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The low today is minus 33, so it seems like a good day to enjoy the wildlife in taxidermic form inside Francesco Bellini's plush Laurentian chalet. Stuffed pheasants line the windowsills, a James Bay pike hangs in the hallway. A plump buck-toothed beaver sits atop a girder and a giant moose head overlooks the dining room, where a black bear rug hugs the floor. His-and-her Anticosti deer busts-one felled by Bellini, the other by his wife-hang from separate fireplaces.

It's an understatement to say the Italian-born Bellini has embraced the traditions of his adopted land with gusto. He taps the maples here to produce syrup; the furnishings are 19th-century Québécois antiques. "My accountant tells me I should go away to somewhere where I would pay less taxes," says Bellini, who joined the ranks of the very wealthy with the 2001 sale of his BioChem Pharma Inc. for $5.9 billion. "But this community has given me so much."

With his beaver cap and round belly, Bellini, 55, looks more like Elmer Fudd than an inveterate marksman. But in sport as in business, the diminutive guru of Canadian biotech rarely misses his target. BioChem, which Bellini founded in 1986, revolutionized the treatment of AIDS. Its landmark drug, 3TC, remains the common denominator in the various drug cocktails prescribed to combat the disease-it has, in other words, prolonged and improved thousands of lives. Canada has not produced a drug as important since Banting and Best discovered insulin.

Bellini, accordingly, is lionized in business and medical circles. "He is a man, in many ways, with the Midas touch," says Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill University AIDS Centre and former president of the International AIDS Society. "His success at BioChem has stimulated the entire sector. A lot of entrepreneurs have taken the plunge because of Francesco."

And yet, Bellini, a man with the energy (and accent) to rival comic actor Roberto Benigni, is riddled with regret. Regret that the early BioChem had neither the marketing wherewithal nor the cash to develop 3TC on its own (instead, it sold the worldwide rights to Glaxo Wellcome, now GlaxoSmithKline). Regret, too, that the then flush BioChem fell short of becoming the Canadian-based pharmaceutical multinational Bellini dreamed of creating. "Everybody thinks I did a great thing at BioChem. And I did. I built a $6-billion company. But inside me, I failed," Bellini sighs. "I had to merge BioChem [with Britain's Shire Pharmaceuticals] So, I did not succeed to build a Canadian multinational at BioChem. I hope I will succeed with this one."

"This one" is Neurochem Inc., the Montreal-based biotech start-up Bellini has taken under his wing. Bellini's Picchio Pharma Inc., a joint venture with the Desmarais family's Power Corp. of Canada, now owns 33% of Neurochem. The company has all the ingredients of a biotech winner: a disease at the top of the most feared list (this time, it's Alzheimer's); promising drugs in the pipeline; and Bellini. His presence alone has propelled Neurochem from obscurity onto investor radar screens: Its stock price has more than tripled since the scientist-turned-entrepreneur made his first investment in the company last June.

What started out as a passive investment has quickly become almost a full-time preoccupation for Bellini. He has taken over as Neurochem's chairman and CEO, intent, this time, on developing its drug pipeline his own way. He refuses to sell the rights to Neurochem's drugs to a foreign multinational as he did at BioChem; Neurochem will market its drugs on its own, Bellini says defiantly. He still has something to prove; he'll make believers, as he's done before.

"Why do I see things and very few other people see them?" he shrugs, vexed that Neurochem's market cap hovers below $250 million. His eyes bulge as he gets more animated. "BioChem at this stage was worth over $1 billion. I don't know what it is! I cannot see anything wrong with this company. This company can one day be a big company. Real big. Not only big. Huge."

Considering Canadian biotech stocks fell by almost 50% in 2002, Neurochem's shares have actually put on a spectacular performance-from everyone's perspective, it seems, but Bellini's. This is no surprise to those who remember his days as BioChem's CEO. Back then, Bellini had a habit of feeling underappreciated by the market on a good day and the outright target of sinister speculators on a bad one.

His discourse-emblematic of his passion to some, his hype to others-is not typical CEO talk. Securities regulators frown on it. And the unabashed boosterism makes even Bellini's fans uneasy. "I would prefer it if he was less promotional. Creating such expectations can only hurt," says Geneviève Poulin, an analyst at National Bank Financial. Yet there is no doubting the sincerity, or the salutary effects, of Bellini's convictions. Analysts who follow the company are unanimously positive. "Sure, he's promotional," says one. "But he says the same things inside the company, and that is really an inspiration. Employees are inspired to envision success. He is a unifying force."

