There aren’t many doctors with a Tony Award. Come to think of it, venture capitalists aren’t typically bestowed with theater’s most coveted prize either.
As an oncologist, scientist, entrepreneur and Broadway producer, Ivor Royston could boast all this, though he’s not one for boasting. The headline “From Biotech to Broadway” might suffice for him. But like all good narratives, his story reveals plenty of twists.
The La Jolla man is best known for co-founding the first biotechnology company in San Diego. He is often called the founding father of San Diego biotech for catapulting a wave of entrepreneurialism that led to what’s now the region’s second largest industry in revenue.
The 65-year-old with a contagious zeal says he’s simply doing what he loves: launching companies that bring medical advancements to patients. He is now managing partner at Forward Ventures, which has financed 66 life sciences companies.
Art allows the visionary in Royston to dwell in an imaginary space that may be unthinkable in the concrete world of business. The theater’s rising red velvet curtain counterbalances his ever-churning fervor for science and commerce.
When I met Royston in his La Jolla office, it felt more like a producer’s loft than a high-powered venture capital firm. The walls were gilded with a photographic print of Royston’s own DNA, paintings from San Diego’s beloved Manny Farber, Jersey Boys posters and photos of Royston himself beaming alongside Stephen Spielberg, Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford, as well as Royston’s wife Colette and their two children.
He talked about the deep connection between art and science, his role in making San Diego a biotech hub and how he’s either “passionately on or exhausted.”
Aside from entrepreneurship, you value innovation in theater as well and have sat on the board of the La Jolla Playhouse, on and off, for three decades. What do art and science have in common?
The thing they have most in common, at least here in San Diego and at the La Jolla Playhouse, is this aspect of innovation. I talk about the innovation economy, which is so important to San Diego now, whether it’s biotech, telecommunications, wireless, IT or what have you. But I also find there’s a lot of creativity in theater here in San Diego, whether it’s the La Jolla Playhouse or the Old Globe.
That’s led to forming what we call Innovation Night which is coming up on October 6th, where we bring the technology community to the La Jolla Playhouse so they can see what’s going on.
Why bring scientists and artists together?
I think scientists are so focused on objective fact. You’re not really complete unless you also embrace your emotions and feelings about life, which I think you can do better in art than in science. Especially if you’re an oncologist like me that used to see cancer patients dying a lot. There was a great need to escape from this world. For me, theater and film provide that. So you could be inspired about life and other things that you can get through art.
You were really inspired by Jersey Boys when it premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse.
For years, I’ve enjoyed going to theater. So when Jersey Boys was first developed at the La Jolla Playhouse I saw it and thought, “This is absolutely terrific.” I called the New York producers and said, “Is there any way I can get involved?” They said, “Funny thing you should call right now. One of our other co-producers just dropped out. I could give you their position.” I said “I’ll take it!”
I figured I’m pretty good at forming partnerships because I do that for a living at Forward Ventures. I’ll just raise a partnership for Jersey Boys because I knew a lot of other people in town liked it as well. So I formed a partnership called the Pelican Group which invested in Jersey Boys. We’re a co-producer on Jersey Boys for which I received a Tony Award. (Laughs and picks up the statuette.)
That must have been a thrill.
That was a thrill. I was on stage. It’s not that many venture capitalists or doctors that have a Tony award for Broadway. But it was a Tony award-winning show and all the producers get it. I’m a member of the Broadway league now so I vote on other Tony awards for all the shows now. I was elected to membership in what’s called the Broadway League. It’s like the Academy, you know.
What has your involvement with the arts, co-producing several theater productions and films and even writing your own treatment for a screenplay, given you that science and medicine hasn’t?
In science and medicine you have to deal with the facts as they are, with the limitations with what you know for sure. And you have to deal with something called the FDA. The FDA that says “You have to follow our rules about when you can use these new products in patients.”
So you conceived of a screenplay where a doctor cures cancer by breaking a few rules along the way.
I said, “Wait a minute, what happens if somebody doesn’t follow the rules? What happens if he knows he can cure cancer with antibodies and doesn’t have to follow the rules and just does it?” That’s what this treatment is all about. And it nearly became a movie. If you ask me my biggest mistake, I had an offer to make this into a television movie of the week. And I was just too arrogant about it. I thought it should be in the movie theater and it never made it to the movie theater.
Dr. Daniel Gold said that you’re either passionately on or exhausted. What keeps you passionately on?
I love doing what I’m doing and I’m always looking for an encore. What really gets my juices going is something novel, something new, something that hasn’t been done before. Usually another start-up of course. Some young guy will come in with a great idea and really turn me on and I feel here’s somebody I can really help.
It’s about the novelty and innovation. In the end, it has to make a difference to patients.
You were an assistant professor of medicine at UCSD in the 1970’s. This was a time when academics didn’t dare venture into the business world. Why did you?
My whole goal in medicine was to develop new treatments for patients and I wanted to be on the front lines treating the patients. It wasn’t enough for me to be in the lab working on the project. I wanted to be involved in the actual use of the things I developed in treating patients. I wanted to do the whole thing.
But you got a lot of resistance from your peers who didn’t think professors should start businesses.
There were these meetings held about “What do we do with Royston?” As Brook Byers, said “the pioneers have arrows shot at them.” I had arrows shot at me.
So it was very difficult and people did have secret meetings about me. But in the end it turned out to be fine. It’s now very much encouraged.
What did Hybritech ultimately do for San Diego?
I try not to be too immodest, but at least in that question, Hybritech did a lot. It was a successful company. It succeeded in developing really novel products that changed how we do things. And I’m thinking specifically of the PSA test for prostate cancer. It was the first one which revolutionized the way we manage prostate cancer. Every man over 50 today gets a PSA test to check on his prostate.
By having that one successful company, and with me having come over from academia to help develop this company, it spawned so many other university researchers to do the same thing. So it was a real catalyst.
Where did it land San Diego on the biotech map and where on that map are we today?
Basically Hybritech was the first biotech and now we have one of the top places in the world to develop biotechnology. It’s very exciting to look and see we were part of that whole movement.
I think San Diego is the best place in the country to develop a biotechnology company.
Interview conducted and edited by Rebecca Tolin. Please contact her at email@example.com.