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As Tony White Reads Rsums, Industry Buzzes Around Core Four

NEW YORK, April 10 - It's been two-and-a-half months since J. Craig walked away from Celera and Applera chief Tony White is still skimming résumés.


Though Celera has been characteristically mum about potential prospects or their status, an initial shortlist of four likely candidates compiled by GenomeWeb from interviews with people close to the search may have evolved a bit.


First, bookmakers can now take George Poste out of the running. GenomeWeb has learned that an Applera official had asked Poste if he would accept a job offer if one came his way. Poste, who recently moved with his family to Phoenix, demurred, according to people familiar with the development. A popular choice among many insiders, Poste currently is CEO of Health Technology Networks, a health-care consulting group based in Scottsdale, Ariz.


Immunex CEO Ed Fritzky, whose firm is about to be gobbled by Amgen, also was on the shortlist. And like Poste, Fritzky, who a source has called "a great way for Celera to go," said he has no plans to leave his current post.


"My complete focus is to remain with the company post-merger, and I've got an agreement to do that for two years," he told GenomeWeb in a recent interview. "Other than that I have absolutely no plans other than to dedicate my efforts to a successful Immunex and Amgen business."


Roche Diagnostics head Heino von Prondzynski (he's "the logical choice for me," said one source), in Basel, Switzerland, and Jerry Karabelas, former CEO of Novartis and currently an operating partner of Care Capital, in New Jersey ("he's got vision," said another), were not available at deadline.


Celera might also add one name: Richard Lane, who was asked to give up his post as president of Bristol-Myers Squibb's pharmaceuticals unit earlier this month. Though some say his dismissal may tarnish his image among potential suitors, a majority of pharma types interviewed maintain that he was a scapegoat for a company whose best times are behind it.

His drug-discovery experience and his ability to lead scientists makes him a natural fit for Celera, insiders say. Reached at home, Lane was curt: "I'm not in a position to be talking about anything that I'm looking at right at this point." And then he promptly hung up the phone.


Like other high-level biopharma brass on the market today, Lane has it relatively easy: A dearth of experienced leaders has made it an employees' market. And Celera, which lost its head at the start of a critical transition--and which has two weeks left before Wall Street's average three-month deadline to find a replacement expires--faces anorexic options.


Celera's recruitment strategy, spearheaded by White, Mike Venuti, general manager of the firm's South San Francisco, Calif. facility, and David Block, the newly appointed COO of therapeutics, looks for insight from industry insiders as it puts it own feelers out to people it considers potential candidates, according to a Celera spokesman.


"What Tony [White] wants is the kind of person who, once in the job, will let him be hands-off," said the spokesman, Rob Bennett. Like in his relationship with Mike Hunkapiller, who runs Applied Biosystems, White intervenes only when money or strategy are on the menu. Bennett said he does not know how many people Celera has interviewed so far for the gig.


Bennett went on: "We don't feel the need to have somebody who's got that rock-star image" for which Venter, with his autograph hounds and geek-groupies, was known. "We don't actually need somebody as visible as Craig if they've got everything else," he said. "We want a good, steady, rational leader."


Asked if Celera's customers, partners, or investors can expect to name a new head soon, Bennett conceded: "I'm not aware that we're in the home stretch on any one person. I don't think we're there yet."

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