Terry Rosen: From the streets of Chicago to scientist entrepreneur

Douglas Clark, Terry Rosen and Clayton Heathcock at 2019 Homecoming game Douglas Clark, Terry Rosen and Clayton Heathcock at 2019 Homecoming game

By Marge d’Wylde

 “Science and entrepreneurial culture go hand in hand. There is a convergence of intellectual curiosity and translation of the output of satisfying that curiosity into something practical and ideally meaningful for society, this is a very natural evolution for many scientists, the desire and vision to drive the output of their basic research into something with profound manifestations that might have otherwise been unanticipated, thought to be not feasible, or simply to solve an important practical problem.”  Terry Rosen, 2019

Alumnus Terry Rosen (Ph.D. ’85, Chem), and his wife Tori, have been engaged as supporters of the University and College of Chemistry for many years. Terry has given back to the University not only as a donor, but also as a member of the College of Chemistry Advisory Board and the UC Berkeley Foundation Board of Trustees.

Terry’s goal for creating a new research building at the College is that “the building’s infrastructure will be a point of ‘nucleation’ for students and faculty. Chemistry is a physical science. For students, it should be very hands on. Beyond the laboratory, a new building will allow for a state-of-the-art technological infrastructure which is also an important component in scientific learning and discovery.”

Terry should know. He has led highly successful drug discovery and development companies in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries for over 30 years. Most recently as co-founder of two start-ups: Flexus Biosciences and Arcus Biosciences.  He is engaged in bringing new therapies to market with the goal of harnessing the immune system to fight cancer. 

Terry grew up on the north side of Chicago in a working class, ethnically diverse neighborhood. His grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Russia and Hungary, and his parents grew up as childhood friends in Chicago. He walked or took the city bus to school. He states, “while not quite ‘West Side Story’ rough, there was plenty of mischief going on in my ‘hood’. There was a city park very close to my house where all the kids would congregate. I spent most of my free hours outside of school at the basketball court learning ‘playground’ rules; the old-fashioned way of growing up with a lot of freedom and very little supervision. It was a great way to grow up for a competitive, sports-focused kid like myself.”

Terry knew he wanted to be a chemist from high school onward. His first stop was the University of Michigan where he focused on organic chemistry. Graduate school was next, but the question was where. “Berkeley was my first choice,” Terry states. “I had an interest in the type of research that Clayton Heathcock was doing prior to my showing up at Berkeley based on the literature. Back then, we didn’t visit schools as part of the selection process. The first time I ever saw Berkeley, and the College, was when I showed up to start classes. 

“Berkeley’s curriculum was very research-focused, so we started meeting with faculty (and their groups) early in the semester after we arrived. It became obvious to me that not only was the research (and specific project that Clayton proposed to me) very exciting, but Clayton’s way of interacting with his students and his passion for the science and engagement were awesome.” 

According to Clayton, “at the time Terry joined my research group in the 1980s, the research was actively focused on ‘total synthesis’. Nature is very good at assembling chemical compounds with complex structures. Their biological properties often make good drugs. However, they are produced naturally in small quantities, so it is desirable to determine a way to make them in the laboratory.”  

Regarding Terry’s arrival in the group Clayton continued, “in the 1980s, Rosen was just a delightful kid to have in the lab, though that ‘kid’ would go on to devise a very creative organic synthesis that would aid in the chemical synthesis of the class of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs that includes Lipitor.”

Terry at Clayton’s home in 1982. Photo courtesy Clayton Heathcock

Terry had a very solid high school education despite attending a school where “friendly but armed guards” walked the halls. Preston Hayes, his chemistry teacher, encouraged hands-on laboratory work at “another level”. According to Terry, he provided unfettered (and unsupervised, making it all the more fun) access to the laboratory during and after school.

Terry felt the group culture was very special. Everyone had a great work ethic. He states, “We all lived in Latimer. The group was very cohesive with everyone committed to their research.  It was a very special time both for me and for the Heathcock group.

