By David Shook Lots of executives have big egos, but not many would have the gall to pose as a Trojan prince. Yet, page through a recent annual report of Human Genome Sciences (HGSI), one of the hottest biotech companies in the U.S., and you'll find a photo of senior executive Arthur Mandell striking the pose of Paris, the storied prince of Troy whose abduction of Helen provoked the Trojan War.
The photo, for which Mandell along with three other company execs posed, is meant to evoke the Renaissance painting, The Judgement of Paris, by Cecchino da Verona (1460). In the painting, Paris presents a golden apple to Venus, who he deems the most beautiful of three goddesses. The other two goddesses, Minerva and Juno, stand beside her looking a bit peeved.
Life imitating art? Well, something like that. HGS's annual reports and Web site (www.hgsi.com/invest/annual00/intro.htm) are splashed with images of famous classical art, flanked by photos in which company staffers pose as the subjects of the paintings. The artistic allusions are a pet project of company founder William Haseltine, who says he's melding his two passions -- genomics and art -- to help investors understand what his company does.
How's that? HGS interprets the meaning and function of human genes in much the way that people interpret art, Haseltine says. What better way to help investors understand genomics?
"THEY'RE CRINGING." Not everyone agrees. To some analysts, the practice seems more like a self-aggrandizing CEO unintentionally making employees look silly. "It's the cheesiest thing I've ever seen," says James Reddoch, a biotech analyst for Banc of America Securities. "Many of the employees look like they're cringing."
Whatever the reality, Haseltine's dabbling doesn't seem to be hurting HGS. The company's market cap is nearly $7 billion, making it one of the most highly valued stocks in the biotech sector. It trades at $54 a share. That's down nearly 50% from a high of $106 last fall when all biotech stocks were rallying, but it's not bad for a company that doesn't have profits or a drug on the market yet.
All it takes is a look at the company Web site to experience Haseltine's taste in art. In the 2000 annual report, which can be viewed online, Haseltine compares his own likeness to Paul Gauguin's Self Portrait in Caricature. A tilted headshot of Senior Vice-President Susan Bateson McKay imitates Amedeo Modigliani's Madame G. van Muyden. A few pages later, David Stump, chief of drug development, bears an uncanny resemblance to one of Van Gogh's self-portraits -- one in which he still has his left ear.
DEMYSTIFYING SCIENCE. Haseltine, who asks his employees to show up for staged photo shoots without showing them the artistic scene they're supposed to mimic, thinks of these tableaux as an effective tool to communicate: "I have, from the outset of this company, tried to use art to communicate to both people from outside and within the relative importance of their work to humanity by using images," says the 56-year-old chairman, who is known in biotech circles as both brilliant and brash.
Posters of significant works of art -- personally chosen by the CEO -- hang everywhere at the company's headquarters in Rockville, Md. "It helps people who don't have a scientific background to understand what we do," he says. "It helps demystify what we do, which is to alleviate and cure disease and curtail human suffering. We want to make that link clean."
If posing in mock paintings offends employees, they aren't saying so. Stump says he has grown fond of the photo in which he is depicted as Vincent Van Gogh. It's just that he isn't sure if the boss thought his scraggly beard and steely eyes make him resemble the painter -- or if Haseltine thinks he's daffy. "At first, I didn't know what to think," Stump proclaims. "Now, I like it."
SLAYING DRAGONS. HGS isn't the first drug company to view the beauty of science as artwork. Roche, Merck (MRK), and other pharmaceutical companies use paintings and sculptures in their headquarters to remind employees and visitors that drug discovery is, in some ways, an elegant form of art. Novartis, in fact, derived its name from the Latin phrase novae artes, which means "new art," or "new skills."
Haseltine, though, takes the relationship to an extreme. In his 1998 annual report, Haseltine chose a painting by Rafael, St. George and the Dragon, explaining that "[s]cientists at HGS seek to slay the dragon of disease." In 1999, Chief Financial Officer Steven Mayer and Controller Alain Cappeluti are compared to The Money Lender and His Wife, a painting by Quentin Massys (1514). In the same report, Medical Affairs Director Daniel Odenheimer and Vice-President Sally Bolmer are portrayed as the Apostles Peter and John, who heal a paralytic in a 1650 painting by Bertholet Flemal.
In a way, this approach to art mirrors HGS's approach to genomics. It goes about discovering drugs differently than most companies. It uses a bottom-up approach that begins with screening for genes in DNA, figuring out their function or role in disease, then building a drug around that fundamental information. The company has arguably the only pure genomics-derived pipeline of drugs in human clinical trials. It also has a wide array of patented genes thought to play a role in shaping or inhibiting disease.
HASELTINE AS GOD? Still, mystery surrounds many of the drugs HGS is testing. Their effectiveness and safety won't be known for at least several more years. In the meantime, some analysts worry that the company is too anxious to prove that its science can eclipse the drug-discovery methods practiced by the largest pharmaceutical makers.
Says one analyst who sees Haseltine's artistic motifs as a sign that the company thinks too highly of its own work: "I'm dying for the day Haseltine uses images from the Sistine Chapel to depict his company and portrays himself as God creating the world."
Then again, investors tend to tolerate the creative forays of CEOs who deliver. If Human Genome Sciences succeeds, Haseltine will probably be free to depict his company any way he wants -- with nary a complaint from anyone. Shook covers biotechnology issues for BusinessWeek Online. Follow The Biotech Beat every week, only on BW Online