Bellini's rallying spirit was nurtured on the soccer fields of Ascoli Piceno, his native city across the Italian peninsula from Rome. (He remains a diehard fan of the sport, installing a satellite dish at his Laurentian retreat to catch the four Sunday matches from Italy.) Like many in his native province of Marches, Bellini's parents emigrated to Canada in the early 1960s. The then 20-year-old Francesco followed in 1967. Settling in Montreal, Bellini's father got work on the railway; his mother toiled as a seamstress. Bellini's English and French were both so poor that he had a hard time finding work, but he managed to make his way through night school at Loyola College (now part of Concordia University), earning a B.Sc. in chemistry in 1972. Already married, he followed his mentor, renowned chemist Karl Wiesner, to the University of New Brunswick, earning a doctorate in 1977.

Back in Montreal, the 30-year-old Bellini went to work for Ayerst Laboratories, where he soon twigged to the value of having his name attached to patents. He led the team that created Torlestat, a popular medication for the side effects of diabetes treatments.

But when Ayerst decided to move the lab to the United States in 1984, Bellini balked. He refused to leave his adopted city; instead, he took a job establishing the biochemistry unit at L'Institut Armand-Frappier, a Université du Québec-affiliated research facility. There, he and fellow scientist Gervais Dionne collaborated with renowned McGill University chemist Bernard Belleau. The latter had discovered a compound that appeared to halt the reproduction of the AIDS virus in test tubes. The discovery of what was to become 3TC inspired the three scientists to found BioChem in 1986.

From its start, BioChem was a company in Bellini's image-volatile. It was the first Canadian biotech start-up to go public, raising $15 million in late 1986. The stock went on a roller-coaster ride with each tidbit of news regarding 3TC, soaring on positive clinical results, tanking on fears another AIDS drug would make it to market first. BioChem sank tens of millions in legal fees in a nasty patent dispute with Atlanta-based Emory University, which claimed that its scientists discovered 3TC. (BioChem eventually won.) Not surprisingly, the ups and downs made BioChem a favourite of short sellers, whose tactics weren't always the cleanest. Bellini was sure they circulated negative and untrue rumours about 3TC to drive down the share price. He once even hired a private investigator to find out who was shorting BioChem.

Success has not changed him. "If anybody wants to short the shares, they are welcome to do it. They are up against two powerful investors-myself and Power. I tell you, it's suicide to do it. People who shorted the stock with Bellini before lost money, no?"

Actually, Bellini wasn't being paranoid when he hired that gumshoe. The bombing of BioChem's suburban Montreal headquarters in November, 1997, was the work of short sellers. Nobody was injured by the amateurish plot cooked up by a 25-year-old Montrealer, Steven Thresh, in the hopes of turning a profit on his $113,050 worth of BioChem "put" options. But until Thresh's arrest months after the incident, conspiracy theories swirled about BioChem's latest headline-grabbing event. For Bellini, the publicity stole attention from the life-saving success of 3TC, which was just then taking off.

Vindication, when it came, was sweet. Glaxo, which took a large minority stake in BioChem in 1989, purchased the rights to market 3TC outside Canada. Without the deal, 3TC might never have made it off the drawing board, given the shallow pockets of the Canadian biotech sector at the time. Glaxo invested about $500 million (U.S.) to develop 3TC. The drug finally hit the market in late 1995 and quickly became the most prescribed AIDS treatment in the world. Recognition followed for Bellini. In 1997, he was awarded the Onorificenza Di Grande Ufficiale, Italy's highest civilian distinction; two years ago, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

By 2000, sales of 3TC approached $900 million (U.S.) annually; another $250 million came from sales of lamivudine, a version of 3TC for treating hepatitis B. The royalties BioChem earned from Glaxo averaged about 13% on both drugs. The payments flowed directly to BioChem's bottom line-boosting its profit to a creamy $299.5 million on revenue of $325 million in 2000. The company was Canada's most successful biotech concern, hands down.

But when the new anti-AIDS compound BioChem was working on proved toxic in lab animals, pushing its development back several years, the company found itself without an alternative drug to replace the revenue stream from 3TC if sales of the latter began to slacken. Such are the dangers of being a one-hit company. Bellini, feeling vulnerable, opted for a merger. "Listen, if selling BioChem broke anybody's heart, it's mine," he said in May, 2001, amid widespread criticism of him in Quebec for abandoning the jewel of the province's biotech sector. "I did what was best for shareholders and employees. People don't know what we knew internally."

Bellini's personal take from the sale of Biochem to Shire Pharmaceuticals was more than $250 million in Shire stock. The wealth has enabled the Bellinis to outfit their home in Montreal's Mount Royal district with the finest Italian marble and a vintage wine cellar. Bellini also has amassed a modest art collection, expressing an affinity for 20th-century Quebec painters, especially Marc-Aurèle Fortin. A Florida home, Bellini laments, goes mostly unused. The same cannot be said of the family's Italian villa, where the Bellinis press and bottle about 600 litres of the purest virgin olive oil each year.

