- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2002

J. Craig Venter, the controversial scientist who led Celera Genomics in its successful race with federal researchers to map the human genetic makeup, said yesterday that he is stepping down as president of the company.
He will remain with the company as a scientific adviser.
Dr. Venter plans to spend more time working with the Institute of Genomic Research, a Rockville, Md. nonprofit that he helped start in the mid-1990s, the company said. The institute is run by his wife, scientist Claire Fraser.
While seeking a new president for Celera, Tony L. White, chairman and CEO of Applera, Celera's parent company, will assume the role.
Since mapping the genome, the focus at Celera has switched from selling access to its genetic databases to developing drugs. Last year, the company acquired drugmaker Axys Pharmaceuticals Inc. for $177 million.
Dr. Venter is not the first executive to leave Celera; Peter Barrett, the company's chief business officer and co-founder, left last month for a venture-capital firm.
Dr. Venter's stepping down did not surprise analysts.
"It was a very scientifically driven business, and now Celera is transitioning itself to a more mundane, profit-oriented model. I'm sure they thought some other people might be able to do a better job, and I'm sure Craig agreed with them," said Steve Newby, chief investment officer of GenomicsFund.com, a Gaithersburg bioscience investor.
GenomicsFund owns 1,000 shares of Celera, a sort of "token holding to stay on the mailing list," Mr. Newby said.
Dr. Venter "did his job, he sequenced the genome, and I'm sure he has great ambitions to do new things," Mr. Newby added.
Celera said Dr. Venter was traveling and was not available for comment yesterday. But the company released a statement from him, saying, "We're now at a critical juncture where my best contributions can be made in a scientific advisory role, allowing the rest of the organization to continue Celera's progress toward becoming a successful pharmaceutical business."
A biotechnology analyst, who wished to remain unnamed, said Celera had reached the point where it needed a more experienced businessman, rather than a scientist at the helm.
"Having a therapeutic business would be much more lucrative than the database business they have," the analyst said. "And Craig does not have the experience of running a biopharmaceutical company, and Celera needed to get somebody who would do that."
Still, the analyst pointed out, founders rarely leave their companies so soon after their conception.
Celera was started in 1997. It took some time to get organized, but it was nine months after it began mapping the genome that Dr. Venter's brainchild was delivered.
Critics attacked Dr. Venter's work, saying it was full of errors. They also charged that it was unethical for the company to charge for access to the data. Dr. Venter was unapologetic.
Shares of Celera were trading at highs of $250 on the New York Stock Exchange when the company first announced it had mapped the genome.
Later, the market tumbled, and investors stayed away from biotech stocks. Shares of Celera closed at $22.30 yesterday, down $1.54 from Monday.
Celera is scheduled to report quarterly earnings today, and analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial/First Call expect it to report a loss of 40 cents a share.

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