WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. -- Ron Cohen's early career path converged at the intersection of medicine, musical theater and business. Somehow, Cohen melded the disparate roads into one and took experience from each to create a leading biotech company.
Cohen is President and Chief Executive Officer of Ardsley-based Acorda Therapeutics, which develops medications for people with neurological disorders. Cohen, who founded the company in 1995, is one of four recipients of the Leadership Award from the Westchester County Association. He will be honored at a dinner at the Westchester Marriott Hotel in Tarrytown on Thursday, Nov. 19.
Acorda, which this year has projected sales of $420-430 million for its drug AMPYRA, is far removed from Cohen’s ambitions when he started college to land a role as Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls.” He never made it to Broadway, but did land a television commercial. “I can still remember my line from 30 years ago,’’ Cohen said. “‘Mom, you can buy Charms Blow Pops by the pop or the bag.’ That was the high point of my acting career.”
- What : Westchester County Association's Fall Leadership Dinner
- When : Thursday, Nov. 19
- Where : Westchester Marriott Hotel, Tarrytown
- Information : www.westchester.org
Cohen’s path was not business as usual. After graduating from Princeton, he enrolled at Columbia University for medical school because it had a full-time drama group and produced two full-scale musicals. “I didn’t make up my mind to go into medicine full-time until the third year of medical school,’’ Cohen said. “I loved practicing medicine. But I loved acting, too.”
During his residency at the University of Virginia, he landed the lead for The Fantasticks. When he returned to New York, he managed to find time for acting while working in emergency rooms and walk-in clinics. He landed an off-Broadway role and appeared in commercials. “I lived a dual life for five years,’’ he said.
Friends from medical school recommended him for a position at a start-up biotech company studying tissue engineering. “They wanted a doctor who could do the clinical piece,’’ Cohen said. “They also liked my theater background, having a doctor who can present well to investors. They offered me a job and it took my life in a whole new direction.”
Cohen eventually moved to San Diego to work for Advanced Tissue Sciences. Working with a CEO from Eli Lilly, Cohen honed his business skills. He came back East to start Acorda.
“My parents had been holding their breath all through college,’’ Cohen said. “When I chose medical school, they breathed a sigh of relief. When I told them I was giving up medicine and starting this biotech company, they were in total shock. My father said ‘Are you sure you don’t want to reconsider the acting career?’’’
At Acorda, Cohen’s initial focus was on spinal cord injuries and has expanded to treat neurological disorders. The company markets several drugs, including AMPYRA, a treatment to improve walking for patients with multiple sclerosis; ZANAFLEX, a short-acting drug for the management of spasticity; and Qutenza, which assists patients with post-shingles nerve pain. Six other drugs are currently in the Acorda pipeline.
Cohen does not regret a minute of his unusual career journey. “I made the right call all the way through,’’ he said. “Everything I did was leading up to what I do now. The thing I did right was to embrace the opportunity when it showed up and go with my gut. I would not trade what I do today for anything. I work with an incredibly talented team across a huge range of human talent. We’re all united in an enterprise that is stimulating and compelling, and we’ve contributed to people’s lives in a meaningful way.”
Click here to purchase tickets and find out more information about the WCA's Fall Leadership dinner.