William H. Pursley, William H. Pursley has enjoyed considerable success as a biotech executive. Now he faces a raft of challenges as the new chief executive officer of Osiris Therapeutics Inc.
The Baltimore-based company, which develops treatments designed to renew injured connective tissue such as muscle and bone, has its third CEO this year and fourth since 1994, when Maryland officials used a $3.1 million state-backed loan and a $500,000 equity investment to lure it from Cleveland.
Morale has suffered as management turnover has eclipsed Osiris' scientific achievements, including discoveries that could one day promote the regeneration of cardiac muscle damaged by heart attacks.
What's more, the company's co-founder and its lead investor are embroiled in a court battle. Osiris has yet to put a product on the market, and it is seeking new sources of cash as the stock market hunkers down. Pursley has asked for forbearance from lead investor Peter Friedli, but the venture capitalist isn't known for infinite patience.
A breakthrough is needed, and the clock is ticking.
Pursley is wasting no time. By the end of his first sleep-deprived week at the job, he had met with key employees, outlined a clinical development plan for Osiris' experimental products, hired a chief medical officer and promoted one of the company's key scientists to head its research efforts. He also had adopted a quiet resolve.
"There are some long-term and special scientists here," he said in an interview in his Fells Point office, where moving boxes lined a shelf. "They deserve to get managed across the goal line."
Whether Pursley, 49, can lead Osiris to getting a product on the market remains to be seen. But he has demonstrated repeatedly that he can identify a good product and sell it, a trait that should come in handy as Osiris attempts to sell investors on the company's promise.
The company's 70 employees aren't the only ones with an economic interest in its success. State officials long have considered Osiris one key to establishing a meaningful hub of biotechnology companies in Baltimore.
While Pursley acknowledges the pressure, he also feels a sense of deja vu.
"This reminded me of what Genentech looked like in the early days," he said of Osiris.
Pursley was one of the first 20 salespeople at Genentech Inc., a South San Francisco biotech pioneer. It was his job to overcome doctors' early skepticism about Genentech's genetically engineered drug.
He did, outselling nearly all of his colleagues.
Success at Genzyme
He went on to organize and lead the first biopharmaceutical marketing team at Genzyme Corp., helping position the Cambridge, Mass., company to become one of the nation's largest biotech companies.
As head of commercial operations at tiny, Cambridge-based Transkaryotic Therapies Inc., he forsook the usual marketing partnership with a big pharmaceutical company when it came time to sell the company's first drug - a niche-market remedy for the rare disorder Fabry disease - in Europe. Instead, he championed setting up a majority-owned marketing business, ensuring that Transkaryotic could keep more profits.
"He's fearless," said Matthew W. Emmens, who hired Pursley for his first sales job at Merck, Sharp & Dohme in 1979 and is now a division president at Merck KGaA, a German company. "Whenever there was a new process, a new sales technique, Bill raised his hand and said, 'I want to try it.'"
Pursley, the third son of a Louisville, Ky., life insurance salesman and a homemaker who worked a variety of jobs, began his career as a high school science teacher.
He lacked a firm career plan, but he was smart and had a knack for recognizing opportunities. He would work at them with the same discipline he demonstrated in his youth as a member of the Plantation Swim Club, where he spent hours each day practicing his sport before and after school.
"There's no doubt it had a tremendous impact on self-discipline," said Pursley, who swam on teams for 16 years.
While a brother, Dennis, went on to direct the U.S. national swim team, Bill Pursley settled on teaching high school science after getting a biology degree from the University of Louisville.
When he lost that job in a busing-inspired reorganization of Louisville's schools, Pursley had no money, $300 in credit card debt and the science background that Merck was looking for in sales representatives.
He exuded a confidence that bordered on cockiness in his job interview, then sold enough muscle relaxers and other drugs to earn Merck's highest performance rating every year before moving into sales management. Emmens wasn't surprised when Pursley made the "smart move" to join Genentech on the cutting edge.
His job was to sell one of the world's first genetically engineered drugs. The product was a $15,000-to-$20,000-a-year growth hormone for children to prevent dwarfism. Insurance companies and doctors were initially skittish. But Pursley did his homework, gained the confidence of physicians and excelled, said Gary A. Lyons, who hired him for the job.
Pursley joined Genzyme in a bet that its new enzyme-replacement therapy for the rare disorder Gaucher disease would be approved and that he could assemble a team to sell it. He was right, playing a key role in the success of Ceredase, a drug that is "the cornerstone on which Genzyme was built," said Dr. Norman W. Barton, the scientist who developed it at the National Institutes of Health.
More recently, Pursley bet on Transkaryotic, taking a job as its commercial operations vice president because he believed in its ability to develop and sell new gene therapies and human proteins as drugs. Its first drug was approved in Europe last year. U.S. approval is pending.
Now, Pursley's bet is on Osiris.
"There are two building blocks you can't invent in this business: the technology and the protection of the technology," Pursley said, referring to key discoveries and the patents that protect them. "And that makes Osiris a clear leader."
Pursley became intrigued by Osiris this year after getting a call from a headhunter. At the time, Osiris CEO Annemarie B. Moseley had just been replaced by interim CEO Alfred Seidel. Though management had turned over, Osiris' scientists had made plenty of progress.
Here was a company that had discovered how to take stem cells from adult bone marrow and coax them to grow into different kinds of connective tissue - muscle, bone, cartilage, even the stroma that provides the matrix in which blood cells grow up in bone marrow. It was a "superplatform technology" unlike any that Pursley had ever seen.
The company was testing uses for the cells: growing new cartilage cushions for the knee joint in goats; implanting the cells in pig heart muscle to regenerate damaged portions after a heart attack; using them in a clinical trial to build up stroma in bone-marrow transplant patients.
The company's scientists had conducted tests in animals and people that provided early indications that adult stem cells extracted from an unrelated donor could be implanted in another without causing the recipient's immune system to reject them. The discovery, if confirmed, meant Osiris might be able to mass produce a "universal cell" that could be made in the same way every time and stored.
But Pursley also worried. Would Osiris' adult stem cells be swept up in the controversies over embryonic ones, impeding fund raising or marketing? Would he be able to raise money in a down market? Could he be a good CEO? He called his old Genentech boss, Lyons, now CEO at Neurocrine Biosciences Inc. in San Diego, to talk it over.
"I encouraged him to do it," Lyons said, adding that Pursley was "long overdue" for a bigger challenge.
Once he decided to accept, Pursley attacked. He worked 20-hour days even before arriving for his first day on the job Sept. 9, then cut back the hours to a more manageable 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. His plan calls for the company to first raise money from investors in small, private rounds, providing enough to get the scientific results that would allow it to conduct a significantly larger private or public round in 18 months or so.
"The financing markets right now stink," he said, acknowledging that venture capitalists probably will get more stock in the company per dollar invested now than they would in a bull market. He added, however, that "we will get through because of our leadership in stem-cell technology."
'A great choice'
He plans to have at least three Osiris products in human testing next year. He hired Barton, the former NIH scientist who developed the Gaucher disease therapy, as chief medical officer. Barton was chief medical officer at Bio-Technology General Corp., an Iselin, N.J., company where Pursley headed commercial development before joining Transkaryotic.
Mark F. Pittenger, the Osiris stem cell expert Pursley promoted to vice president of research, said Pursley is a "great choice." Pursley's having been at successful companies builds confidence, he said.
But scientists await results.
"They're saying, 'OK, we've got a new CEO,'" Pittenger said of longtime Osiris scientists. They're saying, "'He's got good ideas. He's got good experience. Let's see what he can do.'"