Off the Cuff

Biopharma CEO: You Really Get It When You're Treating Your Own Son

Off the Cuff: Dr. Anthony Coles, Onyx Pharmaceuticals

"No matter what the circumstances, always offer hope. If you ever rob someone of hope, then you have sealed the outcome one way or the other, "said Dr. Anthony Coles, the chairman and CEO of Onyx Pharmaceuticals. Onyx is a biopharmaceutical company that develops therapies for treating cancer—it has three drugs that are approved to treat five types of cancer. The company's 2012 revenue reached $362.2 million, and its stock has more than doubled in the past year.

"Running a cancer company is all about providing hope," Dr. Coles told "Off The Cuff." It was a lesson that he said was brought home to him when his own son was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, at the age of 12. "I actually noticed that his sternum, or the chest bone, was protruding and knew immediately that something was wrong. He was rushed to the hospital and we were hoping against hope that what I knew was true, wasn't going to be. But alas, it was," he said.

He had to tell his two other sons about their brother's illness. His five-year old asked: "Is he going to die?" "When I told him, 'No, he's not going to die,' he literally skipped off. Literally. And I thought, 'How amazing is that?' Both the trust that a child has in their parent, but also the instinct and intuition to always offer hope. "

"Anyone who has to make a decision about the health care system, or about how to provide the best health care for as many citizens of this country as possible –everyone would benefit from having this up close and personal experience," Coles said. "I had that realization when shortly after our son's diagnosis I had to give him an injection. I remember holding the vial…recognizing that this vial was an opportunity to literally either help his treatments or save his life.

"And I'd been a pharmaceutical executive for 10 years, and I had never really understood what I did until that moment, and how important it was to press on and find these kinds of innovations that truly make a difference in the lives of people, "he said.

Eventually, his son received a successful bone marrow transplant from a donor found through the national registry. He's 25 now, and cancer-free.

"I don't think the biopharmaceutical industry has done a good enough job of sharing that we make a difference in the lives of people," Coles said.

In 2012, Americans spent $325.7 billion on prescription drugs. The cost of therapies is expected to rise in 2014.

"The business model for the biopharmaceutical industry is unlike any other. First of all, there's an enormous amount of risk," Coles said. "When you begin a project, you don't know whether it's successful for eight to 10 years. Secondly, it's incredibly expensive. I can't think of very many other enterprises where there's a 1 or $2 billion investment required for an eight- or 10-year right answer."

Coles decided to become a doctor when he was nine. He trained at Harvard Medical School but made the move to the biopharmaceutical industry because he said it allows him to "impact thousands of people around the world."

His first "leadership moment" came, he said, when he was 14. His family had moved to a predominantly white suburb of Washington, D.C. Ninety percent of the students in his school were white. In 1974, he was caught up in a forced integration plan and was bused, along with most of his school, to an inner-city school with a largely African-American student body. "I was the byproduct of kind of reverse integration," he said. The school wasn't as challenging, he said, so he testified before the school board, and the plan was reversed.

"Growing up as an African-American in the early '70s was an interesting experience. I've been called all of the racial epithets you can imagine. That's hard when you're a 12- or 13-year old boy, to try to understand where that kind of emotion comes when it's an adult hurling these insults at you," he said. He credits his parents with teaching to "to ignore and persevere, and to carry on, and to triumph."

"My race tends to be the least important to me, not because I'm not deeply rooted in the traditions of my family, more because I want people to remember me as an excellent CEO, and an incredible business person—and less because I want to be a black CEO, or a black business person. We will cheat society if I'm only seen as a black executive," he said. "We're so much more than just the color of our skin."