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At a time when his peers were worried about prom, Tarek Sherif ’91 was already an entrepreneur. As a child, he watched his father, an academic, struggle with finances and declare bankruptcy: an experience that deeply affected Sherif and led him to start his own house-painting company with friends as a teenager. “By the time I was finished with high school, I was able to support myself through college and help my family out,” Sherif says. “I always wanted to be my own boss.”
Today — true to his early goals — Sherif is co-founder, CEO, and chairman of Medidata Solutions, the leading global provider of cloud-based solutions to the life science industry and one of the largest public technology companies founded in New York City. Medidata, which Sherif started 17 years ago with two business partners he met while managing equity funds focused on public and private technology and life sciences companies, is the world leader in collecting and managing clinical trial data and supports trials in more than 120 countries. The company offers its clients — including medical device and diagnostic companies, academic and government institutions, and pharmaceutical companies — a cloud-based platform of applications to help streamline clinical trials from study design and planning through execution, management, and reporting, reducing cost and risk and bringing new life-saving treatments to market as quickly as possible.
Medidata, which saw approximately $500 million in revenue in 2016, satisfies Sherif’s need to not only be his own boss — but to apply his business-building drive toward crucial work.
“There is something amazing about being involved in an industry where, at the end of the day, you’re potentially impacting family members, loved ones, and friends because you are helping to develop a drug, a device, or a therapy that improves people’s lives,” Sherif says. “That’s always been the motivation and continues to be. We build technology that lets our clients better treat their patients.”
On the occasion of the School’s Centennial anniversary, the self-made Sherif recently shared his experience and advice, as well as his thoughts on what’s next when it comes to technology helping to bring the best new treatments to patients.
After [getting my undergraduate degree at] Yale, I went through a training program at Brown Brothers Harriman. I spent four years learning all the aspects of running an investment bank, which was great training, but at the time I didn’t understand how valuable it was. Now I tell business students that sometimes you do disparate things in your life from an academic or career perspective, and it’s only later in life that you see how you can tie it all together. One of the big lessons that I learned early on is to be open-minded to different experiences and trying different things to figure out what you’re good at — and what you’re not. After those four years on Wall Street, I realized that my career was not going to be in the banking business. It wasn’t that great a fit for me personality-wise, and it wasn't as exciting as I thought it was going to be. But I had to learn that firsthand.
One size doesn’t fit all:
I went to GE Capital after Columbia, where I found myself in a very, very large organization. I had a career epiphany at that point and decided that I would never want to be in a large organization again. I would rather be in a much smaller organization and have more control over my own career and destiny, even if it stayed small. So I left there and joined a small team of people who were running a family office and investing in the equities market and some private market investments and early-stage investments. We were together for four or five years before I went off on my own. Then I met the other two founders of Medidata and that was that. I’ve been doing this for 17 years now.
Medidata’s careful success:
When we started the business, we were very small and focused on one specific area in drug development. Today, we are the leaders in the space that provides the underlying infrastructure for making drug development more efficient. Where the business will be if we continue to execute well — and what will ultimately make us a multi-billion-dollar revenue company versus the half-billion-dollar revenue company we are today — is providing the kind of knowledge and insights to our clients that allow them to make the best discovery and development decisions. It won’t help them to just be efficient. Of course, that’s part of it, but it’s our goal to help researchers do better science to bring the best drugs to market. We’ve always run Medidata in fear of ever finding ourselves in a difficult financial situation. We went from a startup to taking the company public on just $13 million of capital. When we went public, we still had $10 million of it on our balance sheet. We built a business with over $100 million of recurring revenue with effectively $3 million. Today, Medidata is worth about $3 billion, with $500 million in revenue.
The future of medicine will be personal:
Drug development used to involve developing a single drug or therapy and selling it to everybody — think about the polio vaccine or hypertension treatments. Now we’re moving toward personalized medicine, where a drug is very tailored to the genome, phenotype, and environment in which it lives. In order to do that, you need a lot of information about a patient and their environment. The fact that we have wearables today that collect information about our mobility, our blood glucose — you couldn’t do that even five years ago. That’s going to impact medicine and how we treat people, how drugs are developed. Ultimately, the use of technology and the need to glean valuable insight from data is only going to increase, and that means that the role in the industry for companies like Medidata is only going to expand. There’s a lot of opportunity ahead.