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One-time biotech giant’s comeback ends in jail

David Blech, once a leading biotechnology investor, is to begin a four-year term in federal prison on Sept. 18.

Robert Caplin/The New York Times

David Blech, once a leading biotechnology investor, is to begin a four-year term in federal prison on Sept. 18.

He was once hailed as the king of biotechnology. In the industry’s frontier days, David Blech was the top gunslinger, quick to draw his checkbook to start new companies or prop up faltering ones.

Blech was the initial financial force behind the industry giant Celgene, the rare disease specialist Alexion Pharmaceuticals, and the cancer drug developer Ariad Pharmaceuticals, not to mention Icos, which developed the impotence pill Cialis.

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In the early 1990s, Blech was worth about $300 million and made the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest Americans.

Now, however, he is about to begin a four-year prison term, is about $11 million in debt, and is mainly an afterthought to the industry he helped foster.

He squandered his fortune with reckless borrowing and stock trading in a quest for even greater riches. His Wall Street firm, D. Blech & Co., collapsed — dragging biotech share prices down with it — in 1994, on a day some called “Blech Thursday.” Comeback attempts have only gotten him deeper into trouble.

“There’s no question that if I had been in a coma for the last 20 years, I would wake up a billionaire today,” Blech, 57, said.

Critics over the years have said Blech was merely an aggressive stock promoter who got lucky.

It is an unlikely story. In 1980, Blech was working as a stockbroker while trying to become a songwriter. That fall, biotechnology pioneer Genentech went public, and its share price doubled the first day.

“I can do that,” Blech, then only 24, told his father, a rabbi who was also a stockbroker. Blech then called his brother, Isaac, who was working in advertising, and said, “Quit your job: We’re starting a genetics company.”

David and Isaac Blech went on to form several other companies, some of which ultimately failed. They attracted top scientists, directors, and advisers by offering them stock and a chance to get rich. The companies were often taken public quickly, so the Blechs and other early shareholders could realize a return.

Things began going wrong around 1990, when Blech wanted to expand while his more cautious brother wanted to take a hiatus. The brothers had a rancorous split and have essentially not talked since.

Blech started D. Blech & Co., which underwrote stock offerings. When biotechnology stocks he was involved with weakened, he tried to prop them up by buying more shares, using $65 million in borrowed money. When creditors started calling in the loans, a desperate Blech started engaging in sham trades to make it look as if he was getting his house in order.

D. Blech & Co. collapsed on Sept. 22, 1994. Emotionally broken, Blech checked himself into a hospital psychiatric ward for a brief stay. His wife filed for divorce. His remaining holdings — including a stake in Alexion that would be worth more than $1 billion today — were sold off for about $40 million to pay creditors.

But instead of going to prison, Blech was sentenced to five years’ probation because of his bipolar disorder and his cooperation with the government.

“God forbid you should ever come back to this courtroom,” Judge Kevin T. Duffy said at the sentencing in 1999.

By the time his probation ended, his old formula would not work. Startups could no longer go public just because they had “genetic” in their names. And companies did not want financing from a felon.

So Blech turned to hard-pressed penny stock companies. Government investigators said he reverted to past behavior, trading through more than 50 nominee accounts in the name of his new wife, other relatives, even a yeshiva run by a cousin.

In 2012, Blech pleaded guilty to two counts of securities fraud. Once again he asked for mercy, citing the hardship a prison sentence would impose on his family, including an autistic son.

But the judge, Colleen McMahon, said the time for leniency had passed.

“I bleed for your family, your wife, your kids,” she told him at the sentencing hearing in May. “It’s a terrible thing you have done to them, not me.”

Blech is appealing his sentence, saying it is excessive. But the appeal is not likely to be heard until he is already in prison. “I made my money legitimately, and I lost it illegitimately,” Blech said.

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