The Answer to Today’s Big Question: Why did Amgen Buy deCODE Genetics?

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

Today, biotech giant Amgen announced that it acquired deCODE Genetics for just over $400 million in cash.  deCODE is a Polaris portfolio company and genomics pioneer.  Analysts will ask why; this certainly doesn’t fit the more common pharma model of acquiring a company with a promising drug in Phase 2 or 3 trials.

The answer is simple.  There is a great need by large biotechs and pharma companies to show true and more predictable innovation.  And Amgen’s leaders know that the future of healthcare is laid on the foundation of producing truly innovative medicines and technologies.


deCODE utilizes over 140,000 Icelandic blood samples

And that’s exactly where deCODE will help Amgen.

deCODE was big data before there was something known as big data.  They and a handful of other pioneers began the big data movement in genetics.  In the late 1990s, the world recognized the promise of exploring the human genome.  Billions of data points per patient combined with the need for hundreds of thousands of patients with complex clinical records to explore hundreds of diseases.  And to make it even more elusive, the diseases themselves were being re-classified based on the newest data available.  Now that is a big data mining challenge!

Almost all of the other companies that started in this space gave up and moved to safer ground – developing drugs.  Kari Stefansson never lost sight of what was truly important, which is pioneering the genome.

deCODE Genetics CEO Kari Stefansson

deCODE Genetics CEO Kari StefanssonSupporting your Partners: Taking the Long Road with deCODE’s Kari Stefansson

See Side Bar Story: Taking the Long Road with deCODE’s Kari Stefansson

It’s worth going back a bit.  In 1996, Kari Stefansson had a singular vision to explore the wealth of the genetics frontier by employing population genetics.  The best population in the world is that of his home country, Iceland.  But that was no easy feat.  Kari had the vision, the brilliance and the passion to convince his countryman that this was a worthy pursuit.  He also had the tenacity to take on a world filled with doubting geneticists.  And, Kari had the entrepreneurial zeal to build a company around this vision.

In the face of tremendous rational and irrational societal pressures related to medical privacy, Kari was able to build a coalition in support of transforming genomics research.   He was able to tie together large amounts of Iceland’s conserved genealogy, healthcare records, and over 140,000 blood samples volunteered by Iceland’s countrymen.  Today, Icelanders should be very proud of leading and participating in this very successful contribution to science.


deCODE research cited in other manuscripts.  Source: Thompson Reuters.

Since those early days, deCODE researchers have published over 400 major studies in peer reviewed journals.  These studies have then been cited in thousands of other research manuscripts—a true sign of the importance of any work. According to research provided by Thompson Reuters, Kari Stefansson is now among the most-cited authors in the Molecular Biology & Genetics field over the past decade. In just 2012 alone, deCODE published three seminal manuscripts that have received global attention.  The first linked the age of the father to the incidence of diseases such as autism and schizophrenia.  The second identified a gene mutation that substantially increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.  The third discovered a mutation that protects against Alzheimer’s and the likely mechanisms for that protection.  And the pace of discovery is accelerating.

Clearly Amgen wanted deCODE for more than its patents, genetic testing business, or drug development projects—although there is plenty of value there.  Amgen bought deCODE for its powerhouse research engine—including its talented genomics scientists, tools, and data.  I think what they wanted most was to enlist the passion, insight and support of Kari Stefansson in extending their place in transforming medicine.

In the end, we all will win through this wonderful collaboration.  Great medicine and great research will make deCODE and Amgen a formidable combination.

Related News Stories:

Alzheimer’s Tied to Mutation Harming Immune Response, New York Times, Gina Kolata, 11/14/12

Autism Risk Rises With Fathers’ Age, Wall Street Journal, Gautam Naik, 8/22/12

Mutation Find Bolsters Prospects for Alzheimer’s Drugs, Bloomberg, Ryan Flinn & Elizabeth Lopatto, 7/11/12

Iceland: a goldmine of genetic information, NBC Nightly News, Robert Bazell, 10/27/08

Categories: Polaris


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