James L. Vincent, 73; helped turn biotech into a winner

Mr. Vincent held the titles of chief executive and chairman of Biogen for most of the years from 1985 to 2002.
DAVID Ryan/GLOBE STAFF/file 1997
Mr. Vincent held the titles of chief executive and chairman of Biogen for most of the years from 1985 to 2002.

When Jim Vincent arrived at Biogen in 1985, “it was a struggling, precommercial, money-losing biotech company like so many others,” said George A. Scangos, chief executive of what is now Biogen Idec.

That changed under the guidance of Mr. Vincent, who looked every inch the football player he had been in high school and college as he climbed out of a small town in Pennsylvania coal country through college, business school, and into the top ranks of biotech chief executives.

During the next several years, Mr. Vincent reduced Biogen’s expenses, stabilized key relationships with other companies, raised capital, and set the stage to bring to the market Avonex, a treatment for multiple sclerosis.


“Biogen’s survival as a freestanding company was really a product of Jim’s leadership and his business skills,” said Phillip A. Sharp, who cofounded Biogen in 1978 and shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1993 for his discoveries of split genes. “Biogen probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Jim Vincent. It’s that simple a statement.”

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Mr. Vincent, who held the titles of chief executive and chairman of Biogen for most of the years from 1985 to 2002, died Dec. 4 in his Weston home of complications from kidney ailments. He was 73.

“In every company over the course of its history there are some critical moments, and Jim was the chief executive at one of those critical moments, and did a great job leading the company,” Scangos said.

“Jim focused the company,” he said, adding that Mr. Vincent put Biogen “on a track to become the company it is today.

When Mr. Vincent walked in the door, “he was every bit a Western Pennsylvania football player,” Sharp said. “He was a big guy, very physical as you were around him. He was a command individual. He believed in hierarchies and investing in people and training people and setting out expectations.”


Mr. Vincent also believed it creating a cohesive team to accomplish goals. In an essay for the Spring 2003 issue of Exchange, the alumni magazine for the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, he likened his approach to a metaphor he found in an article about the lessons leaders could glean while watching a flying flock of geese.

“As a goose flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the birds that follow,” he wrote. “By flying in a ‘V’ formation the entire flock adds 71 percent greater flying range than if each bird flew alone. The lesson is that people who share a common direction and a sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.”

John Maraganore, chief executive of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, worked for Mr. Vincent at Biogen for about a decade, beginning in 1987.

“What he did was bring people to another level of their game,” Maraganore said. “He elevated people. He elevated their thought processes around making a decision in a way that I’ve never seen.

Mr. Vincent, he added, “was one of the key titans of this industry.


James L. Vincent spent his first several years traveling across the country with his parents in a mobile home as his father tried out different jobs before settling in Somerset, Pa., a small community in southwestern Pennsylvania.

‘Biogen’s survival as a freestanding company was really a product of Jim’s leadership and his business skills.’

“My Dad actually grew up in very humble circumstances,” said his son, Christopher of Boulder, Colo.

In Somerset, Mr. Vincent’s father ran a gas station and then a golf cart business. Mr. Vincent grew to be a 260-pound linebacker who was called into service as a fullback in short yardage situations. He played well enough to secure a scholarship to Duke amid teammates who “played for keeps,” his son said. Aside from exceptions such as Mr. Vincent, “nobody was looking at it as an exit. This is what they did.”

Mr. Vincent brought that competitiveness to Duke, from which he graduated in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Two years later, he graduated with a master’s of business administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

After finishing at Duke, Mr. Vincent married Elizabeth Matthews, whom he met on his first day in fifth grade upon arriving in Somerset. They had two children and their marriage ended in divorce.

Mr. Vincent began his career as a sales manager for Bell Telephone and jumped to Texas Instruments in 1965, staying for seven years and becoming president of the company’s Asia operations. Deciding to change course, Mr. Vincent carefully plotted his next move.

“When it came to career planning, I’ve never met anyone like him in my life and never will,” his son said, adding that Mr. Vincent would fly across the United States at his own expense to seek advice from top executives as he narrowed his focus to health care, where he sensed the possibility of significant opportunities and growth.

Mr. Vincent left Texas Instruments and spent nine years at Abbott Laboratories, where he became executive vice president and chief operating officer. Then he worked for Allied Signal, leading its health and scientific products endeavors.

When he arrived at Biogen, “we were not making progress on developing our own product,” Sharp said. “The company was pretty disillusioned.”

If Mr. Vincent “hadn’t walked in the door, Biogen wouldn’t be here in the Cambridge as an international freestanding site of innovation,” Sharp said.

“Jim was a big man in every way,” Maraganore recalled. “He had a huge presence, big voice. He was an incredibly big thinker.”

In addition to his son and former wife, Mr. Vincent leaves a daughter, Aimee Jamison of Woodside, Calif., and two grandchildren.

At Mr. Vincent’s request, there will be no service. His ashes will be scattered in Vail, Colo., a favorite spot of his for skiing and vacations where, as much as he could, he took his mind off work.

Business was more than just a career for Mr. Vincent.

“He was able to see the lives that were saved through the development of Avonex and other products that the industry and that company developed,” his daughter said of his days at Biogen, which merged in 2003 to form Biogen Idec.

“Something that my father believed passionately in was that business could be a force of such good in the world,” his daughter said. “He really believed that through the development of people and development of companies that were well-run and well-managed, people could effect enormous positive change in the world. He held that belief so deeply. He almost felt there was no other way to effect great change in the world and do great good.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at