Corey Goodman (pictured left) has long seen the therapeutic potential of neuroscience, a field that encompasses a broad range of potential pharmaceutical targets and nervous system disorders including chronic pain, mental illness, and spinal chord injuries.

A Matter of Timing

But when venture capitalists approached him in the 1980s, Goodman knew that the time wasn't right. The science was too immature, and he told them so. Neuroscience companies that started in the '80s tended to focus on particular neurotrophic or growth factors, he says, and were little better than shots in the dark. "We knew so little about the nervous system, we had little idea about how to make these therapeutics. It was a lot of wishful thinking," he recalls.

Then a professor at Stanford, he remained interested in the therapeutic potential of his chosen field, but he stayed in academia, content with getting his feet wet in business via consulting arrangements. In time, he served on the scientific advisory board of another company, and then, finally, he decided to leave his academic position in 2001 to take the reigns of Renovis, a company he co-founded. Nearly 20 years after the initial impulse, the time had finally come.

Goodman's story is one of timing. In the 1980s the science wasn't ready for commercial development. In the 1990s, when he was asked to become CEO of Exelixis, he realized that he still wasn't ready to abandon his academic career. There were too many unresolved problems that he felt he was on the cusp of solving.

After moving to Berkeley in 1987, he took his first, tentative step towards industry. In 1988, when friends of his at Athena Neuroscience invited him to join the company's scientific advisory board, he accepted, and served on the board for the next four years. "I learned a lot about what an advisory board could and couldn't influence. I watched the CEO make decisions that I thought were a little screwy, and now, in hindsight, I realize he was very wise. He wasn't thinking just about the science, but about how to build a successful biotech business," says Goodman.

In 1990, the Japanese company Teijin Ltd. asked him to consult for their pharmaceutical unit. Goodman became an advisor to one of the company's top researchers for the next five years, and gained an understanding of the inner workings of a larger organization.

Those experiences laid the groundwork for his later career. "I had a variety of experiences, with venture capitalists, a young private biotech company, and a larger pharmaceutical company. Those were really good learning experiences. At the same time, I had a network of colleagues and friends [from whom] I was also learning a lot," he says.

After moving to Berkeley, he arrived at a career crossroads in 1994, when Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas, then at Yale, discovered and subsequently patented the human relative of the fruit fly gene notch, which plays a role in cell-to-cell interactions and could be an anti-cancer target. Goodman and his colleague Gerry Rubin wondered what he was up to, and when they talked to him they found out that he planned to start a company that would mine fruit fly genetics for genetic targets for cancer therapy. They would join him, along with financier Stelios Papadopoulos, to form Exelixis in 1995.

Investors asked him to become CEO, but Goodman knew the time still wasn't right. This time it had nothing to do with the science, which was, he felt, mature enough. This time it was he who wasn't ready. "I wasn't ready to run a company," he says. Part of the reason was that he knew he wasn't yet up to the task, despite his previous experience. But more importantly, he wasn't ready to abandon his academic research program. "You can never completely figure something out in terms of basic research, but you [can] take something to a different plateau. You close a chapter and move to the next one. I wasn't ready to finish that chapter in my life."

Instead, he became an advisor to Exelixis, attending meetings of the board of directors, and helped to build the company. But inevitably, it drifted away from his influence. "The people living it 24/7 are the ones who take it forward, and that's the way it should be. They put their careers on the line," he says.

Goodman has no regrets. He describes the late 1990s as a golden age in his lab: "A lot of things we were working on for several decades came together." He and his colleagues discovered many of the key molecules and signaling systems that guide nerve cells to make connections during development of the nervous system.

Still, the lack of control of Exelixis' future bothered him. "To found a company and then stay on the outside, the company can take all sorts of different directions. If you really want to have influence, the only way to do that is to join it," he says. As his research progressed, Goodman continued to consider therapeutic applications, and in the late 1990s, he and his colleagues decided that neuroscience might finally be capable of supporting a biotech company.

"We were starting to understand a lot about circuits and cells, and we had the tools to look at gene expression in different kinds of cells ? one could start to imagine that we had the tools to understand the brain's normal and diseased conditions and figure out what the best targets might be for drug discovery," Goodman recalls. Still, "you never really know [if the time is right]. We were playing by gut intuition."

Ready to Leave Academia

In 2000, together with Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Tito Serafini, Goodman formed the company Renovis, which specializes in neuroprotection, pain, and neurodegenerative diseases. Again, investors approached him about becoming the company's CEO. Goodman wavered. This time, he felt more prepared to leave academia, but still he hesitated. In the end, it was his previous experience that swayed him. "I admire George Scangos (Exelixis' CEO) enormously, but it was George's company, and he was charting the course for the company. That's an emotion that loomed very large in my mind when I was considering what my relationship should be with Renovis."

The company started interviewing candidates, and Goodman recalls a belief that none in the existing pool was good enough for the position. "What was really going through my mind was, 'I want to do it.' I didn't want twice in a row to hand over the keys to the car."

So in 2001 he became CEO of Renovis and began the process of closing his academic lab. His last student left late in 2004. His experience as a consultant and an advisory board member prepared him well, and Goodman recommends a similar path for others interested in forming a startup venture. He also accumulated executive-style experience by helping to build the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at Berkeley and taking a leadership role in several private foundations.

That experience made him an attractive candidate for CEO and no doubt eased venture capitalists' minds when it came to working with him. "They saw [that experience] and it gave them the hunch that I would be up to the job," says Goodman.

Jim Kling is a freelance science and medical writer based in Bellingham, Washington.