James L. Vincent

James L. VincentGraduation Year: 1961

Degree at Duke:
Bachelor of Science

Major/Program:
Mechanical Engineering

Career Highlights:

  • Chairman of the Board of Biogen, Inc., the oldest independent biotechnology company in the world
  • Guided Biogen's landmark launch of its first proprietary pharmaceutical product, AVONEX® (Interferon beta-1a), which now generates annual revenues of more than $700 million
  • Previously built successful enterprises within Texas Instruments, Abbot Laboratories, and Allied Signal

In the mid-'80s, pharmaceutical and financial industry wisdom had it that the pioneering biotech firm Biogen, Inc., founded nine years earlier by a group of talented scientists that included two Nobel Prize winners, was in trouble. But when Biogen brought in Pratt School of Engineering alumnus James L. Vincent as its Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, the tide began to turn.

Vincent's sharp focus on, in his own words, "transforming knowledge into product" guided a series of key structural changes-and calculated risks-that set the stage for the company's successful release of Avonex® in 1996. A bioengineered version of a naturally occurring substance known as beta interferon, Avonex® quickly became the treatment of choice for multiple sclerosis and captured more than 60 percent of the global market share. Biogen now has several other promising products in its pipeline and, as management consulting firm Booz Allen & Hamilton put it, has clearly gone "from startup to big-time player." Demonstrating his talent for leadership in a series of remarkable triumphs over the course of his career, Vincent has come a long way from his small-town Pennsylvania roots.

"I think an engineering education correlates absolutely with the analytic frame of mind you need for business," Vincent says. "It gives you a disciplined approach to problem-solving that's important in everything from product development to strategic decision-making. It also gives you a comfort level with technology that is invaluable in helping you learn what you need to know. When I went to Abbott, I could barely spell 'antibody,' but, with my engineering education, I quickly came up the learning curves to the required level.

"Many quite successful people I've met in the worlds of high-tech and biotech have good business minds but a natural resistance to science and technology," Vincent adds. "But I believe that you can't be a full participant at the resource allocation table-which means deciding when to start, when to stop, and where you're going to place your bets-unless you are literate in the technology of your business."