Then there is the hunting lodge. Bellini's sprawling Laurentian estate-sealed off from the curious by imposing gates and security-in fact has been deemed off-limits to the family's .306 and .308 calibre rifles. Here, Bellini and his wife prefer the more peaceable pursuit of fishing. Marisa, a youthful 48-year-old, concluded years ago that the only way to spend more time with her workaholic husband was to take up his hobbies. She also accompanies him on most of his business trips, including the regular jaunts to London, where Bellini sits on Shire's board, and Rome, where he attends to Picchio's 20% stake in Adaltis Inc., which specializes in diagnostic products.

But always, Montreal beckons. "We love this city," Bellini says, speaking for Marisa and sons Roberto, 23, an analyst at Picchio, and Carlo, 18, a college student. Bellini recently donated $10 million to McGill University toward the construction of the Francesco Bellini Life Sciences Building. He's also involved with several fundraising ventures, including one for Montreal's St. Mary's Hospital Center, where the 600 patrons of the 2001 charity ball took home a bottle of Bellini's own olive oil.

Certainly, Quebec Inc. has embraced the immigrant. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and the Quebec Federation of Labour's Fonds de solidarité were both early backers of BioChem; the caisse's CDP Capital was an early investor in Neurochem.

And the Desmarais family-whose Power headquarters are only a few floors away from Bellini's in the Canadian Steamship Lines building-are big fans too. Power anted up half of the $60 million to create Picchio. Power co-CEO André Desmarais, who sits on Picchio's board, had good reason to place his faith in Bellini; Power earned an 87% return on its six-month investment in BioChem in 2000.

Picchio-an Italian word for "woodpecker," the official bird of Bellini's native region-took its first stake in Neurochem last June, buying 2.8 million units at $2.50. Two subsequent investments have raised its cash commitment to $40 million and its interest to 33%, giving Picchio effective control. Bellini was not content to be a passive investor; by November he had imposed himself as CEO and chairman. Those who know him weren't surprised. "Francesco thoroughly enjoys [being CEO]and he is very good at it," notes former BioChem president Jacques Lapointe. "For many scientists, business is a necessary evil to progress their ideas. Francesco is an exception."

Bellini quickly overhauled Neurochem's board and management. In January, he tapped Hoffmann-LaRoche veteran Philippe Calais as president. Bellini makes no apologies for shaking things up. "In a company this size, management will make the difference. Management must have the courage to shift the focus to where opportunities are. At Neurochem, resources will need to be reallocated. But almost nobody [of 90 employees, 40 of them PhDs]will lose their job. We will bring in new people with new functions."

Neurochem's Alzheimer's treatment, Alzhemed, is currently in phase 2 clinical trials, which test the safety of the drug in humans. Positive results will allow it to proceed to phase 3 trials, the final stage before commercialization. Although Alzhemed is unlikely to hit the market before 2007, the possibilities have the industry buzzing. Current Alzheimer's treatments merely target symptoms. None halts progression of the disease, as Alzhemed promises to.

More than four million Canadians and Americans suffer from Alzheimer's; by 2025, the figure is expected to rise to 15 million, thanks to an aging population. Alzhemed could easily be Bellini's next billion-dollar drug. "The quality of the science is incredible and the market potential is enormous," says National Bank Financial's Poulin. Of course, as with all such science, potential is no guarantee of a payday; nor is it a warranty against the emergence of competing products.

Before Alzhemed's rendezvous with the marketplace, Neurochem has its hopes set on its final-phase candidate, Fibrillex, a similar-acting drug to treat secondary amyloidosis, a little-known but deadly consequence of inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Bellini "conservatively" predicts sales of Fibrillex could surpass $500 million (U.S.) annually. And as with Alzhemed, Neurochem will retain control of the drug. He declares, "Everybody wants to license our products. I have told them no.If BioChem had had the control of 3TC, [the company]would have sold for much, much more."

Going it alone demands marketing heft. The addition of the French-born Calais to management is a start on that front. Calais, 44, headed international marketing initiatives over a 10-year period at Swiss-based Hoffmann. His appointment in 2000 as the head of the Canadian arm of French pharmaceutical company Servier SA put him in regular contact with Bellini. Hence, he knows what he's in for. "It's true that once Mr. Bellini makes his mind up, he's a steamroller," Calais says. "But usually, the steamroller goes in the right direction. And that is extremely positive."

Twilight. The winter sun is setting and the ever-voluble Bellini is getting emotional again. But it's a different face he's showing than the defiant David who vented against non-believers a couple of hours ago. The subject now is family, more precisely son Roberto. The latter has just worked on his first big project-a joint venture between Picchio affiliate Adaltis and CITIC Pacific to manufacture and sell diagnostic kits in China. "I like to have my son around," Bellini beams. "There is nothing more satisfying for a father. The know-how he is going to acquire here, well, it's a genetic transfer of know-how. I don't think there is anything so great."

And, for once, for a moment, Francesco Bellini is at a loss for words.