Southwestern @ Georgetown
Volume 17 • Number 3
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Southwestern @ Georgetown
Dr. Robert Karr ’71
President, Idera Pharmaceuticals Inc.

“I never imagined going into business when I was at Southwestern, in medical school or early in my career. But interesting opportunities presented themselves along the way; it has been a journey with an unexpected outcome.”

For Dr. Robert Karr, that outcome is his position as president of Idera Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based biotechnology company. The firm discovers and develops new drugs that act like DNA to help control the immune system’s response to foreign invaders—pathogens that cause diseases such as cancer, and conditions like asthma and allergies.

When Karr selected Southwestern University for his undergraduate studies, he already knew he wanted to be a doctor; one of the reasons he chose Southwestern was the high acceptance rate of Southwestern graduates into medical school. He entered medical school at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston the same year he graduated from Southwestern with honors.

Karr and wife, Jean Gibson Karr ’71, began the first in a series of relocations for his work by moving to St. Louis for his internship and residency in internal medicine, and his fellowship in rheumatology at Washington University School of Medicine. It was there that Karr discovered, much to his surprise, an intense interest in research.

“Though I enjoyed clinical medicine, the obligatory year I spent in a research lab resulted in the first major unexpected turn in my career,” Karr says. “I love basic research and extended my basic research training in immunology.”

The Karrs moved to Iowa City for a faculty position at the University of Iowa College of Medicine; then back to St. Louis to conduct pharmaceutical research for G.D. Searle Corp. There, he was offered the opportunity to lead research projects and large groups, as well as accept increasing responsibilities.

“It was my first experience in business,” recalls Karr, “and I liked it.”

Eight years later, Karr was recruited to Michigan to lead a strategic planning group within Research and Development at Warner-Lambert. In 2000, Pfizer Inc.—the world’s largest research-based pharmaceuticals firm—acquired Warner-Lambert, and Karr was selected to lead the R&D Strategic Management Group in Connecticut, where he helped integrate the two companies’ R&D divisions and set new division strategy.

Karr retired from Pfizer in 2004, but continued to work as a biotech consultant, and to serve as a board member for two biotech companies. One of those companies became Idera Pharmaceuticals, which lured Karr back to full-time work last year.

It’s been a long and winding road for the Karrs, but he says the key benefits he received from his liberal arts education at Southwestern are skills and qualities he uses every day, even now.

“The great thing about a liberal arts education is that it provides experiences that are applicable to most business situations,” Karr says. “Critical thinking skills, feeling comfortable interacting with people with varying points of view, valuing the service of others—I think Southwestern’s approach prepared students well for the business world in the 1970s, and I think it does the same today.”

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