2001 Honoree - Kenneth Fong
[Note: The following biography was prepared and presented at the 2001 gala by Board Member and KRON TV News Anchor Emerald Yeh.]
Let's start with our first honoree -- it's the story of a not-so-brilliant researcher who made the discovery that he was a brilliant businessman. I don't feel so bad calling Ken Fong a not-so-brilliant researcher because I saw in my notes from my interview with him that he described himself this way five times. And of course, we know that this story ends well for him anyway.
Ken Fong was born in China near Guangzhou. But when he was just three years old, his family fled the Communist takeover of 1949 and settled in Hong Kong. As a boy, he had a father in his life for just a few scant years, 5 to be exact, before his Dad moved to San Francisco to labor as a restaurant cook, sending money home so his children could go to good schools. His father may have dreamed of making enough of a fortune to be able to return home in a few years, but that was not to be. Ken's mother supplemented the family income by doing garment work.
In high school, Ken discovered his love of chemistry and published his first research paper at the age of 15. But because his family could not afford a college education for him, Ken finished high school and enrolled in a government-financed program to become a schoolteacher.
But at the age of 20, liberalization of U.S. immigration laws enabled Ken and his family to move to San Francisco to join his Dad. Here, he supported himself with odd jobs to get through college… chopping vegetables in a cafeteria or running a gas station from midnight to 8 am in a rough neighborhood where his boss's only instruction to him was, "If someone puts a gun to your head, just give them the money."
After college, he received a scholarship at Indiana University where he earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and microbiology. That was followed by a research job at the National Institutes of Health in North Carolina.
Ken says he loved doing research… he valued the ability to help mankind. But it was at this job at the NIH that Ken said he discovered that "maybe I'm not as good as I thought I was." He noticed how other researchers were able to spend less time yet publish more papers in more important journals. "Maybe I'm not as original or creative as I thought I was," he said to himself. Rather than being devastated by this realization, Ken viewed his situation analytically to figure out what it was he could do that would utilize his talents and enable him to make significant contributions to the biomedical world.
What he noticed was that as he did his research, he would get lots of requests from other researchers for his "tools." Now, in the world of molecular biology… "tools" means solutions in little vials with which researchers and labs can do cutting-edge research, especially in the areas of gene mapping, genetic engineering and cloning. By mass-producing and custom-producing these solutions of DNA pools and DNA libraries, for example, and providing these ready-made molecular biology tools to researchers and labs, Ken felt he could enable scientists to bypass the tedious task of working up the tools and focus instead on performing groundbreaking research and experiments using these tools.
So Ken packed up and moved with his wife and baby son back to Northern California… and a year later, in 1984, with a loan of $36,000 from his brother, founded Clontech Laboratories in Palo Alto, becoming the first Asian American to form a molecular biology company.
In the first year of business, he took no salary and made no profits… and his wife Pamela worked 7 days a week to help support the family… and did the books at night to help get Clontech off the ground. It didn't take long for that to happen.
Ken was astute in choosing his first business target… Richard Young, a Stanford researcher who had just published a paper on an innovative system he developed for screening for new genes. Ken had a hunch that this system was particularly significant and would be very much in demand. He asked this researcher, Richard Young, how many requests he had gotten for it. The answer was 600. Traditionally, researchers respond to and supply each other's requests for such systems and materials for free… an academic courtesy. Problem was it may take awhile to get to these requests if you're busy doing other research. Imagine trying to get to 600 requests, producing that system over and over again. So Ken suggested that Richard Young allow him to take care of those 600 requests. In exchange for an up-front fee and royalties, Richard let Ken crank out these systems, charging $300 per request.
Now charging $300 for something that's traditionally been provided for free may have raised some eyebrows…but what these other researchers got for that fee was the speedy delivery of a system that was produced with quality control. What Ken was good at was being able to spot what's likely to be in demand… and being able to provide it as quickly and perfectly as possible.
In his first year of business, Clontech did $50,000 in sales… in the second year, it quadrupled to $200,000. The next year, it jumped to $1 million. Under Ken's leadership, Clontech grew to a staff of 400, including 65 PhD's, with subsidiaries and distributors worldwide, and $100 million dollars a year in revenues. A breathtaking marriage of science and enterprise. And Clontech certainly lived up to its slogan of "innovative tools to accelerate discovery." Clontech's products helped isolate 20 percent of the human genes and supports the biomedical world in its understanding and curing of diseases.
Clontech was repeatedly listed among the 100 fastest growing private companies in the Bay Area throughout the 90's.
Clontech merged with Becton Dickinson in 1999 and Ken is now adviser to the company.
Today, Ken devotes his time and energy to his new Venture Capital Firm, Kenson Ventures, where he's helped develop 14 biotech firms to date, and to his interests in philanthropy, and community and political activism. He also has more time to spend with his family, now that the hectic start-up days of Clontech are over.
He and his wife Pamela support educational and cultural institutions such as the Chinese Historical Society of America, Silicon Valley Tech Museum and San Francisco State University.
Ken is chairman and founder of Chinese-American CEO's of Silicon Valley and chair of Chinese Performing Arts of San Jose.
He is also one of the founders of 80/20, an organization that seeks a fair representation of Asian Americans in all levels of government.
Just last year, Ken and Pamela pledged one-and-a-half million dollars to UC Berkeley to renovate the School of Optometry's library as well as assist the ophthalmology department at Beijing University in upgrading its facilities, practice and technology.
Because more than half of the students at Berkeley's optometry school are Asian Americans, the Fongs hope their philanthropic example will encourage these students to also contribute to the greater community when they have the means and opportunity one day.
As for why he so actively seeks to help others, whether it be budding biotech entrepreneurs, aspiring politicians, college students or just the cultural community in general… when he could be playing golf everyday instead, it seems fitting that a man who's been dubbed Dr. DNA explains what propels him to donate and contribute by saying, "It's in the genes… I believe there is some genetic predisposition that haunts us to get involved and make a difference."