King of the Biotech Hill
Paul DeStefano has represented more than 100 biotech companies
Published in 2006 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on July 17, 2006
Updated on March 21, 2017
There’s a disarming lack of pretense about Paul DeStefano. When he arrives at Fish & Richardson’s Silicon Valley office, he’s dressed in a sweater vest and jeans, apologizes for being late (he isn’t) and then briefly describes an emergency with his dog that distressed his 8-year-old daughter and sent him scurrying to the vet. With his slightly unruly graying hair and beard, it’s not hard to picture a much younger DeStefano who, 30 years earlier, was enticed by a job interview because it came with the promise of midnight softball in Alaska.
But it’s also not hard to imagine that in most settings DeStefano is the smartest guy in the room. There is his degree in philosophy, his mastery of languages (German and French) and his long list of professional accomplishments. And there’s his startling, rapid-fire conversation, the way he can recall in extraordinary detail events that led to his carving out a unique legal role in the biotech industry.
Since 1990, when DeStefano finished a stint as chief legal officer at the pioneering biotech giant Genentech, that role has consisted of joining the management team of a string of biotech start-ups, and being charged with converting the company’s intellectual property into money. He does that by, among other things, identifying and negotiating with investors and helping to focus the companies’ research efforts and business approach. He has represented nearly 250 biotech companies and about 75 investor groups from four different continents, and has been involved in more than three dozen initial public offerings.
“Paul is not your average attorney,” says client Dr. Robert Burns, the CEO of Celldex Therapeutics Ltd., a European biotech start-up. “He prides himself—and rightly so—on taking a more strategic view of where a company is going.”
That wasn’t DeStefano’s career plan when he emerged from USC law school in 1974 and landed in West Germany as a Marshall Fund Fellow. While in Germany he published a number of articles, including a few on “wandering rights,” a concept in the German constitution that leaves most large tracts of privately owned land open for public access and use.
Set to join a firm in Washington, D.C., when his fellowship ended, DeStefano received a call from Joe Rudd of Ely, Guess & Rudd in Alaska. Rudd had read his articles on wandering rights and saw parallels to issues that might emerge from the recently passed Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act. DeStefano initially declined Rudd’s offer to visit, but Rudd persisted. De Stefano eventually accepted and stayed six years, during which time he served as outside counsel to both Alyeska, the consortium of oil companies building the Trans-Alaskan pipeline, and BP/Sohio during the development of Prudhoe Bay.
“That’s when I got involved in the intersection of law and technology … In those days the area of technical interest was petrophysics, material sciences and petroleum engineering,” says DeStefano. “I had to understand science at the best level a layperson could, and because I had no formal science background, that was enchanting. That was compelling.”
In 1984 he joined Genentech. The company had no products yet, and it needed capital, but it had enormous confidence in its scientists. It believed if it could sell its universe of potential products — call it intellectual property — it could finance a steady stream of scientific discovery. DeStefano began working with the scientists to anticipate where science would be a few years down the road. “This resulted in Genentech treating science contractually in novel ways,” he says.
DeStefano loved his work. He loved the scientists and loved the company, which fostered a spirit of extraordinary collaboration in an atmosphere where everyone considered his or her colleagues the best and the brightest. Eventually, he became part of the management committee, where he soaked in a wealth of business experience and honed his strategic perspective.
He draws on that experience today, just as he draws on his deep understanding of other cultures, and his public policy experience. De Stefano’s years overseas and close friendships in Europe and Asia provide him with a unique sense of how to bridge cultural differences when making deals. One example: To help a large European manufacturer of generic drugs spin off an internal operation to create an Austrian start-up, De Stefano served as counsel to a team of investors, business partners and lawyers from across Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the U.K. “There are times that I spend at least as much of my time functioning on a cultural front as I do lawyering,” he says.
In public policy, De Stefano has served on a number of high-level advisory boards for groups that include the governor of California and National Academy of Sciences, covering issues that range from the commercialization of human gene therapy to vaccine liability. “They’ve been great opportunities,” he says. He clearly relishes the hashing through of complex legal, political and philosophical issues.
There are attorneys who might find this
mix of law, science, business, policy and
culture a distraction from the hard work of
practicing corporate law, but for DeStefano it’s a comfortable place, one he discovered 30 years ago, while playing softball with scientists during endless Alaskan days.
The Future of Biotechnology
Paul DeStefano says that biotech is beginning to break down species barriers. He lists porcine insulin and heart valves, goats that are part spider, and the growing of human ears on pigs, an image that makes his daughter cringe. De Stefano realizes she’s not alone in that reaction and notes that what he calls “the creepy threshold” can be a significant factor in restraining scientific discovery.
In the United States, however, he believes that the creepy threshold is not the only factor that will limit research. There’s the discouraging plunge in science education, the ever-increasing complexity of science combined with American mistrust of experts and questions about the return on investment for things like vaccines or gene therapy.
Perhaps most important, “we have immense polarization on science issues in this country, whether it’s Darwinian evolution or things as complicated as stem cells,” says De Stefano. “It’s uniquely American for politicians to take positions on scientific issues … and we don’t seem to have a mechanism to build consensus on tough scientific issues … So courts end up making decisions that in my view people used to make themselves with common perception, common orientation. It’s already put serious constraints on stem cell research. And the end result is that some research … won’t be done here.”