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J. Craig Quits, Leaving Celera With Great White Hope

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In the early weeks of this year, Applera head Tony White was seen prowling the halls at Celera’s Rockville, Md., headquarters. By the end of January, it became apparent that he’d been learning the ropes as he prepared to temporarily take over the company when Craig Venter resigned from his role as president, ostensibly to help Celera move toward its goal of becoming a pharmaceutical company.

Some believe the move had been brewing for six months, but even so, Venter’s departure — less than a year after the much-anticipated publication of the genome sequence — leaves the company he helped create in a bit of a lurch. “[He’s] a big part of the excitement to the Celera story, and I think they’re going to lose a lot of that,” one analyst says. At press time, there was no hint of a replacement for the inimitable J. Craig.

To be sure, Venter isn’t abandoning Celera. As of September 2001, Venter, 55, owned nearly three percent of the company and now intends to oversee its scientific advisory board, where he says he has more to contribute than he would as the head of a would-be pharma. Granted, it’s not a full-time job, and the confirmed workaholic has already expressed plans to spend more time at the Institute for Genomic Research, now run by his wife Claire Fraser. (For her part, Fraser says that if Venter returns, she’s leaving to raise poodles.)

Rumors flew in the industry about whether Venter had an ulterior motive for leaving. Some speculated that growing personality clashes with the reputedly impatient, bullish White were the real cause. Venter’s feelings for the private sector are well known: he has little tolerance for the demands of board members and stockholders and their fixation on the bottom line. Other gossip arose that he might be starting a new company, though a source close to him says it’s unlikely the former president will do so.

So who’ll step in to fill the Venter void? White says he’s given himself up to six months to find an bermanager with well-honed downstream chops. Scientist-entrepreneur types need not apply, he says, but sources close to the search tell GT that George Poste, the not-so-elder statesman of post-genomics, was offered the gig but turned it down. Other favored candidates include Jerry Karabelas, former CEO of Novartis; Ed Fritzky, CEO of Immunex; and Heino von Prondzynski, who heads Roche Diagnostics.

— Kirell Lakhman

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