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my story
Bio-tech pioneer Matt Winkler

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Never mind that Matt Winkler, Genetics, '74, and Ph.D., Zoology, '79, recently sold his ground-breaking biotech company for $273 million. This adventurous traveler and entrepreneur is building a new company focused on early cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Although I didn't always appreciate it at the time, I had a very unusual and culturally rich upbringing. I grew up in Berkeley, where my father Harold was a political science professor at UC Berkeley. He resigned after refusing to take a loyalty oath during the McCarthy era and went on to become general manager of KPFA, the first publicly-supported radio station in the country, and president of the station's owner, the Pacifica Foundation.

When I was four and five, my family spent nine months vagabonding around the West Indies, the Canary Islands and Europe. When I was in fourth and fifth grade, we spent a year and a half traveling around the world. Nine months crisscrossing South America by bus and train and then by freighters with a six-month stop in Yugoslavia, where I was enrolled in school and learned to speak some Serbo-Croatian. These early experiences certainly widened my horizons. I witnessed acute poverty and saw a lot of people living quite happily under very difficult circumstances. Later, as a young adult, I had more travel adventures hitchhiking from Cairo to Cape Town. I also had the opportunity a few years ago to make two trips to Antarctica with with a former UCB graduate student colleague to do research on sea urchin egg metabolism, the subject of my academic research career.

Shortly before graduating from Berkeley High in 1970, I told my dad I wanted to take a year off before college and just hang out. Two weeks later, he dropped two college applications-one for the UC system and one for the state college system- on the breakfast table and said, "Fill these out or have your stuff moved out by morning!" Looking back, I appreciate his intervention. I think he knew that with all of the diversions the world offered, I might never get around to it if I didn't go to college right away.

I ended up picking UC San Diego because it was the farthest UC campus from Berkeley. I just wanted to get as far away from Berkeley as I could. But after two and a half years there, I transferred to Berkeley to be nearer to my girlfriend. Once again, I didn't exactly have an academic rationale for the various decisions in my life. Genetics was the major that was open to me at Berkeley, so that was the degree I got.

During that time-on February 4, 1974 to be exact-I inadvertently became a part of a historic event. I was at a bacteriology study session when we heard someone screaming and witnessed a woman being shoved into the trunk of a car. I yelled to my friends, "Call the heat!"-a phrase that strikes most people as comical now-and the abductors started shooting at us, before speeding off in the car. With what seemed like a good idea at the time, we chased after them on foot and tried to get the car's license number while they were firing back at us. Fortunately, the angel that watches out for fools and drunkards was on duty and we escaped injury. It turned out that the woman was newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who lived in the apartment next door. I helped provide a description of the Symbionese Liberation Army's leader, Cinque Mtume, to the FBI, and later testified at Hearst's bank robbery trial.

After taking off a year and traveling in Africa, I got my doctorate in zoology from Berkeley. I then did postdoctoral studies at the University of Hawaii and UC Davis, before taking a faculty position at the University of Texas in Austin. I met my wife Peggy while she was getting her master's in marine botany, and we got married in 1989. We have three sons, Dan, Josh, and John; 16, 14, and 11, respectively. Every summer I take my sons on backpacking trips in the Sierras. I've always loved being outdoors. The mother of a friend of mine once said, "Matt, you were the least likely of all of the kids to have grown up and taken an indoor job." Being in the Sierras really touches a deep chord in me. I love exploring areas that have no trails and few signs of humans.

I've always been interested in the technology around biology. I'd made several inventions while I was a professor, but found the university to be an awkward business partner. As I watched other molecular biology reagent companies starting up, doing things I already did in the lab, I thought I'd prefer to have my own playing field. Much to the surprise of my colleagues, I decided to launch Ambion in 1989 and left my tenured position at the university a couple of years later. Despite the fact that I knew very little about business and made lots of mistakes in the early days, we were ultimately quite successful. Last March, when I sold Ambion to Applied Biosystems for $273 million, we had over 400 employees. I took about 100 employees with me to start a new company called Asuragen. Our focus is developing the diagnostic and therapeutic capabilities of microRNAs, which have exciting possibilities for the early detection and treatment of cancer.

Starting a new company again is a lot like a woman forgetting the pain of childbirth. You have to forget how hard and how painful it can be in order to it again. But doing science is just too much fun to stop and a entrepreneurial company is a great environment to do science. Also, I would take great personal satisfaction if I could make a real contribution in the field of cancer.

-As interviewed by Tina Kessinger
Portrait by Al Argueta


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