Utahn finds research projects to fund before others jump on board
By Lois M. Collins
Utah entrepreneur and philanthropist Gary Crocker has a habit of offering a hand early, before it’s clear how things will turn out.
The help he offers comes in as many forms as the need it serves — a money boost for a life science idea in its very infancy, well before a venture capitalist would sign on, or funding for a program to help children whose lives might not go so well without intervention.
With his wife, Ann, Crocker has supported a program for girls with emotional disorders, built a house for young scientists in training, supported symphony and opera and education. His company, Crocker Ventures, provided early money for cancer research that centers on broken signals, for “virtual histology” that could do away with the need to sacrifice an animal for research, for teeny “nano” grappling devices etched in silicone wafers used in research.
His investment in others is rooted in the truth that his own life was forever changed by what others did for him.
His father, LaMar Crocker, a firefighter, was so tied to the notion that Crocker and his siblings must have a college education that he moved his family to a more upscale Salt Lake neighborhood where he thought college would be a peer-level expectation, not just an option.
It paid off. A young Crocker excelled in school and Harvard rewarded him with the educational opportunity of a lifetime, a scholarship.
The family move set other things in motion, too. In the new house east of Foothill Boulevard, Crocker met the red-haired girl next door he would one day wed. He married Ann Sorenson after his junior year at Harvard. She had recently graduated from the University of Utah. They then headed to a “honeymoon” in Brazil that was actually a research trip for his senior thesis. He wanted to know what wage differential would draw someone from often hard-scrabble family farms to the more stable pay of a multinational factory. That view of how business could improve lives prompted a switch from pre-med to a business major, although medicine would remain a focus.
U. President Michael Young lived across the hall from Crocker at Harvard. What’s so interesting, he says of his longtime friend, is that “Gary doesn’t say, ‘What’s a moneymaking idea?’ He starts from the perspective, ‘What are the needs in the medical arena that really will address problems people face and make their lives better?’ From there, money follows.” Young calls Crocker “almost certainly one of the most imaginative entrepreneurial businessmen in the U.S. — maybe the world.” He is, Young notes, “a funny combination of hard-nosed businessman and altruist.”
Crocker stayed at Harvard to get his MBA. By then, he and Ann were starting a family — their seven children are now ages 16 to 32. Crocker supported them selling medical devices to Boston-area hospitals. He didn’t slack off studying exactly, he says now, but he became “strategic” in his approach to school.
After graduation, he worked for Baxter International in a job that took advantage of those years wandering hospital halls showing off devices and his keen eye for the possible. He was tasked with finding the bright ideas that could become products and he was heading for a management position when his father-in-law, entrepreneur James L. Sorenson, asked him to come home to Utah and sell Sorenson Research. “You’re an MBA,” he told Crocker. “This investment banker guy wants 6 percent. You come sell my company.”
Crocker had to figure the monetary value of the company — “They didn’t have Excel spreadsheet back then” — then find a buyer. In a bidding war, Abbott paid around $108 million “and that was my introduction to negotiating valuations of companies.” Abbott liked the Utah men and kept on not only Sorenson as titular head of the company, but hired Crocker as vice president of marketing and product development.
Within a few years though, “inculcated with the entrepreneurial spirit,” Crocker “naively thought I can do that.” With a manufacturing vice president and a research engineer, he left to lead a company that made open-heart surgery bypass catheters that used a nutritious solution to cool tissue. The company, Research Medical, eventually captured most of the market and Forbes five times called it one of the best 200 small companies. He also co-founded TheraTech, which delivered hormones using wearable patches. For more than a decade, Crocker was happily ensconced pushing the frontiers of those companies’ science.
Another TheraTech co-founder and longtime pal, Dr. Dinesh Patel, says Crocker has been a big part of Utah’s life sciences, particularly the medical products business. But his friend is more than a great businessman, he adds. Crocker is a special mix: “He’s very pragmatic, but I think he’s very lively. He’s cheerful, not a very serious type of person. He’s fun to be with. Very energetic. I like his honesty and his ethics.”
These days, Patel heads a venture capital firm, but the two men still work together on projects outside of their separate funds. And Patel says he especially admires the Crockers’ philanthropy. “They’ve always stepped up.”
By 1997, Crocker had been asked by the U. to look at operations at ARUP Laboratories, which the U. owns. “They embraced me with open arms,” he says. The company had world-class pathologists who knew they weren’t businessmen. Crocker saw they needed a business model to be efficient and grow. He eventually joined ARUP’s board. The company fixed its negative cash flow problem and set up a bonus and goal system so that employees participated in the financial turnaround.
About that time, he sold Research Medical to his old employer, Baxter, for what was then a Utah record for a life science company: $235 million. Watson Laboratories later bought TheraTech for $340 million. Crocker took his share of the profits and founded Crocker Ventures, with its focus on early-early development. It’s higher risk than a regular venture capital operation, but his passion is finding interesting things early and then helping researchers develop them. Without such investment, many great ideas would never make it past the drawing board. “The tragedy for most life sciences is investors want in and out fast,” Crocker says. He takes a longer view.
These days, much of his passion is spent on Merrimack Pharmaceutical, which is taking a very different approach to cancer. It believes that most solid-mass cancers are caused by one of six identified signaling errors and they are going after treatments that target those. The Massachussetts-based company, whose board he chairs, recently signed a deal with Sonofi-Aventis for a treatment based on one of the identified signal breakdowns. That lucrative deal will allow the company to continue its research-and-develop treatments for at least some of the other signaling breakdowns on its own. His portfolio includes seven companies that have early-stage developments in progress. He’s like a kid in a candy shop describing how BYU’s invisible-to-the-naked-eye grappling device implants an egg or how Crocker Spinal Technology makes a disk that mimics organic movement, without any moveable parts. And while Merrimack focuses on turning off signaling mechanisms, his Silver Creek Pharmaceutical turns them on, which Crocker believes will matter greatly to use of stem cells for heart attack repair.
Along the way, he’s served on the U. Board of Trustees, supported arts groups, and chairs the BYU technology transfer council, among other things. But nothing makes him prouder than his long association with Utah Youth Village. “It’s very rare to see people fundamentally give kids a second chance who have messed up. That matters.”
Adds Ann Crocker, “these kids can now look you in the eye, shake your hand, have a conversation.”
There’s little ego to Crocker’s success, either. His ventures have never been a one-man effort.
“I’m a clever business guy,” he says, “but unless there’s a clever scientist that did work in the lab, I’ve got nothing.”