While the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference was full of voices of measured optimism, rooting for the market to bounce back in 2024, one longtime biotech leader warned against setting any firm expectations.

Instead of predicting when the downturn may end, Vertex Pharmaceuticals founder Joshua Boger said he advises biotech leaders to expect — and plan for — volatility. Speaking Tuesday on an Endpoints News panel alongside OrbiMed’s Carl Gordon and Appia Bio CEO JJ Kang, Boger shared lessons learned on surviving downturns, striking pharma deals, and the importance of keeping a company’s culture based on his two decades of founding and leading Vertex as CEO from 1989 to 2009. The 72-year-old is now serving as executive chairman of Alkeus Pharmaceuticals, a startup developing a rare disease drug.

“I never experienced a straight line up,” Boger said. “Everything had its cycles, and it was how you respond to the cycle, not by predicting when the end is going to be, but just by responding to the present situation.”

At Boger’s first appearance at the JP Morgan conference in 1991, he said the conference’s theme was the end of biotech financing. Just a few months later, Regeneron successfully went public, rapidly changing the outlook for the whole field.

“We had no idea we were ever going to take public money,” he said. “When Regeneron did their IPO, we went, ‘Whoa, there’s something happening here,’ and we pivoted quickly.”

Vertex went public later that year. Throughout his 20-year tenure, Boger said no pharma company ever made an acquisition offer for Vertex, which now commands a market value of $110 billion and recently won the first FDA approval for a CRISPR gene editing therapy.

“We had an uber corporate policy to always make ourselves more expensive than anyone would stomach,” Boger said.

However, Vertex did strike a range of partnerships with Big Pharmas, which Boger described as a painful but necessary part of running a biotech startup.

“It’s impossible for a partnership not to slow you down,” he said. “You can and should try as hard as you can not to do that, but just count on it. They’ll slow you down.”

Boger said startups should insist on being equal partners in pharma deals, at least making sure they have a seat at a partner’s development meetings.

“Realize they’re going to be painful, it’s going to be horrible, and you need to do it,” Boger said.

While Vertex suffered through layoffs, stock price plunges, and trial failures, Boger credited a focus on culture as key to its long-term success.

“It’s the most important ingredient for a successful company,” he said. “Technology is acquirable. Culture is not acquirable. There are 10 companies that will fail because of culture for every one that succeeds, and the successful companies in retrospect will almost always have special cultural aspects that kept them through those downtimes.”

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