Alejandro Zaffaroni, life scientist and entrepreneur, 1923-2014

March 14, 2014 6:02 pm

Alejandro Zaffaroni, life scientist and entrepreneur, 1923-2014

By Andrew Ward


As the second world war drew to a close in 1945, Alejandro Zaffaroni hitched a ride on a US military cargo ship from his native Uruguay to New York. It was the start of a journey that led to his becoming one of America’s most prolific biotechnology entrepreneurs, playing an important role in development of the birth control pill, the nicotine patch and DNA chips used in genetic research.

But perhaps his most significant contribution was helping forge the biotech business model by listing his first start-up in 1969 without a dollar of revenue to its name. No such company had previously been allowed to issue stock to the public but Zaffaroni, who has died aged 91, found a loophole that allowed him to overcome the objections of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

From an opening price of $1, shares in Alza were soon trading at $30 and a precedent was set for the hundreds of biotech companies that have since come to market offering nothing more than a speculative bet on intellectual property.

“The biotech sector might have taken a very different path without Alex Zaffaroni,” says Mark Jones, research director at the Life Sciences Foundation, an organisation that charts the industry’s development.

Zaffaroni had arrived in the US armed with a Fulbright scholarship and an offer from Harvard. But instead of the Ivy League college he opted for a doctorate in biochemistry at Rochester University, attracted by the greater freedom it gave students to choose research topics.

It was an unorthodox choice that set a pattern for his career. After securing his PhD he could have gone to work for big pharma or one of the top universities whose attention had been caught by his work on corticosteroids, the new wonder drugs of the time.

Instead he took a job with Syntex, a little-known Mexican chemicals company, where he was involved in developing early contraceptive pills. Put in charge of expansion into the US in the early 1960s, he set up a headquarters in Palo Alto, California, rather than the New Jersey heartland of the pharmaceuticals industry. This placed him among the pioneers of the biotech sector that emerged in the San Francisco Bay area over the next decade.

As Syntex grew, Zaffaroni got itchy feet. He sold shares in the company worth $3m and used the proceeds to create Alza, which focused on finding new, more effective ways of administering medicines.

Early innovations included a patch applied to the eyeball that slowly released a drug for glaucoma. It was shown to be clinically superior to eyedrops but when the aircraft carrying the first shipment crashed into San Francisco Bay it was a portent of troubles ahead. Patients were wary of the new treatment and the conservative medical establishment was equally unenthusiastic – providing a lesson that cutting-edge science is useless without effective sales and marketing.

Alza had to be bailed out by Ciba-Geigy, a Swiss chemical company and forerunner of today’s Novartis, but gradually found success with products including a patch to help people quit smoking and extended-release pills for heart disease. The company was sold to Johnson & Johnson in 2001 for $13.7bn.

By then, Zaffaroni had moved on to a series of other ventures, several involving technology to analyse human genes. One of them, Affymax, was bought by Glaxo of the UK for $533m in 1995. Nearly two decades later, the DNA chips, or micro-arrays, that Zaffaroni helped pioneer are crucial tools in research to identify genetic mutations linked to diseases. “He started the company that was the beginning of big data in healthcare by putting the human genome on a chip,” says Mr Jones.

Zaffaroni was born on February 27 1923, the son of a banker, and faced his own health problems as a child. A severe asthmatic, he also lost his mother when he was 12, and his father when he was 17, both to heart attacks. At first a mediocre student who took against the strict regime of his Jesuit school, he developed a love of chemistry, which he studied at university in Montevideo.

Former colleagues recall him as an inspiring leader, always polite and immaculately dressed. Sam Colella, a venture capitalist who worked with him, says: “He loved to think beyond where normal folks would ever go. He was always thinking about the next big thing.”

Zaffaroni – survived by his wife, son, daughter and two grandchildren – founded his last company, called Alexza, in 2000 at the age of 77. It aimed to develop fast-acting inhalable drugs that mimic the way nicotine quickly reaches the brain via the lungs and the bloodstream. The first approved product using the technology – a treatment for schizophrenia – went on sale days after he died.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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