16. Ira Taffer, BS ’79, PhD ’83
Interim Department Head of Chemistry,
Drexel University College of Arts and Sciences
By Mary Caparosa ’16
Photo by Andrew Pellegrino ’18
From the age of three, Ira Taffer knew that he wanted to be a chemist — at least, that’s how his mother tells it. What he may not have known was how big a role Drexel would play in shaping his path. He has been a student, co-op employer, Baiada Institute mentor, advisory board member, Alumni Association chair, and then, coming full circle in 2013, interim head of Drexel’s Department of Chemistry.
The role was unexpected, but, as Taffer says, “Nothing I’ve done has been expected.”
Almost immediately after graduation, he started his own business.
“If you would have asked me a week before what I was going to do, it wouldn’t even have been on my radar,” he says with a laugh.
One Drexel friend did ask, to which Taffer replied simply, “I guess I’ll find a job.”
“Do you want to start a business?” his friend and future business partner, Robert Zipkin ’79, asked in return.
Taffer said yes, and the two of them began BIOMOL Research Laboratories, a producer and supplier of life science reagents for pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and university researchers. The company focuses on signal transduction reagents, which regulate how cells start and stop their specific function.
“In the early years, when we needed a new employee, we would call Drexel and they would send over students,” says Taffer. “Our first employee was a Drexel co-op who then worked for us for 26 years. At one time, we had seven employees and six of them had an association with Drexel.”
Taffer and Zipkin created and produced thousands of molecules over the 27 years the two worked together. BIOMOL eventually gained international recognition for a discovery that could lead to new treatments for age-related illnesses, and the company flourished.
In 2008, the pair decided to sell BIOMOL, which ultimately led Taffer back to Drexel and the many roles he’s taken on since. The connection he feels to the University and his department grew out of the camaraderie he felt as a student, he says.
“We were mostly commuters,” he recalls. “It wasn’t unusual to be taking the Chestnut Hill train home with four other people and to be doing your physics homework.”
Each student pushed to work harder than the other, Taffer says, but if anyone was stuck, the classmates would stop to help each other.
“It was also quite common to be out on a Saturday night with some faculty, grad students and seniors,” he recalls. “We learned and had a good time together; it was great.”
Although the University has changed in countless ways since Taffer first stepped foot on campus in 1974, he says the most important values have remained.
“I think the relationship students have with the faculty is different than at a lot of other schools,” Taffer says. “I’ve noticed this from the time I got here as a student to today. The faculty here are much more open and accessible. At the end of the day, everyone just wants to see our students succeed.”