Honing the Edge

Quiet confidence, proven competence

  • Article by: THOMAS LEE , TLEE@STARTRIBUNE.COM
  • Updated: March 23, 2011 - 5:03 PM

Bonnie Baskin just seems to know the next big thing and gets into that business before others catch on. She founded and sold two successful medical-services companies and now raises racehorses for profit.

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Bonnie Baskin with one of her thoroughbred horses. She has a racing and breeding business.

Bonnie Baskin exudes confidence.

Not the in-your-face, shout-it-from-the-rooftops type of confidence. But rather a natural self-assurance -- as if failing never really occurs to her.

And for good reason: Baskin rarely fails. The two companies she founded and led -- ViroMed Laboratories and AppTec Laboratory Services -- sold for a combined $200 million. AppTec's $162.7 million sale to WuXi PharmaTech Corp. in January was the largest Chinese takeover of an American firm since Lenovo Group bought IBM Corporation's personal computers business in 2004.

Even the horse-racing company Baskin started more or less as a gift to her dad, Sy, has been a winner.

"Bonnie has a lot of self-confidence," said Sy Baskin. "She is not a show-it-all. She knows how to face a challenge with a good, healthy attitude."

Baskin, 59, is somewhat of a rarity in the world of medical-related start-ups. A trained microbiologist, she found much more success as an entrepreneur than as a scientist. In fact, Baskin was never driven to invent anything, but rather to offer useful services to customers.

"I see a number of the companies with scientists and professors who have a great idea, have the [intellectual property], maybe [have] written a lot of grants," Baskin said. "But then to make it into a successful business takes a whole different skill set. I think I was a much better businessperson than a scientist. It's the exception rather than the rule ... because [many professors and scientists] have no idea how to run a business, for the most part. Sometimes they don't even realize they [don't know] how to run a business."

Baskin's success, though, has less to do with crunching numbers or even courting investors. What fuels her entrepreneurial mojo is uncanny foresight, a natural ability to hit the market with pitch-perfect timing. Baskin, family and colleagues say, has the traits of a successful entrepreneur: confidence, vision, and unsentimental leadership.

She started ViroMed, which tested patients for infectious diseases, in the early 1980s, right before HIV entered public consciousness. The rapid spread of HIV spurred a boom in testing as doctors raced to diagnose the disease faster. With AppTec, Baskin ventured into contract research and manufacturing just as drug and medical device companies were looking to outsource such services.

"She was spot on," said Dan Gulbrandson, managing director of the health care investment banking unit at Piper Jaffray & Co. in Minneapolis. "She crushed it twice. If Bonnie says so, I go with it. ... She's incredibly brilliant. Most microbiologists I know [aren't] CEO material."

Born in Chicago, Baskin formed a close bond with her scientist and entrepreneurial father. Sy Baskin recalls an outgoing girl who excelled at school but "who was far from a bookworm as a person could be." By contrast, her brother Marc, a doctor in California, was quiet and introverted.

Seasickness changed plans

Sy Baskin, who founded and later sold a chemicals business, says he didn't talk shop with Bonnie. But for some reason, his daughter naturally gravitated toward Dad's interests, whether it was fishing, horses or even high school basketball.

She attended the University of Miami to study marine biology but ditched that plan after getting seasick on her first boat trip. She earned degrees in biology and microbiology before moving to Minneapolis with her then-husband to take a job at the University of Minnesota. But academic life didn't suit her, she said, because, "I needed to have more people encounters."

In 1981, Baskin learned that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was about to approve the country's first antiviral drugs. She soon launched ViroMed, betting that doctors would need ways to diagnose diseases like AIDS, herpes and hepatitis.

"The ability to differentiate between viral infection and routine bacterial infection ... just to know that, it would start to solve the problem," Baskin said.

Through a couple of acquisitions in the mid-1990s, ViroMed expanded into drug and medical device testing. At the time, pharmaceutical companies began to focus on sales and marketing, outsourcing research and development, clinical testing and manufacturing to outside firms. Medical device manufacturers needed ways to ensure that their products met FDA standards. The two industries would also start to converge with drug/device combinations such as drug-coated stents.

In 2001, Baskin sold ViroMed's original infectious diseases testing business to Laboratory Corp. of America for about $40 million and spun off the rest into AppTec. Once again, Baskin correctly figured where the market was headed, that the drug and medical device business would eventually be worth more down the road, Gulbrandson said.

Backed by local venture capital powerhouses Thomas, McNerney & Partners and Affinity Capital Management, AppTec expanded quickly, opening a $28 million biologics manufacturing facility in Philadelphia and increasing sales by about 50 percent annually over three years. Sales hit $70 million last year.

"AppTec had a good core business that was generating revenue," said Ed Spencer, Affinity Capital chairman and founder. "More importantly, the company was moving into new businesses that had significant growth potential. With start-ups, it's usually the latter. Not both."

Letting go was easy

Around spring 2007, AppTec started to look for a potential buyer. It eventually found WuXi, a major pharmaceutical services company in China that raised $185 million from its initial public offering. The two sides struck a deal in January.

Baskin said she had no regrets in leaving the company she led for almost 30 years. Some entrepreneurs have a hard time letting go of their creation. But Baskin's lack of sentimentality is what makes her an effective entrepreneur, associates say.

"Not to sound coldhearted,'' Baskin said of her departure, "but it wasn't hard. I was ready. This was the deal. I was going to build a company and we were going to sell it."

These days, Baskin spends most of her time on her horse breeding/racing businesses. In 1998, she partnered with her dad to purchase racehorses. Baskin says she mostly did it as a gift to her father. To her delight, Sybon Racing Stable found instant success; one of its first horses, Ocean Drive, won the Gallorette Handicap, held during the Preakness championship.

"Find me one thing more risky than [starting] your own business, and that's the horse racing business," Baskin said, laughing. "I'm fascinated by it. It brings together all kinds of science. You study the pedigree of all these animals ... you try to determine what's the best genetic pairing that's going to make the best racehorse. ...

"The business side is fascinating also," she said. "Do you want to have fillies? Do you want to have colts? It's fabulously exciting. There's nothing like watching your horse win.'' Baskin recently founded Blue Heaven Farm, which owns about 25 racehorses. She has no doubts that her latest project will be a winner too.

"My dad did it as a hobby," Baskin said. "I do it as a business. It's the same thing as any successful business. It just takes place on a racetrack [rather] than an office building."

Thomas Lee • 612-673-7744

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