Biotech Pioneer Vicki Sato

By the time Vicki Sato retired as president of Vertex Pharmaceuticals in 2005 she was recognized as the biotech industry’s most respected female executive, as well as one of the most successful women in the entire business world.

Not only had she pioneered the development of protease inhibitors, a class of drugs used to treat or prevent HIV and Hepatitis C by inhibiting the virus’s ability to reproduce, she had shown that women could succeed in the high-wattage, high-pressure world of high-stakes drug development.

To cap off an illustrious career, after her retirement from the business world, Sato was welcomed back by Harvard as a professor at both Harvard Business School and at its Molecular and Cell biology department.

It was at Harvard that Sato had begun her professional career as an assistant professor of cell biology in 1976. After seven years she became discouraged by what she perceived to be a glass ceiling in university research. At the same time, she became intrigued by the excitement at Kendall Square where biotech startups were trying to break new ground. She took a sabbatical and joined Angenics, a startup that developed diagnostic tools for agricultural and veterinary purposes.

“I really had fun!” Sato recalled. “I liked learning about venture capital and intellectual property. I decided to stay in industry for a while. But I was more interested in making drugs, where I thought the power of the emerging biotech industry would be.”

In 1984 she went to work with a Harvard colleague at a startup called Biogen, another enterprise that was turning Kendall Squar into a hotbed of biotech activity. Sato was asked to develop cellular assays and animal models for insight into how to use these molecules in a medical setting. Biogen became the poster child for both the promise of interferon and the interminable process of shepherding interferon-based drugs through clinical trials.

“But ultimately, it became a multibillion dollar drug that has saved many lives,” said Sato, recalling the company’s ordeals. “The original vision was correct. The lesson for the biotechnology industry’s drug development dreams was how long it would take to get a drug approved.”

During her nine years at Biogen Sato worked her way up to VP of research and personally led research on inflammation, thrombosis, and HIV. Her efforts led to Angiomax, an antithrombotic agent derived from the leech, and the beta-interferon drug Avonex for multiple sclerosis.

In 1993 she left Biogen to join another startup called Vertex as its chief scientific officer. She rose to senior vice president of of R&D and chair of its scientific advisory board before being named president in 2000.

In addition to her teaching and research work at Harvard, Sato is a special advisor to Atlas Ventures, a global venture capital firm. She is also a board member at Bristol Myers Squibb, PerkinElmer Corporation, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Prize4Life and the Broad Institute where she sits on the board of scientific counselors).

Vicki Sato earned an AB from Radcliffe College and a masters and a PhD from Harvard University in 1972. She did postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley and at Stanford Medical Center.