Companies from venture capitalist Robert Johnston’s long list of successful start-ups have ended up on the cover of U.S. 1 more than once, most recently in 2002. Johnston, who began his career as an investment banker and founded Johnston Associates Inc. in 1968, founded Cytogen, Ecogen, Sepracor, i-STAT, Envirogen, and Praelux (formerly SEQ), and was instrumental in the early formations of Sonomed, Biocyte, Immunicon, and VelaPharm, among others.
Johnston focussed on biotech before most of us knew what it meant.
“My great idea/inspiration,” he says, “was recognizing in 1976 that Science Magazine, which was for all sciences (i.e. biology, physics, chemistry etc. etc..), had a predominance of articles that related to molecular biology.
“As I discussed this with several scientists they were all excited about the potential, and you had major scientists who were moving from physics into biology because of the potential. So we started one the of the first five bio tech companies in 1977.
“Early on there was a feeling that you could apply this in a broad range of areas, whether it was bio-fuels or enzyme degradation of waste or enzymes for new detergents etc. etc. Clearly, many of these took much longer than anticipated at that time. But the total potential of the science exceeded our optimistic hopes.
“The good news and the bad news is that our immune system the human body is a great deal more complex then we had imagined five or ten years ago. So, many solutions to major diseases such as cancer are still in the future, but the good news is that we are making dramatic progress in understanding the immune system and the origin of the diseases, etc. Solutions will be targeted and have fewer toxic side effects than current cancer therapy, for example.
“We were fortunate enough to create about 15 companies over that intervening time period. Many of them went public and were acquired by larger companies.
“The innovation is still in many of these small companies, and hopefully New Jersey can stimulate many of them, to complement or replace the pharmaceutical companies that New Jersey has lost.”