Roger Newton Rocks Entrepalooza 2008

Lipitor legend, Esperion co-founder describes ventures old and new

A couple hundred people filled the Michigan League ballroom Friday morning to hear Roger Newton, one of Ann Arbor’s most successful entrepreneurs, who was keynote speaker for UM’s Entrepalooza 2008 – and yes, he’s sort of a rock star.

The people gathered there, many of them MBA students or other aspiring entrepreneurs, wanted to hear what anyone wants to hear when they listen to someone who’s done so well: How did he do it, and what can I learn so that I can do it, too?”

Local entrepreneur Roger Newton talks to a crowd at Friday's

Local entrepreneur Roger Newton talks to a crowd at Friday's Entrepalooza at the Michigan League.

What he’s done is this:

1) Led the Pfizer team that developed Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering drug that broke all kinds of sales records;

2) Left Pfizer to form an Ann Arbor company called Esperion Therapeutics, and raised about $200 million in venture capital to grow it;

3) Sold the business to Pfizer for a jaw-dropping $1.3 billion (a deal he says he signed Dec. 19, 2003 at 2 a.m.);

4) Repeat.

The cycle hasn’t completely played out again, but Newton is working on it. He was leading the Esperion division of Pfizer when the pharmaceutical giant decided to close its Michigan research operations in early 2007, and he immediately started working to buy Esperion’s unwanted assets from Pfizer. He raised $22.75 million by November of that year, and launched the reincarnated Esperion this May.

These kinds of shorthand narratives can be depressing – it sounds so easy in the telling. But Newton didn’t sugarcoat the pill of his experience. There were sour times, too – when a Pfizer reorganization pushed him out of management, when some venture capitalists dismissed his efforts, when Esperion overextended and he had to fire 22 staffers.

Being cast aside at Pfizer, before he’d decided to start out on his own, was especially rough. He told the story of going to the downtown Borders store and stumbling across the book “Deep Change” by Robert Quinn. Text on the back cover admonished, “Don’t let your company kill you.”

“I said, ‘Damn – I’ve got to read this,” recalled Newton. He loved the book, and discovered that Quinn was – still is – a UM business professor. They met for lunch in November 1997, and got together again in February of the next year. At their second meeting, Quinn quizzed Newton about whether he had the focus, heart, and emotional and psychological stamina to start a business.

Apparently, he did.

Newton left the crowd with a few thoughts on his lessons learned. Among them: Be fiscally conservative. Don’t burn bridges. When things aren’t going well, try to keep down the “infectious disease around the coffeepot in the morning.” Never lose your passion. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

He’s listening to his own advice during this second incarnation of Esperion, which employs about eight people and is developing other cholesterol-fighting drugs. A deal is in the works for Esperion to be an anchor company in their former Plymouth Township facility, which Pfizer sank $8 million into renovating in 2006 before closing the following year. That building is being bought by the Michigan Economic Development Corp., Ann Arbor Spark and others to house a life sciences business incubator, eventually housing up to 10 startups.

Maybe one of them will be yours.

Other media coverage: Ann Arbor Business Review, The Ann Arbor News and The Great Lakes IT Report.