Will the entrepreneur channel his passion for government service into a political run?
In a single decade, Greg Lucier, 49, transformed a small reagent company, Invitrogen, with 1,500 employees into Life Technologies, an international behemoth with more than 12,000 employees, 5,000 patents, 50,000 products, and sales in 180 different countries. Although Thermo Fisher completed the acquisition of Life Technologies in February, and although Lucier has moved on, an intriguing question remains: What did Lucier to do help enable Life Technologies’ startling growth? And a possibly even more intriguing question: What’s next for this visionary entrepreneur?
The vision that helped create Life Technologies’ impressive rise is at least as audacious as the growth that underpins it. The future entrepreneur started out as an engineer, but as a graduate of the Harvard Business School, he asked himself, “What transformational factor would impact the 21st century the way harnessing the physical sciences impacted the last century?”
The answer for him was clear: the life sciences. “Our ability to harness the power of life,” he said in a recent interview, “will impact almost everything in our existence.”
Take the obvious example of medicine. When DNA sequencing becomes as common as childhood vaccinations, something Lucier believes will happen sooner than many expect, he says, “This knowledge will allow people to make better informed, individualized choices about diet, lifestyle, and medical treatments based on their own DNA makeup.” Further, “there are more than 900 cancer drugs in development right now. Eventually doctors will have a huge inventory from which to select how to treat the specific mutations found in your DNA.”
He expects that cancer drugs in the next decade will become highly specific and highly effective. “In ten years,” he predicts, “we will have turned cancer into a manageable condition. We may not cure it, but instead, we’ll manage it with ‘a cocktail,’ much the way we manage AIDS today.”
And that’s just cancer. “Ultimately,” he says, “we will find that many of the diseases that affect us have DNA at their origins.”
These discoveries will impact agriculture as well, whether in animal or plant health, or through creating new biological forms that could hardly have been imagined in the last century. “With synthetic genomics,” he says, “researchers are working on making a food source protein that doesn’t come from a cow. It’s pure because we engineered it from scratch.”
He also sees a pervasive impact on the economy. “In the next 20 years, the life sciences, with their integral connection to virtually all economic activity, will be the one of the largest employers.” He goes on to mention that many of Life Technologies’ 12,000 jobs didn’t even exist a decade ago.
Getting Ahead in Biotech
With this vision of the importance of life sciences, he developed an innovative goal for Life Technologies when he became its head in 2003. He wanted his company to make the tools that would enable growth in this space, and he wanted to make these tools “faster, easier, and more economical.”
Even better, he wanted the company to be “one-stop shopping” for these scientific devices. This was at the heart of Life Technologies aggressive strategy around mergers, acquisitions, patents, and, above all, hiring.
“Our ability to grow year after year was driven by our ability to attract, develop and retain the world-class people who would thrive in our environment and share in our desire to improve mankind by enabling our customers to feed, fuel, and heal the world,” Lucier says.
It was important to him to keep his employees excited about working there. “The company had to be a place where people are pumped up and super excited to come to work.”
What was his role in making this happen? “We made certain employees never forgot what they were working toward. In facility conference rooms and hallways we had stories on the walls showing something we did or helped solve for our customers to change the world for the better.”
A favorite example is the time Herman J. Atkins spoke to Life Technologies’ employees. Atkins, who was freed after ten years of false imprisonment for rape and robbery, told the group, “I don’t know how DNA works, but now I’m a free man. I want you to know the impact of the work you are doing.”
Lucier’s management style evolved during his tenure at Life Technologies. His previous experience included a stint at GE. “It was a bit of a Darwinian culture and when I tried the same approach at Life Technologies, I quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work.”
Observing that the scientists did better in a more collegial workplace, Lucier changed his approach. Among other things, he eliminated performance evaluations. “If we had performance issues, the remedy was coaching the individual to get even better.”
Lucier also wanted to make sure people could be proud of their company, including having Life Technologies develop a record for giving back to the community. “We served more volunteer hours than anyone. There were always projects for being a part of and giving back to the community.”
Employees also had an environmental reason to be proud of Life Technologies. “We became one of the top 25 companies in the world for sustainability, including having facilities with zero waste.”
Marketing was also innovative. “Our approach involved ‘anthropological science.’ We didn’t do focus groups but instead, watched how people worked. When we were developing instruments and reagents, we did it by watching and seeing what people needed.”
What are Lucier’s goals for the future?
“I’m passionate about government service and my hope is for a chance to serve in some appointed or possibly even elected capacity.”
If he were to serve in government, his first focus would be creating jobs. He’d like to use his experience to create the conditions for “…incredibly higher paying and ever more rewarding jobs.”
He’d also focus on education. “I’m a maverick on education. I think we need to be more efficient and proficient in the 21st century. We’re not bad, but we could be so much better.”
His third focus would be on making sure that the incentives and disincentives coming from government would actually help the most disadvantaged.
Gregory Lucier’s last ten years were spent implementing Life Technologies’ mission statement: Shaping discovery. Improving life. If he goes into public service, it’s a good bet that his personal mission statement will focus on “Improving life”—for everyone.
Mitzi Perdue, GEN’s corresponding editor, holds degrees from Harvard and George Washington University. She has authored more than 1,600 newspaper and magazine articles on science R&D and clinical medical applications, as well as on food, agriculture, and the environment. Perdue has a strong understanding of complex scientific and mathematical concepts. For 22 years, she was a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service and before that, California’s Capitol News. Perdue is also the author of the newsletter from the professional association, Academy of Women’s Health. She has produced and hosted more than 400 interview shows, often in conjunction with scientists at the University of California at Davis. She is a former Commissioner for the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science and a former Trustee for the National Health Museum.