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If someone sculpted a Mount Rushmore of biotech CEOs, who’d be on it?

The question struck me last week as I was considering the legacy of Vertex Pharma CEO Jeff Leiden upon his retirement. Leiden’s eight-year run at Vertex was a boon for cystic fibrosis patients and shareholders. His tenure could be viewed as record-breaking, but was it historic enough to cast his visage in granite?


Let’s table the Leiden decision for a moment and step back to discuss the criteria for the Mount Rushmore of biotech CEOs. No such monument exists, obviously, but it’s still fun to argue over who might belong. With only four spots, it’s going to be an ultra-exclusive club, but should it be limited to “founding father” types only? (Unfortunately, there are no “founding mothers.”) Is there room for later generations of biotech executives? How much does scientific acumen matter, or should business performance take precedent?

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  • Herb Boyer forged Genentech and was pilloried for ‘going commercial’. Bob Swanson was let go by Kleiner Perkins, then pitched the founders of Cetus on rDNA, seeking employment, and was given a pat on the head by its avuncular founders who, like Nobel Laureate Sir Ernst Chain, thought microbial expression of human hormones was a pipe dream. Genentech built the collaborative biotech/big pharma BD model that the whole industry adopted to boot strap biotech startups and engineered a famed IPO to break open access to public market money. It pioneered R&D partnerships to fund clinical trials. It brought human insulin and human growth hormone to market to validate the industry while other companies were treading water, and it persuaded the Supreme Court to grant patents on microbial factories that produced life saving medicines. And it beat Biogen to the production of alpha interferon per se; again to gamma interferon, and brought to market tPA to dissolve heart clots, then banged out a series of billion dollar cancer drugs.

    Bob is gone and Herb is retired, but your Mt. Rushmore plainly needs more space and a few more faces of the vital industry.

  • I’ll put up Craig Venter on that hill. His aggressive tactics And teams innovations had the human genome sequenced a decade faster than it would have been without him. Since then it’s been a slow burn for commercialisation from that work, but the fundamental knowledge of our own genome earns him a place IMHO.

  • For a biotech Mount Rushmore, I’d go way back to honor persons whose ideas are now starting to get the modern recognition they deserve. I am pleased to recommend Otto Heinrich Warburg and Fred August Kummerow – and I hope their ideas gain even more influence soon.

  • Heartily agree on Termeer, he has to be there. He was also Chairman of the BIO Board for two years. Listening to him at every BIO board meeting, you could see and hear a symphony of the most elegant thinking.

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