BioTech Talent Stories: Gene Lay, the Founder and President of BioLegend (Part 1)
[2018-01-23 ]

[Note] This article the first part of Gene Lay's story, based on the speech of Gene Lay on Nov. 23, 2017.  The second part (interview after the lecture) is coming soon in January of 2018. Please stay tuned.

"Think Less, Do More! "– Gene Lay


Gene Lay, M.S., D.V.M., is the Founder and President of BioLegend, a name familiar to the research community. Born and raised in Miaoli County of western Taiwan, Gene Lay completed his undergraduate studies from National Pingtung University of Science and Technology. Inspired by a lecture in advanced immunology, Gene was introduced to the development of monoclonal antibodies by Georges Köhler and César Milstein.

In 1974, Dr. Köhler was a young postdoctoral student at Dr. César Milstein’s lab in Cambridge, England. The two established the “hybridoma technology” to produce monoclonal antibodies (mAbs). Their work spurred a revolution in medicine and it also ignited a spark of interest within a young man from the island of Taiwan.

César Milstein (left) and Georges Köhler (right). Photo credit: Nobel

Side story: Milstein never applied for a patent for his discovery and gave away his cells in the common scientific tradition of free exchange. He only requested that the recipients would not patent any hybridomas made from the cell and that the cells should not be passed onto their parties. Margaret Thatcher, a chemist by training, expressed much criticism toward this issue and garnered the public’s attention on Milstein. Frustrated and caught in the anger over the non-patenting of the hybridoma technology, Milstein expresses, “We were mainly concerned with the scientific aspects and not giving particular thought to the commercial applications.”

After having obtained his Bachelor’s, Gene sought for a position at an animal vaccine company. Some time later, he was recruited by EverNew Biotech Inc. (永進生物科技股份有限公司), one of the three biotech companies in Taiwan at the time. Gene spent two years developing a monoclonal antibody sandwich for hepatitis B diagnostics before deciding to pursue a graduate degree. Hoping to advance his career, Gene left Taiwan in 1987 to pursue his interest in more depth at University of Louisiana.

One Christmas, Gene received a call from a long-time friend Ernie Huang, who was then a postdoctoral student at Leonard Herzenberg’s lab. Ernie proposed a business idea to Gene and asked him to join him starting a biotech company named, PharMingen. Ernie’s start-up biotech idea was initiated by the overwhelming work load he faced at Herzenberg’s lab. At the time, Dr. Herzenberg would receive numerous letters from all over the world asking for monoclonal antibodies. Although Dr. Herzenberg was more than happy to send the requested antibodies to these labs; however, the tedious tasks were hindering his young postdoctoral student, Ernie, of his research and publication. Thus, together with Gene, Ernie and Gene started PharMingen with a total capital investment about 260,000 USD from families and friends. They originally started with 3-4 employees and later grew to about 250 employees in 1997. The company was becoming too big, too fast for Gene and Ernie to manage and PharMingen was later acquired by BD Bioscience for $75 million dollars.

Leonard Herzenberg. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Side Note: An immunologist, geneticist and professor at Stanford University. In 1979, Herzenberg developed the fluorescence-activated cell sorter (FACS) that revolutionized immunology and cancer biology. He spent a sabbatical in Cambridge César Milstein’s lab and learned much of about monoclonal antibody.

This acquisition did not stop Gene, instead, he worked and acquired his management skills at Becton Dickinson. Over time, Gene decided to leave BD and start BioLegend. The reason to start another biotech venture was in the hopes of wanting to be the legend of bioscience. However, Gene joked in an interview stating that, “I was unwilling to write my cv; thus, I thought of a way where I would never have to do so.

Gene envisions BioLegend to be a global leader in bioscience through scientific innovation, continuous improvements, and customer satisfactions. His mission for BioLegend is to enable legendary discovery by providing world-class quality, superior customer service and support, along with outstanding value around the world.

Lastly, Gene encourages students to grasp opportunities when available and spent time wisely on matters that will further advance what you hope to achieve in life.