Ditching the LawPrinter Friendly Version
A descendant of a long line of distinguished lawyers, including presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Dan Adams ’65 appeared destined to practice law. But virtually getting fired by a corporate law firm nearly 40 years ago allowed him to embrace the career that suits him much better: running a succession of cutting-edge biotech firms. Adams, now executive chairman of flu-vaccine maker Protein Sciences, was a guest at the Dean’s Roundtable last March, during which he discussed the many steps on his path to the executive office.
While a shift from law to biotech might seem an unconventional career move, Adams’s father had made a similar bold switch. Allan Adams was a chemist who became a turnaround consultant, helping failing businesses become profitable. His mother, Helen, a homemaker, taught him how to balance budgets.
Dan majored in chemistry at Cornell, with minors in math and physics. But he realized when he graduated that working in a lab was not for him. He earned a J.D. from NYU Law instead, where he was an executive editor of the Law Review along with classmate and current NYU Law Professor William Nelson ’65. Adams then joined Sullivan & Cromwell in its New York headquarters, where he worked on mergers and acquisitions and initial public offerings. Even then, Adams admits, “I enjoyed learning about the companies more than making the deals.”
Underscoring that point, in 1970 he was assigned to a merger that he just couldn’t abide: “After doing some research, I said I thought it was a crazy idea.” A senior partner reminded him that he was a lawyer, and it was not his job to disagree with his client’s corporate strategy. “He said, ‘I know, you want to run a company, and we are going to make that easy for you,’” Adams recalls. The merger went through, but without Adams’s assistance. He was encouraged to find another job.
During his tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell, Adams had served more than a year in the U.S. military, stationed in Korea and Southeast Asia, where he commanded a force of about 100 men. “In the military I learned one of the most important business lessons I know, and that’s successful teamwork,” he says. That leadership experience, plus his willingness to take risks and his business acumen, helped him to turn in an entirely new direction. Adams landed at one of Sullivan & Cromwell’s corporate clients, International Nickel, a metals exploration company. He would eventually run the venture capital division, which sought new projects to invest in. Soon he noticed that biotech was attracting an increasing number of investment-savvy companies. “I thought, I can’t compete with these guys’ investment expertise,” he says. But he figured he could profit from the trend if he applied his business and science training to help create a biotech company those experts would want to invest in.
So in 1977 he co-founded Biogen, which used genetic technology to develop Avonex, a multiple sclerosis treatment. Next he started Advanced Genetic Sciences, the first company to genetically engineer plants, and Plant Genetic Systems, the first European agricultural biotechnology company, followed in 1989 by AlleRx, dedicated to curing food allergies.
Adams became CEO of Protein Sciences in 1996 after it had lost its source of funding, essentially rendering it bankrupt. He learned something his dad had said was true: Turning a company around is more difficult than starting a new one. But his hard work, which included lots of fundraising and recruiting a new team of executives, paid off. Last June a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services signed a five-year, $147 million contract for Protein Sciences to develop FluBlok, a seasonal and pandemic flu vaccine.
Adams stepped down from his CEO position in February 2010 to become executive chairman and, on an interim basis, head of business development. The company’s future seems promising: FluBlok is expected to receive FDA approval later this year, and Adams believes it could become a blockbuster, billion-dollar product.
Looking back over his career, Adams says his legal training was invaluable to his success. “Legal thinking is crisp. You have to be able to separate what is important from what isn’t to try a case successfully,” he says. “That kind of thinking is very helpful to businesspeople.”
During 2009-10 Dean Richard Revesz also invited these prominent alumni to intimate luncheons with students.
Anne Chwat ’87
EVP, General Counsel, and Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer, Burger King
Michael Lewitt ’85 (LL.M. ’88)
President, Hegemony Capital Management
Yves Sisteron (M.C.J. ’83)
Managing Partner and Co-Founder, GRP Capital
John Suydam ’85
Chief Legal and Administrative Officer, Apollo Management
Jeffrey Tannenbaum J.D./M.B.A. ’88
Founder and President, Fir Tree Partners
All of 2010 Alumni Almanac