BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 20, 2000 ISSUE
INTERNATIONAL -- SPECIAL REPORT

Following the Money (int'l edition)


It's one of the hottest new drug companies in Europe. But just because NicOx is based in France, don't think of it as a French business. NicOx is, in a way, a company without a country--which is good, since it brings plenty of global talent to bear: American, Swedish, British, and French executives all work at the four-year-old biotech. The founders are two Italians, Michele Garufi and Piero Del Soldato, who knew Italy just wasn't ready for a company like theirs.

This is the kind of corporate story that couldn't have happened in Europe just a decade ago. After nearly 20 years working for major European drug companies such as Recordati and Italfarmaco, Michele Garufi dreamed of starting his own. Then in 1994, in his native Milan, Garufi encountered scientist Soldato, a former colleague. When Soldato told him about a hot new drug he was working on, Garufi readily agreed to help fund it, making himself CEO and Sodato executive vice-president for research. The concept was to couple nitric oxide with existing drugs such as aspirin to enhance their strength and eliminate unwanted side effects.

But where to set up shop? The answer was simple: Go where the money is. After securing funding from a number of French investors, the two Italians brought in a former colleague, Elizabeth Robinson, from the U.S., to act as executive vice-president for corporate development, and then launched NicOx in Sophia Antipolis on the southern coast of France in 1996. Why not Italy? ''The environment wasn't conducive to entrepreneurship,'' Garufi explains, citing a stifling bureaucracy. You go where you're wanted: The French investors who funded the company required that it be incorporated in France.

The 46-year-old CEO of NicOx is certain he made the right decision. In the four years since NicOx launched, the company has discovered several promising new compounds, brought two Nobel prize winners onto the board, and formed an alliance with Astrazeneca, one of the world's top drug companies. And after a successful initial public offering last November on France's high-tech stock exchange, the Nouveau Marche, NicOx' market value has increased fourfold, to $424 million.

Garufi claims he never set out to build such a diverse management. ''I just liked the fact that they had a risk-taking mentality, something that wasn't easy to find in Italy,'' he says. But with entrepreneurs such as Garufi leading the way, that's already changing.

By Kerry Capell in London

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