If you perturb the wound just the right way, for example, they will sprout not one, but two or three perfect new limbs. It’s rather amazing, and highly reproducible."
Stock’s postdoctoral work and papers from those years contributed to a rich scientific dialogue still underway in this field, where hopes today are finally mounting both for definitive answers about how such regenerative programs are guided, and for using these new understandings therapeutically. Stock, however, took a different path following his postdoc, as he had come to the conclusion that a traditional career as an academic researcher would be too confining.
"Science these days is about building a mountain grain by grain," Stock says of basic research. "Progress is inexorable and rapid, but everyone is just adding their own little grains. One of the reasons I pulled back from basic research was that I found the overall landscape of science and technology far more interesting than the day-to-day problem-solving of a particular specialty. To me the most interesting thing is how the pieces fit together – what a discovery in one area means for all the others."
The urge to look at the big picture would eventually enable Stock to become the widely quoted expert on the implications of biotechnology he is today. But at the time, the discovery that the path of the career academic on which he found himself was coming to an end was a bit jarring.
"I could see myself as an aging, highly successful academic," he recalls, "and it scared me. Was that really all I would know, given everything the world had to offer? I’d done three years of post-doc and was at the point where I would set up my own lab. The path seemed natural, but comfort and inertia were what were driving me. I was there because I was good at such work, and had grown up in an environment that had pushed me in that direction. It felt like I could do more, so I decided to get up my courage and leave academics for a while."
As part of his academic work, Stock had developed a facility with computers, programming, and systems design. Armed with a marketable skill, he looked around and to his surprise quickly got an offer from Citicorp’s computing arm, something he would never have guessed. But he liked the people and the project, and he took the position, and over the next five years, from 1980 to 1985, he helped develop the banking giant’s first computer networks and ATMs.
But life as a well-paid computer geek in Southern California was not the answer either, Stock found.
"I learned a great deal about computers and networks, the other central development (biotechnology being the first) reshaping our world, but felt it wasn’t leading anywhere for me," Stock recalls of this foray into corporate life. "The problem solving was as challenging as that in basic science, but I couldn’t think of anything within the company I could aspire to, or any larger issues there that were nearly as interesting as those in science. I didn’t really want to go back into academics, and I didn’t want to stay in computer sciences, so I decided to go to Harvard Business School. The integrator of the world is business, and I wanted to understand that realm better, see where entrepreneurial skills might take me."
But first, Stock wrote a book. It may be true that you can’t judge most books by their covers, but you can judge "The Book of Questions" that way: it’s, um, a book of questions. Just questions.
Part self-help book and part parlor game, Stock wrote it more or less on a whim the summer before business school. That was 55 printings, 17 languages, and more than 2 million copies ago.
A list of questions meant to spur serious discussions among friends and enable readers to probe their values, the book was a surprise hit, landing on the New York Times bestseller list for 26 weeks. It was followed after Stock graduated from Harvard by "The Book of Questions: Love and Sex," "Business, Politics and Ethics: The Book of Questions," and "The Kids’ Book of Questions," which will be re-released in a new updated edition this November.
"I was visiting friends in Oregon, and we were sitting around until 3 a.m. talking about this and that, arguing about life, challenging one another in playful ways and I thought, ‘Why are these kinds of exciting exchanges so rare?’" Stock recounts of the genesis of the book. "You have them all the time as a student, but later in life you don’t."
Stock decided to write up a few questions that he thought might catalyze late-night gabfests among the post-collegiate crowd. He tested them on friends, and found that they evoked even more interactions than he had hoped. He added more questions over the months, and finally set up a small publishing company with a friend to self-publish the book. It sold about 15,000 copies, a stunningly large number for a self-published book, and following an appearance on one of the national news programs as the master of the interrogative, a major publisher picked up the book.
"I was naive about the publishing process," Stock says. "Rather than go out and seek a publisher, I decided to do it on my own, and strangely enough, it worked. But the funny thing is that had I found a publisher early on – and I no doubt could have had I tried – the book probably never would have achieved the success it ultimately did. I needed the extra year of input from talk shows and other exchanges to refine the material. It succeeded quite simply because it gives people permission to talk about things they really care about, things that are meaningful to them. Without a catalyst, we just don’t take the conversational risks to routinely engage people that way. But when we do, it can be magical. I still recall a number of letters from people saying that they got married because of that little book."
A combination of the willingness to go out on a limb and try something new, plus luck, translated into a major success with the book. And with that success, Stock gained a level of independence that "gave me more latitude to try other things."
In business school, it occurred to Stock that in most people’s lives, resources are not the primary constraint – and of course, although he says it did not make him rich, "The Book of Questions" did put the question of resources on the back burner for him for a while. The true constraints, he decided, are imagination, commitment, and drive. And he decided not to be constrained.
