Remembering Dr. Zaffaroni

A personal note from the desk of Collaborative Drug Discovery CEO Dr. Barry A. Bunin.

On March 1 2014, at age 91, Dr. Zaffaroni passed away.  His inventions of course impact many lives, yet how he worked directly with people was equally compelling.   Mario Rosati once mentioned to me that Dr. Zaffaroni was the best he had seen in a board room. When I first became an entrepreneur, the one person whom I especially wanted to work with was Dr. Alejandro Zaffaroni.  I was blessed to have some unique experiences working with him that I thought would be worth sharing.


As many of you know, Dr. Zaffaroni was involved in fundamental biotech innovations ranging from the birth control pill to the patch to the Affymetrix gene chip.  Generally he’d be involved on the technical, business, and people sides.  The first story is from when we met at Steve Goldby’s (Symyx’s CEO) office a few cities away in Santa Clara, I asked Dr. Zaffaroni innocently, “Your time is so valuable, why are we going to his office?”  He replied to me, “Everyone’s time is valuable.”  And he also kindly added that at that time Steve Goldby was probably busier than he was.

And I remember fondly another time when I timidly said to him (in an area related to my field of combinatorial chemistry), “Dr. Zaffaroni, I’m sorry, but I disagree with you” (something I rarely did).   I recall he dramatically paused, looked at me in a positive way (and I was braced for the worst) and said “That’s good, otherwise what would I need you for.”

Finally, another time when Dr. Zaffaroni personally prioritized even an early stage exploratory meeting with our little start-up at DNAX.  To underscore humble beginnings, he mentioned buying the very table around which we were sitting.  Thereafter, he encouraged DNAX (then part of Schering-Plough) to help our next little company, much as others had helped DNAX early on.  Dr. Zaffaroni was keenly aware of the different dynamics at the different stages of technology (and company) development and once remarked that no company grows in a straight line.  He believed in the power of young, open-minded brains.  They didn’t know what others with more experience would think is too hard and thus just might have the audacity to persist to do something better.  He knew when to persist, when one just needs to push further to realize the vision.  Finally, he shared the importance have having an accepting, nurturing, forgiving, safe culture.

Dr. Zaffaroni was always generous with his time, network, and insights.  He even met with me in the Affymax parking lot on a Saturday to network with the MDL founders.

Dr. Alexandro Zaffaroni was my business mentor, he taught me the value of everyone’s time and perspectives and had a great sense of humor. Those interactions keep me motivated for all the challenges that come with being a successful entrepreneur. I’d be interested to hear if anyone has other special Dr. Zaffaroni stories to share…

Others who have worked closely with Dr. Zaffaroni, including Dr. Peter Schultz and Isaac Stein, have shared their thoughts here: