Donald Rice likes to consider himself a "creature of the private sector" on "occasional loan" to the public sector. But his frequent forays into government service since graduating from graduate school on an ROTC scholarship in the 1960s led to a remarkable career for the son of a small-town Maryland gas station owner. After a stint in the Navy, Rice was recruited as defense analyst during the heyday of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara famed "Whiz Kid" shop, which preached corporate system analysis to reform military procurement. After rising through the ranks to become a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Nixon years, Rice was tapped to lead a turnaround of Santa Monica-based government think tank Rand Corp., where he served as chief executive for 26 years. President George H.W. Bush then invited Rice back to the Pentagon to serve as secretary of the Air Force, where he oversaw the bombing campaign of Iraq during the first Persian Gulf War. Then in the mid-1990s it was back to L.A. to help craft a restructuring of defense conglomerate Teledyne. After selling off Teledyne, Rice finally got his chance to build a company from the ground up. A group of UCLA doctors convinced him to be the business brains behind a cancer-fighting biotech startup. In December, after growing Santa Monica-based Agensys into a thriving drug development company, Rice engineered the company's sale to Japanese drug maker Astellas. He remains chief executive.

Question: Do you have a personal emotional investment in the fight against cancer?

Answer: My father died of lung cancer, actually. He smoked about two packs of Chesterfields a day for 50 years, and quit when he was 67, but it caught up with him when he was 76. He was healthy as a horse otherwise. On the other hand, my wife's mother had breast cancer and successful surgeries twice in her 80s, and was able to die of old age at 100.

Q: Are you ever worried about developing cancer yourself ?

A: Right now I'm a lot more worried about my knee. I'm going to have surgery on it this week (earlier in July). I had the other knee done 23 years ago. I've been physically active my entire life, even if it's limited to gym routines, and golf-course walking these days. But if I had to bet, the beginnings of this cartilage tear is 50 years old; probably some slightly less than graceful slide into third base.

Q: So you were a baseball player as a youngster.

A: Ever since I was a kid, right through to the semipro leagues in central Maryland when I was in college. I pitched and played center field. In 1988, when I was still at Rand, I had the opportunity to go to Dodgertown, the Dodgers' training camp in Florida. Well, they couldn't get me out of the batting cage. I went through two pairs of gloves, my hands were completely blistered, but I was really reliving my childhood. My right knee was sore after that. But the next day, with my bandaged hands, I still won the golf tournament and the horseshoe tournament. There are still members of that group I was with that talk about it to this day.

Q: Did you ever consider going pro?

A: I'll tell you a story about a scout I met after a semipro game in which I probably played the best game of my life. My father had been a pitcher, and a very good ballplayer. In 1938 he had an offer to play for the Baltimore Orioles. He was 28 years old, engaged to be married and had just bought a half-interest in a gas station. He eventually decided he was too old to get started in that career, but he continued to play very high-level semipro ball until he was 40 years old.

Q: And you?

A: Well back to that game, I pretty much saved that game for my team. I was just 20 then. Afterwards, this elderly gentleman came up who I had seen at other games. He asked, "Are you Don Rice's boy?" I said I was and he replied, "Let me tell you, son, if you ever get to be half as good as your old man was, you'll really be something." And I had just had the best day of my life. He took me down a notch or two.

Q: Was that a life lesson?

A: Yeah, there are plenty of things that happen to you in life that teach you that there's a whole lot you can't do by yourself. It's definitely something that team sports teaches you. No matter your own contribution, you need the whole team.

Q: Did you have any qualms about joining a biotech company like Agensys since it wasn't part of your background and training?

A: I had been around science and technology my entire career, but my biology background was limited to my high school days. But after I was introduced to the UCLA docs who wanted to launch this company, I spent a couple of months getting to know them, the field and their technology. I got to the point where I felt I had more than a passing acquaintance with the field. And when you come down to it science is science and management is management, and I could do the management part. And obviously, the mission was very appealing to me.

Q: So as a layperson, how do you describe what Agensys does?

A: We hook a very toxic molecule to one of our antibodies and use the antibody as a homing pigeon to deliver the toxin to the tumor to cause an interruption in the growth and development of the tumor. There's some complicated science in getting the toxin into the tumor, of course, but essentially that's it.

Q: As an educated layperson who's been immersed in this field for more than a decade, why do you think it's been so hard to cure cancer?

A: I don't use the word "cure." I think over the next couple of decades we could turn cancer into a chronic disease with a good quality of life for the patient. There will be some cases of complete remission, and you can call that a cure, but I think there will be many more cases where the disease is simply kept under control.

Q: What made this the right time for investors, including yourself, to sell the company?

A: A private biotech company has always got to be looking for partners, especially when you have multiple product opportunities. We had been in discussions with potential partners, and out of that emerged an interest by one of them, Astellas, in acquiring us whole. More than that, they wanted to do it in a way that kept the whole organization together. After all the hard work my employees have put in, they are now getting substantial incentives and retention rewards as well as professionally challenging and enhancing career opportunities. That was important to me.

Q: Why did you decide to stay on? You don't need the money, right?

A: For the same reasons I got involved in the company in the first place. After restructuring Teledyne, I was in the fortunate position of not really needing another job. I took this on as something that seemed more worthwhile to do than other options in the business world at the time. I've stayed with it after the sale, not only because of the mission, but because I felt an obligation to see it through, especially since are earn-outs over time, which of course I get to share in.

Q: Going back to earlier in your career, what did you think after leaving government service for Rand, and then getting the call from the first President Bush to come back as secretary of the Air Force?

A: It wasn't something I thought I'd ever want to do, but it turned out to be a good transition from Rand. It gave me a tremendous opportunity, because there we were, right at the end of the Cold War, and my budget was going from $105 billion a year to $78 billion. So I was given the opportunity to put the Air Force through a major corporate restructuring. The Air Force came out of that exercise with a stronger sense of its postwar mission, which I think helped it down the road when other downsizings came. The other services did some things along that line, but not nearly as much as the Air Force did in that time frame.

Q: You were secretary of the Air Force during the first Persian Gulf War and oversaw the successful bombing campaign of Baghdad. What do you believe went wrong in the second gulf conflict?

A: Hindsight is 20-20, but there was a lot of looking through rose-colored glasses. I voiced some concerns at the time, but not in an official capacity. Everyone knew that that Saddam's sons, especially Uday, and the people who followed him were going to be a problem. We should have expected an insurgency and planned for one from the beginning, doing the things we've been doing for the last year from the very beginning working to win hearts and minds. Nobody could know if it would have gone better, of course, but it couldn't have done worse.

Q: How well do you know Donald Rumsfeld?

A: I worked with him when he was secretary of defense the first time (under President Ford). He also was chairman of the Rand board of trustees when I was president. I think his transformational ideas to modernize the military (under President George W. Bush) were mostly quite sound and on the right track.

Q: So what went wrong?

A: Iraq was a huge distraction in getting that accomplished. I think the administration, and Don had a big role in it, badly mismanaged the aftermath by not planning for it properly, not getting straight what the real problem was for two or three years after the overthrow of Iraq. But really, before you go judging any president, or any leader at the top, for that matter, keep in mind that no matter what you think you know, you don't have all the information. The perspective and the information sources at the top are different from anybody (just) responsible for a piece of it.

Donald Rice

Title: Chief Executive

Company: Agensys Inc.

Born: 1939; Frederick, Md.

Education: B.S., chemical engineering, University of Notre Dame; master's,
industrial management, and doctorate, economics, Purdue University, 1965

Career Turning Point: Declining a business school faculty position at the
University of Chicago to work for then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Most Influential People: Father Don Rice; former Office of Management and
Budget head George Schultz; former Defense Secretaries David Packard and Donald Rumsfeld

Personal: Lives in Century City with wife Susan; three adult sons

Hobbies: Several sports, including baseball and golf

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