This CEO doesn’t like to be cornered
For someone who heads a company valued at over $5 billion, Dr. David Schenkein has a pretty small office.
As CEO of Agios Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Cambridge, he runs a biotech startup that won approval last August for its first drug, Idhifa, to treat a rare and devastating form of leukemia caused by a genetic mutation. He expects the company to next month win approval of its second drug, for another form of the disease.
Two drug sign-offs in a biotech’s first 10 years would be an uncommon achievement, but Schenkein, an oncologist turned biopharma executive, is hardly living large, at least as far as his work space goes.
Located on the fourth floor of the publicly traded company’s headquarters at 88 Sidney St., his office measures just 10-by-13-feet, and doesn’t stand out from dozens of others at the firm of 475 employees. It’s not in a corner, and it’s 16 feet from the nearest window.
There’s a desk, bookcase, and four chairs, including a black wooden armchair that was a gift from Tufts Medical Center, where Schenkein used to head the cancer center. There’s no room for a conference table or a sofa.
“One of the things we wanted, one of our cultural pillars, was to avoid hierarchy,’’ said the 61-year-old doctor, who received about $5.9 million in total compensation in 2017. “That’s why we’ve kept all the offices the same size.”
Still, the work space is filled with mementos that tell the story of a smart Jewish boy from Queens, N.Y., who graduated from the elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and ended up helping to lead some of the best-known biotechs in the country. Among the items:
A worn business card from his father that is attached to a photograph of the two men 20 years ago. David Schenkein’s parents, Eddy and Sandra Schenkein, fled Holland and Germany, respectively, during the Holocaust and met in the United States in 1950. “He was a wholesale diamond dealer in New York,” Schenkein said. “That was taken the year before he passed away, at my son’s bar mitzvah. . . . My father was a self-made businessman. I suspect my entrepreneurial streak came from him.”
A framed certificate of his national ranking in squash, along with a cherished score card. Schenkein grew up in the Forest Hills section of Queens and was always a fan of racquet sports. Winner of a scholar-athlete award at Wesleyan University, he was ranked second in squash in the men’s singles B division in the United States in the 1980-81 season and played Sharif Khan, the number-one ranked player in the world, in Rochester, N.Y., in 1980. “I lost 3-0, but I got nine points, 11 points, and six points in each game,” he said. It takes 15 points to win.
A bottle of Velcade in a clear plastic cube. Velcade is an anti-cancer drug that Cambridge-based Millennium Pharmaceuticals won approval for in 2003. It’s the first medicine Schenkein helped get to market after he left Tufts to head oncology at Millennium in 2001. (He left Millennium in 2006 to work at San Francisco-based Genentech.) “Millennium developed the drug, although they didn’t invent it,” he said. “It was invented at a tiny little company that was swallowed up. And then when I came to Millennium . . . we got it approved. It was the first drug approved for a cancer of the bone marrow called multiple myeloma in over 30 years, and it’s dramatically changed — with other drugs now — the landscape of how this cancer is treated.”
A silver letter opener engraved with “Dr. David.” It was a gift about 20 years ago from the family of a woman whom he treated at Tufts in a losing battle against acute myeloid leukemia. The first drug Agios won approval for, Idhifa, and the second it is waiting to get approved, treats this disease. “I use it every day, and it’s a reminder to me of why our drugs are so important,’’ he said.
A copy of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” Dr. Seuss’ classic about the twists and turns we encounter in life.Nick Leschly, the head of the Cambridge biotech Bluebird Bio Inc. who helped found Agios as a partner in Third Rock Ventures, gave Schenkein an inscribed copy when Schenkein started at Agios. Now Schenkein inscribes a copy for every new employee.
“Drug development is a roller coaster,” Schenkein said. “And so when people join, it’s important for them to know that we’re going to someplace special. But we’re going to have a lot of bumps in the road.”