Making dipalmitylphosphatidylcholine for Burroughs-Wellcome meant the Avanti team had to learn how to make a synthetic lipid in kilo quantities under the guidelines of good manufacturing practices so that the product would gain the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval. Rowena Shaw says she had misgivings about the venture at first. “I was concerned, because I didn’t think our place might be big enough for [Burroughs-Wellcome’s] needs,” she says, “but they just loved our product.”
When Exosurf went on the market in 1990, it was the first-ever synthetic lipid product and squarely landed Avanti in the pharmaceutical business. Until that point, Avanti had operated out of the Pelham garage, which had passed FDA inspection for the manufacturing of pharmaceutical-grade products. “It was clean for a cement-block garage. Like I said, I cleaned the rafters!” quips Rowena Shaw. But the company needed more space to comfortably supply Burroughs-Wellcome, so in 1990 it moved five miles to Alabaster to a 16,000-square-foot building.
Exosurf ultimately changed neonatal care. Neonatal nurses could now use a dropper to administer the drug into the lungs of a preemie and get the baby to breathe. Shaw says it’s not uncommon for people to come up to him after his lectures to tell him that Exosurf saved their children’s lives.
Exosurf epitomizes Walter Shaw’s attitude toward science, says his wife. He “always wanted to do something for the science community. He didn’t start out just to make a big pile of money. That was never our focus. He wanted to make a difference,” she says.
Walter Shaw was born and raised in Minerva, a small town in Ohio. His father, Oscar, worked at the local bank, which was so small that it had a cap of $5 million. Shaw credits his father for instilling in him a solid work ethic. “Dad was unbelievable. He worked at the bank, and he kept books for companies at night,” remembers Shaw. Shaw’s mother aspired to be a physician but never got the opportunity. Instead, she instilled in her son that he ought to do something in the biomedical field.
Shaw says he got the best business training in his hometown. Between the ages of 12 and 16, he held a paper route. That required delivering newspapers every day, no matter what the weather brought, to customers who wanted their newspapers to be in specific spots. “If it was not where they wanted it, you got a lot of complaints,” says Shaw. Every Saturday, Shaw had to collect money from his customers to pay the people who gave him the newspapers to sell. “A paper route is a microcosm of a business. You have customers whom you have to satisfy, you have to make a profit, you have to handle the finances,” says Shaw. “You can’t take a Saturday off to go play ball.”
The only difference between his paper route and Avanti, says Shaw, is that as a newspaper delivery boy, he had no control over the quality of the product. But at Avanti, Shaw can ensure the quality of every shipment.
Shaw met his future wife at Asbury College in Kentucky. He was a chemistry major. She majored in music, specializing in piano and voice. Asbury College had a strict rule segregating men and women. But one day, Rowena, a self-described rule-keeper, disobeyed. “I went to hear the boy’s glee club choir in Lexington. I went with a young man who had a car. I don’t know why I did this,” she says. “Walt also happened to be going.”