Harry Gruber makes it clear that as CEO of Tocagen, he is simply leading a world-class team, bigger than himself, at the forefront of the next generation for treating cancer.
Harry has a history of leading teams to solve complex problems. Yet, while the problems he seeks to solve are complex, he can describe a mission in simple powerful terms. Regarding Tocagen, when he first told me about the company in 2007, he simply said, “Our vision is that no one should die of cancer.”
When Harry told me this, my mother, Lois Wyse, had just died of cancer. It was another example of how he simply and powerfully made me (and others) want to be part of his team. In fact, any time he calls, I am willing to help.
I have known and worked with Harry for more than 15 years. And, in that time, it is no wonder he has always been leading powerful teams.
But, what may be unexpected to you as a reader is that when I met Harry, he was running one of the first companies providing video over the internet: INTERVU. INTERVU was sold to Akamai for $2.8 billion in 2000.
Following INTERVU, Harry led a team that created one of the first companies to use Internet technology for online fund raising for non-profits. The company was Kintera, which successfully went public.
In talking to Harry about Kintera, the success he remembers is that Kintera was able to exponentially increase fund raising for organizations fighting cancer, heart disease and others that resulted in a huge impact on the missions of their organizations. Kintera often increased net funding for select non-profits by 1000% or more in a year. It changed the paradigm of fund raising — forever.
All in all, Harry was a founder and/or inventor of the underlying technology for six public companies, which achieved a combined value over $7 billion, including: Viagene, Inc. (acquired by Novartis), Gensia Inc. (acquired by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Ltd.), INTERVU Inc. (acquired by Akamai), and Kintera Inc. (acquired by Blackbaud). He is the author of over 100 original scientific articles and an inventor of over 33 issued and numerous pending patents but he stopped counting about a decade ago.
At Tocagen, the team is treating cancer using selective immunotherapeutic products that are based on gene therapy technology.
I recently caught up with Harry to ask him about what drives him – as he is in his seventh company. He gave insight into his past and how, thanks to the team around him, he started enterprises much bigger than himself. (interview below)
Dr. Harry Gruber discusses the merits of various primers for Tocagen’s PCR assays with Oscar Diago, research scientist at Tocagen.
Q: Did you ever have a job working for anyone other than yourself after graduating college?
After graduating from training (had internship and residency after med school). I was a faculty member at UC San Diego (UCSD). And, I wrote grants and paid my way. After UCSD, I never really worked for anyone. I started companies.
Q: What was your first entrepreneurial venture?
Collecting… my first job was collecting used newspapers for salvage money. Later, in high school, I was president of a Junior Achievement company, twice, and then set up my own version of the second company in college…making and selling beeswax candles.
Q: How did you start your first company, at that time, what was your main personal motivation?
I started newspaper collection volunteering for Cub Scouts and then went on my own. Selling newspapers in hospitals evolved from volunteering in a hospital. Junior Achievement and the candle business were pursued to get some relevant experience on my resume. Gensia, my first real commercial effort, was co-founded to make my inventions from UCSD available to help people with cardiovascular disease.
Q: What has caused you to start several companies?
I get interested in a technically oriented problem and find others interested in the same problem — and together we find a novel solution.
Q: Have these reasons changed over time?
Not really, I am an inventor chasing big and important ideas.
Q: You have sold companies. Have you worked for the companies that bought your companies?
Q: In your lifetime, whom have you considered a boss?
The laws of science melded with virtues of religion.
Q: After achieving financial success – what is the motivation for working?
Mainly it is to make a difference. After my prior company is sold I get bored and start getting interested in a new idea with a group of driven people. The idea has to solve a very important problem, have a deep scientific foundation and include a disruptive business model.
Q: Are you excited to start another company at some point in your life?
Seven is enough. In the future, I would like to help really smart people with a cool idea succeed, especially if they are driven. This can only occur after I finish the company I am committed to.
Q: Do companies ever become boring to you?
No. But sometimes they are much harder than I ever imagined. Often, right after a point of maximal stress, we have a breakthrough and then everything seems much easier.
Q: What keeps companies interesting?
Having an impact on mankind…doing something very useful. This has always been achieved with a founding team committed to a very important mission. That team then hires an equally committed and talented team around them. The company is always at the point of taking brand new technical knowledge and applying the breakthroughs to a really important problem.
The team believes if they do not realize the mission, perhaps no one else will find a solution for a very long time. Simply stated, the team believes solving the problem is their destiny. The technical hurdles are always engaging and solving them is important for satisfaction.
Q: How do companies affect your personal life?
Companies are all consuming for entrepreneurs. It is not great for one’s personal life. Actually, my personal life becomes very intertwined with the company once the company gets going.
Q: When you are not running a company — or between companies – how does that make you feel personally and professionally?
I have averaged about one month between companies. I think I always have a few good ideas percolating in my head. It might be nice at some point to just stop for a few years and smell the roses.
Q: Do you see other companies you want to start?
Mostly, I would like to transfer my experiences to other entrepreneurs, especially those early in their careers. I would like to help start a nuclear fusion energy company someday. It would make the world a better place.
It would be nice to write a book on my experiences but there is always so much to do…
One final personal note from me:
I can honestly say that in working side-by-side with dozens of entrepreneurs, the world is better off with Harry as a leader.
And yes, “No one should die of cancer.”