His father steered him to rowing while a Columbia freshman. With it George Yancopoulos found a template for his future success as a biochemist and scientific entrepreneur.
When George Yancopoulos came to Columbia, he searched for a sport he could play.
“I thought I might have an increased chance to participate,” he remembers. But I tried baseball. I played freshman football — I wasn’t going to be all that good.”
“My Dad (a Greek immigrant) rowed competitively. He told me it was a great sport.,” says Yancopoulos.
At his first crew practice Yancopoulos, who also played sprint football at Columbia, “thought I was a better athlete than these rower types.” Then the coach announced they would be running to 72nd Street and back — a five-mile run. Yancopoulos took off and led the team “for about half a mile. Then my body died.”
As he staggered along, the freshman coach “stayed right behind me. He didn’t say a word. I was forced to run the whole distance.”
One area where he didn’t need enforced discipline was the classroom. “I was a very disciplined kid,” he remembers. “I went to every class, and was always on top of my work.” He also did research with Dr. Jonathan Greer on protein biochemistry. “I worked on the x-ray crystallography of proteins,” says Yancopoulos. “We could see the shape of protein molecules.”
The crew team “lost a lot more races than we won,” his first years, but under coach Frank Pisani the team “transformed from a lower to an upper [level] Ivy League team.” By senior year Yancopoulos, who lettered three out of his four years on the team, became co-captain.
But then Coach Pisani was in a “bad car accident,” according to Yancopoulos. “We were more or less coachless.” It became a learning experience for the team. “We were dealing with the unexpected,” he says. “It was interesting to see how the team managed to stick together.”
In his academic pursuits Yancopoulos flourished. Twice winner of the Eisenhower award as Columbia’s top scholar-athlete, Yancopoulos was also named Phi Beta Kappa. He was tops in Columbia’s Class of 1980, graduating Summa Cum Laude with an A.B. in Biochemistry. His graduation address was on “how rowing changed my life.”
Accepted to both Harvard’s and Columbia’s M/D./Ph.D. programs Yancopoulos, who grew up in Queens, New York, chose to stay close to home. “I’m from a close-knit Greek family,” he says, “even now my parents live maybe 10 miles away.” Earning his Ph.D in 1986 and M.D. in 1987, he found a lesson learned from athletics — dealing with risk — shaping his career. He would pursue a career in science and not medicine — no medical residency, not even a license.
“An M.D. can secure you for life,” says Yancopoulos,”I thought ‘do I want to spend my whole life trying to be secure, or do what I want to do?’” In sports “it’s hard to try out for teams because you can be cut.” But facing challenges like that “made normal pressures seem insignificant.”
A similar reasoning process has guided his research path. A postdoc researcher, Yancopoulos learned he was to receive an eight-year, $5-million grant to set up and fund a lab, along with a tentative offer of a Columbia professorship. But again he chose the riskier path, joining the startup biotech firm Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, where he is now Executive Vice-President, Lab President, and Chief Scientific Officer.
One of Regeneron’s founders is Roy Vagelos, who rowed at Penn. “We’re like-minded,” says Yancopoulos. With the “shared athletic experience we speak the same language, without even speaking.”
“There’s risk inherent to building a company,” he points out, even more so with Regeneron, which researches and develops medicines “from bench to bedside’ — a 10-to-15 year process. They recently had their first medication approved, and won a $58-million dollar NIH grant to investigate the mouse genome and “learn what each gene does.”
This line of research has produced “the most valuable mouse in the history of the world,” says Yancopoulos – one with a humanized immune system. As a test subject for drugs such a mouse would be priceless, and Regeneron is finding this out firsthand. It sold the first pair for $120 million.
Regeneron’s research organization is “just like a team in sports,” Yancopoulos notes. “They have to learn how to work with other team members, and are invested with each other.” These teams allow Regeneron to tackle “large collaborative efforts, and nowadays the science requires these larger efforts.”
The research “is on a different scale than in academia,” says Yancopoulos. “It’s about as rewarding a life of science as one can have.”
— Stephen Eschenbach