Kenneth Fong - DR. DNA

The secret to eternal youth is what many of us hope to find at the end of the biotech rainbow. Fat chance, says the man who's about as close as you can get to the nucleus of the molecular biology industry.

Fong's hardheaded perspective reflects the business he's in. Unlike the hundreds of biotech startups built on dreams of miracle drugs to come, Fong founded his Palo Alto-based Clontech Laboratories Inc to make the molecular biology tools that facilitate today's cutting-edge research and development in the areas of gene mapping, genetic engineering and cloning.

As Clontech's founder and CEO, Fong holds virtually 100% of its shares, but prefers to call himself "majority shareholder". For the past several years he has led Clontech to a spectacular 40% annual growth rate.

Kenneth Fong was born in China, near the city of Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. The family fled to Hong Kong soon after the 1949 communist victory and eventually settled into a Kowloon apartment. In 1951, his father Tong Fong, immigrated alone to the U.S. as had his own grandfather at the turn of the century. For 15 years Tong Fong lived alone and sent money to his family back in Hong Kong to provide Kenneth with a childhood neither marred by privation nor blessed with luxury.

After high school Kenneth enrolled in a two-year teacher's college, the option that best suited the family's finances. The Hong Kong government was financing the program in an effort to increase the supply of teachers. He might still be teaching high school chemistry in Hong Kong but for the Kennedy Administration's liberalization of U.S. immigration laws in the early 60s. In December of 1966, soon after Kenneth turned 20, the Fong family journeyed to San Francisco to join his father. During his first eight months in the U.S., Kenneth worked a series of odd jobs at gas stations and restaurants. By summer he was pumping gas full-time at a Mobil station in a tough neighborhood in the Fillmore District.
 In the fall of 1967, Fong began attending San Francisco City College. With no credit for his two years at the teacher's college and needing to improve his English, he began with general freshman courses. During his two years at City College, Fong worked a string of odd jobs at gas stations and restaurants.

In the fall of 1969, he began at San Francisco State as a junior majoring in biology and chemistry. While taking a full course load he worked a full-time job chopping vegetables and assembling food at the central kitchen of the Manning cafeteria chain. Soon after starting school, he met future wife Pamela Chin (BS ‘73, Mathematics) at a San Francisco Presbyterian church.

Despite the job and steady girlfriend, Fong managed to graduate in June of 1971 with a partial scholarship to Indiana University that paid several hundred dollars a month. By working as a teaching assistant, Fong was self-supporting while working on his Ph.D. in molecular biology. Fong got his Ph.D. in 1977 and married Pam. After staying on two more years at Indiana University as a full-time salaried researcher, he accepted an offer to join the research facilities of the National Institute of Health (NIH) at North Carolina's Triangle Park.

In late 1983 Kenneth decided the time had come to make use of his true gift so he left NIH and took a chance with Clontech. Pam, who was highly supportive, gave up an optometrist position in North Carolina to return to Northern California three months ahead of her husband to establish a steady income stream that could support themselves and their infant son Jon.

With no record of success in the business world, Fong decided it would be too difficult to find investors willing to provide the startup capital. Instead, he set his sights on the modest goal of developing a single product and turned to younger brother Danny whose small water analysis business was already established and profitable. Danny agreed to lend Fong $35,000 and the use of some laboratory space. Apparently, he had no interest in becoming an investor and Fong has long since repaid Danny "with a good amount of interest".

Fong developed Clontech's first product in collaboration with a Stanford researcher named Richard Young. While still at NIH Fong had read an article about Young's system for screening for new genes. After moving to Palo Alto Fong called Young and suggested they get together for coffee.

In 1984, Clontech earned no profits on its $50,000 in sales, mostly to universities and biotech companies. That year Kenneth took no salary and counted on Pam's solid earnings as an optometrist for living expenses. In 1985, sales went up to $200,000 on which Clontech barely broke even. The next year sales jumped to $1 million.  In 1987, slower sales and the pressures of financing growth created a cashflow crunch which forced Fong to solicit $200,000 in investments. During the following 12 years Clontech has enjoyed steady growth at an average rate of over 35% a year.

Fong enjoys nine-to-seven workdays with most evenings and weekends for his family. Son Jon is now 16 and daughter Maggie is 4. In his spare time, he plays golf. Fong is an active member of many professional societies and associations. He was the President of Asian American Manufacturers’ Association (AAMA) in Silicon Valley and is serving as the Chairman of the long-range planning and the President of the Biopharmaceutical Division in the Society for Chinese Bioscientists in America (SCBA).

Back to Alumni Domain