Saturday, August 8, 2015

Genentech: How it all started

Re-published with modifications.

This book by Sally Smith Hughes about the biotech pioneer company Genentech is a very good read. Strangely, it starts to captivate you and then suddenly it ends. Kind of positively disappointing.

For me as a scientist the most revealing part of the book was the role of Bob Swanson played in founding Genentech. He was a young man (only 28 years old), formerly a junior partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner & Perkins, but presently unemployed when he and UCSF scientist Herb Boyer decided to form a partnership to commercialize recombinant DNA technology. Bob comes across as an ideal entrepreneur. Accounts of his vision in the potential of new DNA recombinant technology and his tireless networking to secure initial seed money to run Genentech's proof of principle experiments, are most fascinating. Clearly, there would have been no Genentech without Bob Swanson.

Other parts of the book related to science of producing first human recombinant somatostatin, insulin and growth hormone seemed secondary in nature, in my view. I would only highlight that at this stage of its corporate development Genentech was basically an academia-type company without academia-type hierarchy. Dream place to work for scientists who wanted to show to their peers in academia that they are scientifically "equal" and maybe a little bit "richer". Of note, after more than 30 years, Genentech, now part of Roche, still stays one of the best places to work in surveys.

The author, however, did not discuss much about what happened to Genentech after initial years of success. Though, admitting that it was rescued by Roche in the early 90s suggests that it went through some difficult periods and was not able to survive as a large independent biotech company.

David Usharauli    

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