Standing By Your Partners: Taking the Long Road with deCODE’s Kari Stefansson

By Terry McGuire, Co-Founder & Managing General Partner, Polaris Partners

When Kari Stefansson asked Polaris and Arch to help him bring deCODE out of bankruptcy in 2009, I was both excited and challenged.  The company was doing amazing things on the frontiers of genetics, and the talented team was even more passionate about changing the world of healthcare.  Companies run into bumps, and this was a big one.  But sometimes great ideas take longer to develop than you hope.  As I’ve blogged before, Polaris takes pride in the long term partnership with entrepreneurs.

deCODE Genetics CEO Kari Stefansson

deCODE Genetics CEO Kari Stefansson

deCODE was one of the first Polaris portfolio companies.  In 1996, we had just raised our inaugural fund, Polaris Venture Partners I (PVP I), and Kari was building the first large scale genomics research platform (combining Icelandic blood samples with the country’s conserved genealogical and healthcare records).  The vision was to be able to rationally design effective drugs by harnessing the precise genetic factors associated with disease.

To meet Kari Stefansson is to meet a true world-changing entrepreneur.  He is brilliant, passionate and enormous determined.  He sits on the frontier of science with the certainty to change it.  Like his Norse forefathers, he will find his way through the storm of opportunity and challenge.

Through the goodwill of the people of Iceland and Kari’s force of will, the company became a fountain of important genomic discoveries and data and went public in 2000.

deCODE turned into a fantastic investment for PVP I producing very strong returns, which were particularly striking in the challenging healthcare space.  But even larger than financial performance, society had gained a revolutionary company exploring the frontiers of medicine.

In 2008, like many companies, deCODE was hit by a wave of macro events out of their control.  Global recession.  Large pharma patent cliffs.  A period when biotechnology was seriously out of favor with public investors.  As a result, no public capital was available to continue to fund its operations and the company sought bankruptcy protection.

But bankruptcy doesn’t always mean you are on the wrong path.  And clearly deCODE was not.  They have defined the big data space—and continue to be the most productive genetics discovery engine in the world.  And Kari hasn’t changed.  He will never run out of energy to pursue great science.

So, together with our partners at Arch, we formed a syndicate to acquire deCODE.  There were a few skeptics, but we really believed that the company would become a major research engine for large pharma companies.  And they did.

Today’s acquisition of deCODE by Amgen is a defining moment for deCODE’s research team, Iceland, and Kari Stefansson.

I am proud of deCODE for so many reasons:

–        I am pleased that we were able to support this world-changing science.  It is clear to every geneticist today that deCODE may be the most productive genetics discovery engine in history.  Losing this world treasure back in 2009 would have been a tragic.

–        Polaris investors will be very pleased with the investment.  This time around we have even better returns as Polaris Fund V owned just under one third of the company.

–        We are delighted for the deCODE employees and our partners in Iceland.  Throughout the severe downturn in that small country we consistently employed more than 130 of the most talented scientists in Iceland.  They never lost sight of their mission.  And I think Iceland is a better place for it.

–        For me, I am proud that Polaris and Arch were able to support Kari and deCODE through good times and bad.  For the better part of fifteen years we demonstrated a commitment to stay the course through thick and thin.

I am most proud of Kari Stefansson.  He had the vision, passion, and determination to start a ground breaking company and never give up.  This has not been a direct road to success.  Through good times and bad Kari always moved forward.  The world will be a better place because of his single-minded obsession to explore the frontiers of genetics.  And I am a better person for having joined in his vision.



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