"I realized that ideas and commitment were the real limitations, that given those, resources could be found," he says. "That realization expanded my horizons about what I might achieve. It was the biggest lesson I learned at Harvard."
Stock took this realization about the expansion of his horizons and ran with it. While writing the follow-ons to "The Book of Questions," Stock revisited an idea that had occurred to him in graduate school and that he had explored during his computer years at Citicorp. He wrote "Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism," a book that examined how advances in computing and biotechnology were leading to an evolutionary breakthrough as significant as occurred 500 million years ago when single cells joined together to form multicellular life. Only this time, Stock wrote, we are the cells, and the glue joining us all together is our technology.
A futuristic meditation on nothing less than the nature of being, "Metaman," published in 1993, explores from a biological perspective how humans and computers are merging into a higher level entity, a superorganism that is global in extent and exhibits many of the properties of a living creature. And he considers what this development would mean for humanity.
The book was well received, got reviewed in New York Times, and found a core following, but unlike "The Book of Questions," the challenging "Metaman" was not a bestseller. And it is now out of print. Meanwhile, Stock returned to the academy, serving at UCLA, Tulane, and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, as he fleshed out a field of study broad enough to inspire him.
"It became clear to me that the biggest impact on humanity of the evolutionary transition underway was that it would inevitably lead to the modification of human biology," Stock says of the ideas he has been exploring for more than a decade, including the impact of genetics, germline engineering, and such reproductive technologies as embryo screening. "As we decipher our biology and learn to modify and adjust it, we are learning to modify ourselves – and we will do so."
Stock embarked on this new area of expertise at an opportune time, just as the biotech revolution got off the ground and formerly outlandish ideas like cloning your own twin, or choosing the eye color of your children, or discovering genetically engineered therapies to combat disease moved from the stuff of science fiction closer to science fact.
Returning to UCLA, Stock was named director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at the School of Medicine in 1998, a position that would catapult Stock onto the national scene as a prominent commentator on biotechnology and its implications.
As described on the program’s website, Stock’s current work explores "the critical technologies poised to have large impacts on humanity’s future and the shape of medical science. His goal has been to bring about a broad public debate on these technologies and their implications, leading to wise public policies surrounding their realization. Of particular interest to the program are the implications for society, medicine and business of the human genome project and associated developments emerging from today’s revolution in molecular genetics and bioinformatics."
Stock’s first big splash in this new arena occurred in 1998, when he organized the first major public symposium on engineering the human germline (layperson’s translation: designer babies) and managed to get leading ethicists and scientists, including French Anderson, the father of gene therapy, and the reclusive James Watson, discoverer of the structure of DNA, to participate.
"At the time, the topic was completely taboo," Stock says of the event, which occurred just a year after the much-publicized birth of Dolly the cloned sheep. "And I had never run an event of this scope before. I had experience in the field, but to moderate a 90-minute panel of Jim Watson and a veritable who’s who of science, and to orchestrate the whole event before more than 1,000 people, including congressional staff, reporters from major newspapers, and lots of experts, did not feel safe to me." But it went well, was covered on the front page of the New York Times and Washington Post the next morning, and turned out to be a landmark event in the discussion of genetic engineering and the possibilities of gene therapies. The proceedings were published by Oxford University Press in a book Stock co-edited, and Senate Majority Leader and Princeton alumnus Bill Frist’s staff insisted on being sent a tape of the entire proceeding to study.
The symposium was also a landmark for Stock himself. Suddenly he was everywhere, appearing in hundreds of venues during the next few years, discussing not just biotech policy and genetic engineering, but cloning, embryo screening, and even on one occasion having to listen to theories on UFOs from the tin-foil hat crowd on a national late-night radio call-in show. "Few audiences are too small or obscure," the Wall Street Journal rather snarkily noted in a 2002 front-page profile of Stock.
But Stock was willing to put up with the intermittent discomforts for the opportunity to spread his message, because as he saw it, so few respected voices in the scientific and policy communities seemed willing at the time to speak forcefully and coherently in public to rebut the chorus of naysayers trying to fetter basic biomedical research. When it comes to cloning and most of the other technologies now being developed that may one day enable humans to alter the building blocks of who they are, Stock’s message is clear: We’ll do just fine.
"We have spent billions to unravel our biology, not out of idle curiosity, but in hope of bettering our lives," he writes in the first chapter of his 2002 book "Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future." This unraveling will present moral and ethical challenges, but the hysteria generated by the prospect of human cloning, genetic engineering, and stem-cell research is misguided, Stock believes.
