Zombie Corporate Vikings: First Installment

When I last saw Hannes Smárason, he was a tuxedoed trash receptacle somewhere on the streets of Reykjavik:


You won’t find that photo of Hannes on Google Images (although maybe you will soon!); it was taken by my friend and Advance Man, Skúli Sigurdsson, in early 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the Icelandic financial meltdown.  Hannes helped make that happen. He had left his position as Chief Business Officer of deCODE Genetics in 2004 and became head of something called the FL Group, whose accomplishments included feasting on Icelandair and taking control of the Icelandic state bank Glitnir, before wrecking the entire nation.  In coming installments I’ll tell you some more about Hannes’s exploits as one of the more destructive of a group of individuals–men–who became mythologized as “corporate Vikings.”  Some of them are in jail now — Iceland is one of the few nations which actually tries and jails at least some of its corporate criminals, although some of them seem to stay at least one step ahead of the authorities.  Like Hannes Smárason, who fled the nation he had helped trash and then lived for a while in London…

…where I, like most others except the Icelandic special prosecutors, forgot about him.  Until yesterday:

Genomics England, the company set up by the country’s Department of Health to sequence 100,000 human genomes, has brought in China’s WuXi NextCODE as the first of its “clinical interpretation partners,” according to a report by state-owned news agency Xinhua.

Genomics England plans to sequence 100,000 whole genomes and is working with these interpretation partners to focus on people with rare diseases as well as common cancers. The company said the project could “lead to a better understanding of disease and more personalized care for patients in the future,” Xinhua reported…

Hannes Smárason, president and COO of WuXi NextCODE, said “we are very pleased to be playing a central role in a project that is a driving force for precision medicine worldwide. We look forward to putting our technology to work for NHS patients through interpretation and by applying the knowledge gained to advance the development of targeted new therapies for cancer and a range of rare conditions,” according to a statement the companies released.

Those 4 capital letters, C-O-D-E, were like some corporate haplotype marker signalling a story I had completely missed about the zombie Viking corporation, deCODE Genetics, from which the zombie corporate Viking Hannes Smárason had been spawned.  I thought I had closed the book on deCODE, and had decided not to write about its 2011 bankruptcy, and the temporary burial of its corporate remains in the vaults of the venture capital firms that had financed its first rise, before its spectacular and lucrative (but not for the thousands of Icelanders who invested in the first deCODE) $450 million resurrection by the U.S. biotech firm Amgen.  I have a different kind of story I want to tell about genomics, one that doesn’t feature, to mix my metaphors, zombie trash.

But the Viking corporate zombie trash story is haunting me — and that is no metaphor, mixed or straight up.  I laid awake last night, after a frenzy of googling, pondering and re-pondering the pieces of the story and the threads that stitched Iceland’s oligarchs to Luxemburg holding companies to bankruptcy courts to U.S. venture biocapitalists to a Shanghai pharmaceutical company to the latest large-scale publicXprivate genomic venture, where there are hundreds of thousands of genomes to be sequenced and millions of dollars to be made, before it all quite possibly comes crashing down again.  That’s the story the next installments will tell here, like ice to my other story of genomic fire, to reference both Icelandic imagery and Bob Dylan, who at the same time reminds us that there’s no success like failure…



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  • [advance man]: i want to obliterate one word in mike’s opening statement: “… trash receptacle somewhere on the streets of Reykjavik.” i remember coming across this garbage bin in reykjavík in early 2009 (before the end of march). it was on the street skipholt close to the einholt-stórholt-skipholt junction (this signifies a death knell to “somewhere”). on the right-hand side of the receptable-bin there used to be an art school (myndlista- og handídaskóli íslands / the icelandic college of arts and crafts) (in 1999 it became myndlistar- og hönnunardeild of the then newly founded listaháskóli íslands / icelandic academy of the arts). the building at the end of the street behind the trash bin and lamp post houses the library / archive / numismatic collection of sedlabanki íslands / the central bank of iceland (einholt 4). continuing along stórholt down the hill (exiting from the top-right of the photograph) one would reach the square hlemmur (municipal bus terminal / a banking site [búnadarbankinn {used to be one of the largest icelandic banks} –> kaupthing {one of the central players-banks in the 2008 financial implosion} –> arion banki {so named after the 2008 financial meltdown}]). i guess i have not obliterated / annihilated a word but transformed “somewhere” into a cultural-financial-mnemonic object. in other words, borrowing from the language of physics / quantum mechanics, i have created a veritable post-genomic hot spot.

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