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From Scientist to CEO

An Interview with Dr. Magda Marquet

by William Seith, MBA ’13


From lab to market. From scientist to CEO. These terms represent the dreams of the students at the Rady School of Management, and they also describe the life of Dr. Magda Marquet. After receiving her Ph.D. in Biochemical Engineering from INSA/University of Toulouse, Marquet embarked on a 25-year career in the biotechnology industry. Among other things, she directed development at Vical Incorporated, patented novel methods for DNA production and, most notably, founded Althea Technologies. She was the winner of the 2005 Regional Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the life sciences category, and Althea Technologies received several “Best Companies to Work For” awards from the San Diego Business Journal. We sat down and talked to her about her road from lab to market.

You’re an inspiration to scientists and business people alike, but how do you perceive yourself?

Let me start out by giving you some background. I grew up in a very small country called Andorra, which is between France and Spain. I went to France for high school and college, and then I decided to get a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering. It was the beginning of the recombinant DNA revolution and the use of cloning techniques to make proteins, which led to the founding of companies such as Genentech and Amgen.

It was all very new at the time, and I was fascinated by that. When I finished my Ph.D., I joined a company in Strasbourg [France] called Transgene. Transgene was the only biotech company in Europe at the time, so there were people from all over the world, including the U.S., who were coming to this company to become involved with recombinant DNA technologies. This created a very interesting melting-pot environment to work in. Even before my time at Transgene, I was very interested in the U.S., particularly California, so after working with Transgene for three years, I decided it was time to make the move. My husband, who was at the Pasteur Institute at the time, also felt that it was the right time to move to California. It was a bold move because I had to quit my job. Everyone told me that I was insane to go through with the idea.

That must have been quite a transition!

Yes, and the surprising thing to me was how quickly I was able to not only find a job, but find a job that was much better [than the one I had previously].

Moving back to the question you were asking before, one of the main qualities you need to start and build your own business is that you have to be bold sometimes. You have to make decisions when everybody else is telling you that you’re wrong, stupid; and if you feel it in your gut, you have to go ahead regardless.

Do you feel that the conservative decision making valued in scientific fields is at odds with such bold moves?

Yes, that’s a very good point. The training to become a scientist requires analytical and logical decision making. Having the two together can be rare.

When I came [to California], I was able to find a job and obtain a green card, [and I] was very grateful to San Diego for giving me the opportunity. In fact, today I am still good friends with the gentleman who gave me my first job. We had dinner in December, and he reminded me that [when he first met me], I was literally sitting at his doorstep with my résumé. Which brings to mind another quality — persistence!

As I advanced in my career and had the opportunity to work at several biotech companies, mainly in product development, such as Amylin and Vical, I found out that technical skills took me to a certain place, but what really helped me advance in my career were people skills. I seemed to be able to delegate tasks to other people. I was able to motivate my group and get things done.

So you found yourself excelling in these areas compared to your peers?

Right. When I was getting performance reviews from work, this was what my boss was telling me. It’s an area [of business] that’s definitely interesting, and I think everyone who starts a business has to realize that no matter how good you are, you’re not going to be doing much if you are by yourself. You have to learn how to trust other people. You have to be able to have a vision, communicate this vision and motivate your team to get a result and make things happen.

You have to realize that when you start a business, it’s a roller coaster. Sometimes things go well and sometimes [laughs] things don’t go according to plan. Sometimes concepts make sense on paper, but these ideas don’t materialize, so you have to surround yourself with a well-rounded team. You really have to have a team of people that is there helping you adapt to new situations if necessary, and not only do you have to be open and challenged by them, but you must give back to them as well. As a leader, you have to make sure that the people who support you can grow, that they have an opportunity to become who they want to be. So it’s really a game that goes both ways.

What were some of the challenges you faced as an entrepreneur, and what did you learn?

I think one of the good things to realize is that people who say no to you will very often still be useful to you. They may tell you, “I really think you should focus on this area,” or “I really don’t think you’ve analyzed the competition the way you should,” or “Your financial projections are not realistic.” You have to really take these comments seriously because even if they don’t invest, you may still get some very good insights. Then you have the opportunity to refine your plan and go back and continue. However, once the money is in the bank, you have to deliver on all the promises you made to your investors.

When we were first starting a business, we were starting from scratch. We didn’t have anything. We didn’t have a pen, a desk, a fax machine. So on the first day, we had to make some unexpected decisions. Do we go and buy a coffee maker? A fax machine? A wastebasket? I’m not even kidding!

So you’re dealing with a lot of small details along with complex ones?
Yes, you have to do all of that. When you’re a successful entrepreneur, you have to be able to be at 30,000 feet; you have to have a vision of who you want to be and what you want to do. At the same time, you have to be able to very quickly take care of details. I believe that is the most difficult part of entrepreneurship, because people are usually either very good visionaries or very good at execution. For most people, it is very hard to do both.