"The possibilities now emerging will force us to confront the very question of what it means to be a human being," Stock wrote in Reason Online in 2002. "But however uneasy these new technologies make us, if we wish to continue to lead the way in shaping the human future, we must actively explore them. The challenging question facing us is: Do we have the courage to continue to embrace the possibilities ahead, or will we succumb to our fears and draw back, leaving this exploration to braver souls in other regions of the world?"
Advocates of heavy regulation or outright bans on genetic engineering, especially involving embryos, worry that widespread genetic manipulation could limit genetic diversity. Or could produce horrible mutants. Or could stratify the world’s population into two groups, those who have access to the technology and those who don’t. Or could be misused to eugenic ends, perhaps even to purposely produce a sub-species of servant humans as described in Aldous Huxley’s dystopic "Brave New World."
These are possibilities to consider and guard against, but they are not sufficiently dire – or likely – to justify trying to stop science in its tracks, Stock believes. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back. Nor should it.
As he told the Wall Street Journal in 2002, "People will look at this a thousand years from now and will forget all the trauma and the difficulty. The ability to rework our own biology will be one of the basic breakthroughs that laid the foundation of their lives."
From academic researcher to computer developer to bestselling author to expert on genetic engineering – Greg Stock has already had more than enough careers for one man, it would seem. But in September, Stock will arrive in Princeton with his wife, Lori Fish, a textile designer, and their new baby to devote his considerable energy to a new line of work: biotech entrepreneur.
Along with his brother, Jeffry Stock, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton, Greg Stock has founded Signum Biosciences at Princeton Corporate Plaza. Based on a proprietary suite of screening technologies developed in Jeffry’s lab and licensed from Princeton, Signum is developing therapeutics for dementia and Parkinson’s, and commercializing a new class of anti-inflammatories it has discovered.
With a staff of 10 and a completed funding round of $1.5 million, soon to be followed by a raise of $3 to $5 million, Signum is "looking at the two primary sites of reversible protein methylation, both of which have strong effects on global regulatory pathways linked to a important diseases. We have significant intellectual property here, and our approach is proving very fruitful," Greg Stock reports. "We have already patented a lead anti-inflammatory operating by a mechanism entirely different from existing NSAIDS (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), and we have a strong therapeutic candidate for Alzheimer’s as well."
Unusually, Signum is exploring both pharmaceutical and more complex botanical molecules as potential therapeutic agents. The company’s lead anti-inflammatory agent, which is scheduled to complete early clinical trials in 2005, is a simple organic molecule being developed using traditional pharmaceutical approaches. If successful, the agent could be very lucrative as an over-the-counter topical agent. In addition, the company may use a novel strategy and spin off a dietary supplement (a botanical product with a long history of human use that is not reviewed by the FDA, and thus much easier to bring to market) as a way of generating early cash flow.
"Signum’s screening technologies have the potential to elucidate the mechanisms of operation of a number of complex botanicals we’re looking at," Stock says. And while such understandings would appropriately not be enough to satisfy the FDA for a botanical’s use as a prescription drug, it might lead to a milder well-characterized supplement that could be of broad benefit while a related pharmaceutical moves towards FDA approval, he says.
"Only where the risks are insignificant because of a history of prior use and solid toxicology research, and only where the potential rewards are so substantial that we ourselves would want to take such a botanical extract would we consider licensing such a supplement, though" says Stock.
Armed with proprietary technology, some cash, and a plan, Signum may very well succeed where others have failed and become a major drug company in its own right. But the question for Greg Stock has to be: Why? "With Signum, I am not just writing about the future, I will be making a direct impact," Stock says. "It’s one thing to talk about healthcare, another thing to meaningfully affect it."
Founding a company is also the natural result of everything Stock has done in his professional life until now, he believes. "I feel that Signum is precisely what I need to do," he says. "It’s something that has brought together every talent I have, from business school and public policy analysis to biology and high-technology development, to writing, public speaking, and dealing with the press."
Yet industry veterans know that drug development is not glamorous, especially early-stage. While you travel to lunches with demanding investors and wait for the toxicology results of your latest compound, hoping against hope that the rats lived, Danish National Television is not calling you up for interviews.
"Running the company will be my primary focus," Stock promises, "but I will continue to write, speak, and lecture about technology, genomics, and the future. I’ve had to become increasingly selective in my scheduling, but we have good people at Signum, and so far the effect of my broader activities has definitely been synergistic."
But what will happen when the demands of a successful and expanding company take up too much of his time? "If it feels that way, I’d better take a hard look at how I’m delegating," says Stock. "In my experience success at something you are passionate about is not some heavy burden, it is exhilarating and opens up new possibilities."
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