Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. is one of the few platform companies to achieve big cap status and to develop a business model that appears to be robust and sustainable. The company also has formed some of the broadest and most lucrative drug discovery collaborations with pharmaceutical partners in the biotech industry, and its genomics-based drug discovery efforts promise to provide both its partners and its internal programs with targets well into the coming millennium.

Indeed, only a few dominant platform companies have truly succeeded where others are looking for a way to escape the downward pull of commoditization. Among them are MLNM (Cambridge, Mass.) and Human Genome Sciences Inc. (HGSI, Gaithersburg, Md.), which shares with MLNM a shift to developing products.

Given the continued formation of toolkit companies, MLNM's route to the top should occupy the thoughts of management at these startups. The question for these companies is whether there are lessons that can be emulated, or whether MLNM's early entry has allowed it to accumulate assets that cannot now be duplicated.

Manufacturing drug targets

MLNM's platform has been built incrementally, moving steadily downstream from the company's origins in the human genome project. "We have been focused on how to identify important genes, but genes are not enough," said Chairman and CEO Mark Levin.