Let me give you an example: If you’re just spending your day making grand plans and strategies but then you don’t deliver, you will run out of cash, right? If [on the other hand], you are really operationally driven and focused on execution, you will not be able to motivate your team or you may not be able to go and sell to your customers. You really need to be wearing both of these hats of vision and execution to be successful, which is not easy.

How did you manage yourself when you were switching between those different hats? How did you deal with the stress? Was it trial by fire?

Sometimes it was trial by fire; let me be honest [laughs]. However, one of the things I did [to deal with stress] and still do, is exercise and practice yoga every day. It has definitely helped me stay sane. I think that daily meditation can also be helpful. When you start a business, there is a lot of chaos. There is a lot of enthusiasm as well, and it is a lot of fun; but it’s also chaotic, at least in my experience. It’s a bit like having a new baby!

Besides the excitement involved in starting your own business, can you describe some of the other unexpected aspects that you faced starting off?
There are certainly a lot of surprises. Some things that you expect to happen never do, yet other things that you would never believe could happen, do. For instance, our expectations were completely shattered when figuring out who would invest in the business. We had an “A” list with the people we were sure would invest, a “B” list with people who we thought might invest and a “C” list with the people who we did not know at all who we hoped might be interested. As it turned out, no one from the “A” or “B” lists invested. It was all “C.” There are a lot of surprises like that when you are starting a business. It’s the same for figuring out who will be your customers. Those who you think will be a definite fit may not work out for whatever reason, but then others come who you didn’t expect.

Then there are a lot of surprises regarding your products. When we started the company, one of the main things we wanted to be was a re-agent and services company. We wanted to create a DNA purification kit, and we succeeded in putting together a purification kit that worked really well. We called it “Anaconda” because it resembled the coiling of the DNA helix. The product worked well, it was beautiful and it had incredible graphics. However, our background was scientific, so we didn’t know anything about marketing. As a result, when we started selling this product, our competitors were killing us.

One time we were trying to sell a kit to the Sanford-Burnham Institute and we had convinced someone there to really test it. We had a technician working with them all day. But when they were ready to buy another kit, Qiagen, who was our biggest competitor at the time, took the Burnham lab out to lunch, and so there went our sale. We failed because we highly valued our product, but didn’t realize that what matters most is how other people value the product. You can fall in love with your own product, but if you don’t stay in touch with your customers’ needs, you are bound to fail. Unless you’re Steve Jobs, of course, but that’s a completely different story.

When we failed with our first product, which was a fiasco, we learned that marketing was very important. Of course it is important to have a good technical product, but the way you market your product is key. I would say that in some ways, it is even more important than the technical features. So even though we failed with this product, that failure was a good lesson.

To what extent do you feel your personality as an entrepreneur influenced the character of your business?

I’m going to put my grain of salt in here because I love to talk about culture. Even from the beginning, it was very important to us to create a great culture — not just a company that was successful financially, but a company where people would be happy, a place where people wanted to be, a fun place to be and grow. This doesn’t happen by chance. It has to start at the top. It is very important, and as a leader, you have to pay attention to it on a daily basis.

You have to realize, it’s not about you. If you think it’s only about you it’s going to be a tough ride. Maybe you won’t fail, but sooner or later you will have to realize that it’s not about you; it’s about your employees, your customers, your investors and the community. If all of these people are doing well, then you will probably do well; but if you don’t have their support, the road ahead will be fraught with challenges. Very often when you start a company, you’re just so obsessed with achieving difficult goals and worrying about the bottom line that you forget that.

How did you discover most of this?

This is an area I am very passionate about, and [I’ve] read a lot books about successful companies and how they made it. There’s a book about Zappos called “Delivering Happiness,” which is an interesting read. I think the reason why Tony Hsieh has been so successful is that he’s paid so much attention to culture in his company. We also read a book about the culture of Southwest Airlines called “Nuts!,” which gave us a lot of good ideas. By reading these books, I realized that it is not so important what you do, but how you do it.

It sounds like if you had it all to do over again, you’d do it the same way.

Yes, I don’t have many regrets. I may have made mistakes, but I have to admit I always learned something from them. And at the end of the day, starting and building a business is a great adventure in personal growth.

There were plenty of moments during the journey when we began to feel like it was too hard, it wasn’t worth it and we weren’t going to make it. In those times, I guess it would have been nice to have known everything would turn out well, but those are the times you just have to work through. Like the stock market, the path is definitely not a straight line, but you keep going. Remind yourself of your vision on a daily basis and you will make it.