“Thinking back on it, the University was a bedrock providing opportunity for social mobility. Almost from the moment students arrived on campus, they had an opportunity to level the playing field with their peers. Whether they went on to postdoctoral work, medical school, law school, or into industry they were exposed to how the world was evolving. This was a big component of what the University had to offer then and continues to offer students today.

Now, there is a greater cognizance of what the University can do help students. As a result, faculty and the administration are providing more mentorship, entrepreneur training, and peer advising for career setting. There is also more emphasis on laboratory experience at an undergraduate level. This allows students to “hit a new baseline” during their studies. Ultimately, it expands awareness for them of how to find opportunities once they leave.”

Terry and Tori at a 1984 chili party at Clayton’s home. They were engaged in this photo and married the following year at the Faculty Club. Clayton arranged for them to be married there. Photo courtesy Clayton Heathcock.

Research wasn’t the only thing happening in his life during graduate school. He also met his wife Tori. She states, “I was born in Hawaii into a navy family. We moved around and lived in various places, including the Shetland Islands where my mother was born. I went to college at Western Washington University, graduating with a degree in business and accounting.  

“I moved to California after graduating and worked in public accounting for a few years.  I met Terry then. It was serendipitous. I didn’t go to bars at all, and yet I met him in the sleaziest bar in Oakland one evening when a couple of my friends insisted, we should go out. Who knew? Terry tried to introduce me to his friend…and well…here we are 36 or so years later.”

Like many of Heathcock’s students, Terry went into industry after graduation. “I started out with an interest in pure synthetic organic chemistry. My research involved the synthesis of a naturally occurring molecule called compactin that was the progenitor to the statin class of cholesterol-lowering agents (like Lipitor). Because of the biology associated with this class, my interest in biological research increased, ultimately leading to an interest in drug discovery, so I decided to become a medicinal chemist.

“I didn’t do a postdoc, instead going directly from Berkeley into the pharmaceutical industry in 1985, first to Abbott and then to Pfizer, where I was involved in infectious diseases and neuroscience research, respectively. This included some early work on AIDS which had emerged as a research problem during my time at Berkeley.”

Terry returned to California and joined the Bay Area startup Tularik Inc. as a medicinal chemist, eventually leading all of the company’s research. That company, cofounded by UC Berkeley professor Robert Tjian, was later acquired by Amgen. Rosen worked his way up to become the biotechnology company’s head of Therapeutic Discovery. 

According to Terry, “In 1993, I made what turned out to be my best work-related decision, moving across the country to join the Bay Area start-up Tularik. Tularik’s founders included Berkeley Professor Bob Tjian and Dave Goeddel, a seminal figure in biotechnology history, who was the first scientist at Genentech. The biology research at Tularik was incredible which made for a great opportunity for chemists. I went there to build their chemistry group, ultimately taking on the leadership of all of Tularik’s research.” 

Tularik was acquired by Amgen in 2004. Terry remained with Amgen for almost another decade, ultimately leading all of its drug discovery research in both the small and large molecule fields. 

Terry comments, “In 2013, I decided to leave Amgen and started a biotech company called Flexus together with chemist Juan Jaen. I met Juan in my undergraduate days at the University of Michigan and then later recruited him to Tularik. Our intent was to build a long-term company, focused on creating cancer therapies in an emerging field known as immuno-oncology. We had some very good early success, and surprisingly, Flexus was acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb barely a year and a half after its formation. 

“As a result, Juan and I started Arcus almost immediately after that. Arcus is similarly focused on cancer therapies, with an emphasis on immuno-oncology. We are doing better with the aspiration of building a long-term biotech company. I am the CEO of Arcus. It has been around for over four years and is very R&D-centric. We currently have four molecules in human clinical trials. My entire career has been involved in basic research, with organic chemistry always at the heart of things.

Terry states, “I feel Berkeley played a big part in focusing me as a graduate student on how to do sound basic scientific research while simultaneously enabling me to advance my technical training and expand my career options. This type of university experience is ground zero for how we will be able to advance the biosciences with the next generation of young scientists. To a large extent, that has to do with advancements in technology which circles back to why I think a new building at the College is so important.”