Europe's Ace Gene Hunter

Can Daniel Cohen's startup outrun U.S. rivals?

Seated in his immaculate, computer-lined laboratory at Paris-based biotech startup Genset, Daniel Cohen seems oddly out of place. He looks like he'd rather be flying his plane, playing the piano, or sitting on a beach in his native Tunis.

When the conversation turns to DNA, however, the laid-back manner vanishes. Cohen, a 45-year-old geneticist who has racked up breakthroughs and built a towering international reputation, is leading Genset into one of the hottest areas in drug development--mining the human genome, with its estimated 100,000 genes, for leads to tomorrow's drugs.

ON THE MAP. Cohen joined Genset last February, after abruptly quitting his job at a private French research center. Twenty-five of his top staff joined him in May. What lured him--more than a $200,000 salary and the promise of about 3% of Genset's stock--was the chance to excel in a race dominated by American scientists. Already, a dozen U.S. startups are competing to discover genes involved in heart disease, cancer, and other ailments. A strong showing by Genset would put France on the map in this new field called genomics, which most pharmaceutical experts expect to revolutionize the drug industry in the 21st century. "Twenty years of lagging the U.S. in biotechnology is enough," Cohen declares.

Thousands of academic scientists have also jumped into genomics as part of the ambitious Human Genome Project, an international, government-funded plan to decipher the entire human genetic code. Many are affiliated with startup companies, which fall into two broad camps, based on their strat-egies (table). Industry stars, such as Human Genome Sciences Inc. (HGS) in Rockville, Md., and Incyte Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif., are extracting and analyzing hundreds of thousands of gene fragments. Others, such as Millennium, Sequana Therapeutics, and Myriad Genetics, are hunting specific quarries, such as the breast-cancer gene.

Cohen thinks he can leap to the head of the pack by combining the two approaches--and investors seem to agree. A June 6 public offering on NASDAQ valued Genset at $250 million, making it the second most highly valued genomics company, behind HGS. Today, its American depositary receipts trade at $17, down from their peak of $21 1/2.

Genset is up against tremendous competition. But this isn't the first time Cohen has faced such odds and won. In 1993, when he was at the Center for the Study of Human Polymorphisms in Paris, a research center he helped found, Cohen raced past America's scientific elite, becoming the first to devise a map of the genome. He identified 5,264 markers along the twisting strands of DNA, providing signposts for other scientists trying to find disease genes. "He was able to accomplish more than all the National Institutes of Health-funded centers combined," says fellow genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter, head of the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Md.

The secret, says Cohen, "is not to be influenced by others' thinking." Six years ago, he stopped reading newspapers and scientific journals, turning instead to summaries of research results. This riles some colleagues, but none dispute his genius. "He's one of the world's best genomic scientists," says Randal W. Scott, executive vice-president at rival Incyte. "He's done megaprojects, and he's delivered." Despite a recent personal tragedy--his wife died following the birth of their daughter--Cohen says he is committed to leading Genset forward.

Cohen did consider other careers at one point. When he was 18, he nearly dropped plans to enter medical school to become a concert pianist. He still performs and sometimes conducts at Parisian concert halls. And he spends hours at the keyboard when he's stumped in the lab. "I dream about science when I'm playing," he says.

FINAL STRETCH. His challenge is to keep up with rivals in gene discovery. As the Human Genome Project moves into the final stretch, the race is on to determine the sequence of all of the 3 billion "bases" that make up human DNA. Cohen claims Genset is sequencing 1 million to 3 million bases a day. It's impossible for anyone outside the company to verify the claim, but if it's true, says TIGR's Venter, "it puts [Genset] among the top 10 to 20 labs" in the world.

The trouble is, finding disease-related genes doesn't ensure commercial success. Researchers who nabbed the gene responsible for Alzheimer's disease in 1992 have yet to fully understand or exploit it. Although investors have thrown millions of dollars at genomics startups, none is profitable yet. Genset posted a net loss of $6.5 million on sales of $3.1 million worth of synthetic DNA during the first half of 1996.

For Genset, time may be running short. The public offering will cover R&D through 1998. But Genset lags behind U.S. rivals in cutting alliances with pharmaceutical giants to develop drugs after genes are identified. Cohen shrugs off such worries. "It's a big mistake to think that size translates into knowhow and expertise," he says.

Indeed, Cohen refuses to let business concerns blind him to bigger issues. Last year, he set up a foundation called Science for Peace, which will help build research centers in Third World countries. Cohen is also intrigued by the holistic Asian approaches to medicine and the possibility of blending them with Western technology. Always tinkering with new combinations, he was one of the first to apply robots and computers to genetics in the early 1980s, speeding up analysis dramatically. With a rich tool chest of computer science and molecular genetics, Cohen is convinced he can solve at least a few more of nature's riddles.