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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?

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  • What about Leroy Hood? Pretty much none of the rapid advancement in science we are currently enjoying would have happened without the tools developed by his labs and companies.

  • Yes, you need a larger mountain! Make it a small mountain range and do the “Top 10”. Swanson and Boyer must be there (have fond memories of having met Bob during a new employee orientation decades ago).

  • Interesting article for those of us who have a history with biotechnology’s early days. I think as one of the comments indicates one has to include one of Cetus’ founders …. Ronald Cape or Donald Glaser. Without PCR so many fundamental advances would not be possible.

    I might include Chiron’s founders; they were YOuuuuuge in ebig stablishing critical mass in the Bay Area. They are William Rutter from UCSF and Edward Penhoet from Cal, and vice president for research, Pablo DT Valenzuela. Rutter had an impact beyond the Bay Area. They showed that recombinant vaccines were possible (HBV), and the company researchers under Michael Houghton discovered HCV, wilthout which Gilead’s success wouldn’t have been possible.

    • Thank you for remembering Chiron. Bill Rutter and Pablo Valenzuela started a fantastic company for the reasons you mention. However, we shouldn’t forget that Chiron was also instrumental in developing blood testing assays for all of the viruses that contaminated our blood supply before they were available – HIV, HCV, etc. Through Chiron’s efforts we were able to make the US blood supply safe.

  • Fun concept and read! Seconding Wally Gilbert and Mark Levin (Boston bias I admit…) Thanks to you and the team for all of your great writing!

  • The first biotech company was Cetus Corporation of Berkeley, CA. Co-founded by UC Berkeley faculty member, Dr. Donald Glaser, Ph.D., a Nobel Prize awardee. Amongst other accomplishments, Cetus developed Betaseron and Proleukin, and the PCR methodology that it out-licensed. Kary Mullis, who attained his Ph.D. at Berkeley, developed PCR while at Cetus, and is the only biotech employee to have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Imagine the world without PCR.

  • Rosalind Franklin – let me know if one ounce of knowledge on DNA structure, function and resulting manipulation to borne the entire biotech industry could have been done without her x-ray diffraction data…that men upon men upon men have capitalized and normalized upon for over 70 years. That is a hill I’m prepared to die on.

  • From a credible source: Bob Swanson had lunch with each new hire until the company had 500 employees. Later, he was quoted saying: In the earliest days of Genentech, we sought to build a culture where anything is possible. This emphasis on people is the ‘secret’ to foundational greatness that too many forget. Bob passed away of cancer, but founded a company, like Gilead’s Martin, that has saved millions.

    I’m not sure Martin deserves to be on the list. Gilead has saved millions of lives, but that HIV and HCV still represent global epidemics shows a failure of culture and of will, despite the best tools and the incredible revenues Gilead has achieved. I sponsored an article that modeled a $700B net economic benefit of HIV ARVs and 10M lives saved since 1995, yet 18M more people are not on life-saving ARVs globally. Estimates of up to 300,000 Americans know they have HIV but are not on treatment… Gilead deserves praise for transformative innovation, but not for a culture that emphasizes excellence that would have mattered most – achieving UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets.

  • Bill Rastetter.

    Slight correction here – Genentech did not develop Rituxan. IDEC developed Rituxan with Dr. Rastetter as CEO. Genentech was a marketing partner for the drug but not a developer and acquired Rituxan after the Icahn raid in 2010 that cleaved 1000 IDEC employees from Biogen IDEC.

    • Bill — You’re right! My memory of the old days isn’t as crystal as I thought. I corrected the story, thanks for alerting me.

  • Mark Levin, former Millennium CEO (now 3rd Rock), for his role in creating a culture of innovation and patient-first that continues to drive so many small-mid sized biotechs to this day …

  • If your really talking FOUNDING fathers, then Swanson, Rathmann, and Termeer are easy calls. But the fourth member of this esteemed group needs to be Wally Gilbert of Biogen.

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