Leading Bio-Pharma Innovation | Vijay Samant MS'77


Vijay Samant

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As a foreign student who came to Columbia Engineering in the 1970s, Vijay Samant quickly learned how important it is to go after what you want.

Samant hoped to receive a different room assignment when he arrived on campus, so without hesitation, the Mumbai, India, native gathered his unpacked bags, made his way to the crowded Dean of Student Affairs Office, renegotiated, and got a different one.

“It instantly taught me how this country works, which is different than any other country,” he said.

The initiative Samant displayed then has contributed to the development of his American entrepreneurial spirit.

Since 2000, Samant has served as president and chief executive of Vical Inc., a San Diego–based biopharmaceutical product developer focused on DNA vaccines and cancer immunotherapies.

The bulk of his career took place at health care giant Merck, where he spent 23 years in sales, marketing, operations, and business development roles. From 1998 to mid-2000, he was chief operating officer of Merck’s Vaccine Division. Samant’s time at Merck was significant.

“Mind-boggling innovations came out of the company,” he said. “The entrepreneurial spirit there was incredible.”

Samant’s education blends business with engineering— a mix that has given him a leg up in his career. Samant earned his MBA from the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983. He received his master’s in chemical engineering from Columbia in 1977 and a bachelor’s, also in chemical engineering, from the University of Bombay in 1975.

“I’m a technocrat by training and a businessman by experience,” Samant commented. “Anybody who doesn’t understand how business works cannot be a successful entrepreneur.”

Samant credits Columbia for being “intellectually honest and intellectually intensive”—two characteristics he feels a person needs to possess as an entrepreneur.

Of course, he got some help along the way, too. There were influencers at Columbia who supported Samant, including Carlos Bonilla, former professor and chair of the Chemical Engineering Department at the School. Professor Bonilla gave Samant a paid fellowship when he couldn’t cover his health insurance costs. Samant said Bonilla expressed concern to him, however, that as a foreign student, Samant might go back to India and never contribute to Columbia.

“I told him I would prove him wrong. Over the years, I have contributed very hard,” Samant said.

The life lessons didn’t stop there. Samant’s adviser, the late Professor Carl Gryte, became a lifelong friend.

“I learned most of my problem-solving and entrepreneur skills from him,” said Samant.

Samant returns to Morningside several times a year and has been active on the board of managers of the Columbia Engineering Alumni Association. He has also chaired the Pupin Medal Committee for the last 12 years.

Samant knows it takes energy and passion to be an entrepreneur. He believes 75 percent of success is based on hard work, 5 percent on genius, and the remaining 20 percent is luck.

“If you’re going to engineering school, you need to get hard skills to make sure you learn something,” Samant advised. “Don’t chase money; get some good experience. Money will come.”