Monday, July 31, 2023

Overheard in a Thai Restaurant

An amusing incident happened on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend that is a reminder that even when there are no walls the walls in the Boston area can have biotech-tuned ears.  Oh, and a funny quirk of fate that I swear I'm not making up.
The three of us -- my wife, myself and my dear little Lily -- were planning to spend a few days in a beach house on Plum Island, a barrier island at the mouth of the Merrimack River - nearly as far as you can go north along the coast and still be in Massachusetts.  Newburyport has a wonderful little farmers' market every Sunday which we had shopped at, and now it was time for lunch.

There's a nice little Thai restaurant across the road in a converted mill building called Brown Sugar, and it had an outdoor seating area, so I went over to learn if all three of us would be permitted -- either due to local regulation or the management preference Lily is sometimes unwelcome even at outdoor seating spaces.  Turns out the Brown Sugar isn't just tolerant, but knows how to be very hospitable - a dish of ice water was brought out and a biscuit was proffered -- and Lily is far too polite to risk giving offense by declining a biscuit!

So I sat there waiting for the third of our party to finish at the market and surrounding shops.  There was only one other table occupied, and there sat two women.  They weren't right next to us, but it was quiet there and yes, I could hear their conversation.  I'm not the stick-and-ear-to-a-keyhole type, but I will confess it is hard to shut down my language processing sections of the brain.  

Before long, I heard "targets" and realized that they meant the pharmaceutical type.  The one woman was describing a biotech collaboration that came up dry, and how after it had run its course she had talked to her supervisor and said she had always been skeptical of the partner's ability to deliver.  Her supervisor had gently admonished her that she should have voiced this concern earlier.

Around that time, a truly magic word came out and I grinned -- and the grin got bigger when I realized that for no particular reason I had put on a quarter century old T-shirt that morning -- which had the logo to go with the company name she had spoken!  No, I'm not making that detail up!!!  And my first guess at spelling the name of her supervisor -- it was phonetically ambiguous -- hit on LinkedIn to someone with the right credentials and at a former partner of Millennium and his role would only fit one of our partnerships.  Though in my memory we did deliver at least one screen that got all the way to an animal -- I remember because the program head had mentioned that the compound induced convulsions in the mice.  That's a horrible detail that sticks with you. 
I have a periodic correspondent who is interested in some of the old Millennium history and particularly a retrospective on what worked and what didn't.  I also think sometimes about how our ambitions then would map onto the technologies of today.  But it would be most interesting to get together with those who were at partners and try to have a polite but frank discussion of what happened those days and how it has influenced our later careers.

It's always easy to start rumors in Cambridge.  There was one time during the Millennium years when I went to lunch with a friend at Novartis and we realized that another table had a similar Millennium-Novartis pair.  Those were (I think) innocent lunches.  On the other hand, my final interview for Warp Drive Bio consisted of breakfast with original CEO Alexis Borisy and afterwards I needed to get back to Infinity.  We both like to walk (Alexis really does; he must wear out shoe soles in a matter of weeks) and so we walked back along the river -- and passed Infinity's facilities guy.  Yeah, he said he wasn't surprised when I announced I was leaving.  I actually have two former colleagues (one from Millennium & one from Infinity) a few hundred steps from my house in the 'burbs.  I've run into people on the Red Line, the Commuter Rail and even in supermarkets.  

Loose lips used to sink ships.  What wafted over to me at Brown Sugar was completely harmless.  I was tempted to make some gesture when the two women left, but my wife would have been mortified.  But this incident was a reminder that wherever you go around Boston, you might run into past, current or future colleagues, collaborators, or competitors.  This is a biotech town, which means everywhere there might be someone very interested in your conversations.

P.S. If you recognize yourself in this story, drop me a line!  

1 comment:

Ash Jogalekar said...

That sounds about right for Boston! Sort of like the biotech version of tech conversations in Silicon Valley (much less interesting for me). And better to hear about pharmaceutical targets than drone targets...