Ken Fong founded the first Asian American molecular biology company and built it into a $38 million leader in its field.
by H Y Nahm

PAGE 1 of 7

he secret to eternal youth is what many hope to find at the end of the biotech rainbow. Fat chance, says the man who's about as close as you can get to the nucleus of the molecular biology industry.
"We're pretty well admired by our competitors, pretty well appreciated by our customers because of the hi-tech content we have."
     "Researchers have found no thermometer that can indefinitely prolong life in lower organisms," says Kenneth Fong, 50, without so much as a sigh of regret. "Anyway, why would an organism want to perpetuate itself indefinitely? We'd be overcrowded in a short time. You would have no more evolution. Nature doesn't want it that way." Fong speaks with the subdued, no-nonsense tones of a man who trades in practical solutions rather than blue-sky possibilities. His Cantonese accent is milder than those of most Chinese American of his generation, but it's strong enough that, paired with his surprisingly varied vocabulary, makes you wonder at times whether you heard him correctly.
     Fong's hardheaded perspective reflects the business he's in. Unlike the hundreds of biotech startups built on dreams of miracle drugs to come, Fong founded his Palo Alto-based Clontech Laboratories Inc to make the molecular biology tools that facilitate today's cutting-edge research and development in the areas of gene mapping, genetic engineering and cloning.
     "We're like Intel," Fong says by way of analogy to a better-understood field. "Intel doesn't sell computers. They provide the necessary tools to make computers possible. We supply biotech research labs and academic research labs the tools to do their research."
     The word "tools" conjures up images of stainless-steel implements and test tubes. Actually, what Clontech typically sells are eyedropper-sized 2cc vials of exotic solutions with accompanying instructions at $500 to $600 a pop.
     "We put a lot of research into our products," Fong says. "Most of our cost is in research and development." He analogizes the products to the software industry, in which production costs are a miniscule percentage of the sale price.
     Clontech customers are private and university biotech labs in America, Europe and Japan. Its very down-to-earth mission is to speed the research process by sparing labs the time-burning task of creating their own cDNA libraries or labeling reagents for automated DNA synthesis or Northern blots used for cancer research--among myriad other compounds.

     Clontech's projected $38 million in 1997 revenues makes it the nation's fourth largest in the business of supplying solutions to molecular biology labs. The biggest is Maryland-based LDI with $320 million in sales, followed by Promega with about $60 million and La Jolla-based Stratagene with $45 million. But in technology terms, Clontech leads the field, getting most of its revenues from the expertise- and research-intensive niche of supplying tools for cutting-edge research in gene expression and molecular biology.
     "We're pretty well admired by our competitors, pretty well appreciated by our customers because of the hi-tech content we have," Fong says. "In molecular biology, if not the best, then we're one of the best." Clontech is the first Asian American-founded molecular biology company. PAGE 2

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