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'Casual Intensity' Defines Genentech

Genentech's blend of serious science and serious play makes it the 'best place to work'

by Sophie L. Rovner
October 16, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 42

Credit: Genentech
Employees jog along a trail on Genentech's South San Francisco campus.
Credit: Genentech
Employees jog along a trail on Genentech's South San Francisco campus.

A beautiful location can do wonders for a company's recruiting prospects, but even the San Francisco Bay can't entirely account for the enthusiasm of Genentech employees. Ask some Genentech chemists what could be improved about their company, and they'll tell you with a laugh that the location is a bit windy and the parking a little tight—but that's about all the criticism they can muster.

Their attachment to the company does nothing to belie Genentech's first-place ranking in Fortune magazine's latest annual list of "100 Best Companies to Work For." Other companies that employ chemists or chemical engineers and are in the top 10 of Fortune's list include petroleum refiner Valero Energy; W. L. Gore & Associates—which produces Gore-Tex fabrics and other products for the electronics, industrial, fabric, and medical markets—and consumer products manufacturer SC Johnson & Son. In compiling the list, Fortune draws on its own evaluations of company policies and culture as well as the opinions of company employees.

Genentech was founded 30 years ago by venture capitalist Robert A. Swanson and biochemist Herbert W. Boyer. The company uses human genetic information to develop treatments for serious and life-threatening diseases in the areas of oncology, immunology, and disorders of tissue growth and repair.

Early milestones in its history include the cloning and development in 1982 of human insulin, the first available drug produced using recombinant DNA technology; Food & Drug Administration approval in 1985 for the marketing of human growth hormone; and FDA approval two years later of Activase, a blood-clot destroyer used for the treatment of heart attack and stroke. The company currently has about 30 products in its development pipeline and 13 products already on the market, including the cancer treatments Rituxan, Avastin, Herceptin, and Tarceva. Genentech's research focuses primarily on protein-based therapies, but the company is increasing its efforts to develop treatments based on small-molecule therapeutics.

Total operating revenues reached $6.6 billion in 2005, a 44% increase over the prior year. Genentech spent $1.3 billion on R&D in 2005, 33% more than in 2004.

Genentech had nearly 9,600 employees at the end of 2005, 25% more than the prior year. The firm anticipates 15% growth in its staffing this year.

Credit: Genentech
Genentech's executive committee takes a playful approach to Halloween.
Credit: Genentech
Genentech's executive committee takes a playful approach to Halloween.

The company employs more than 800 scientists, including roughly 200 employees who carry out chemistry-related work, according to Holly Butler, a principal staffing consultant responsible for hiring Genentech's research employees. They are performing medicinal chemistry, analytical chemistry, formulation chemistry, early-leads chemistry, process development, drug metabolism, pharmacology, chemoinformatics, quality control, contract manufacturing, and legal work, she says.

Alan G. Olivero, a senior scientist who serves as a group leader in Genentech's medicinal chemistry department, notes that "Genentech is well-known for being a biotech company, but we're really growing in the small-molecule area." Olivero's department is part of the small-molecule drug discovery unit. Butler expects that 20 to 80 researchers will be hired to bulk up the small-molecule drug discovery unit. "We're going to be extremely busy hiring chemists," she says.

These positions will typically require backgrounds such as synthetic organic or medicinal chemistry, analytical chemistry, pharmacology, or bioinformatics. To fill its scientist-level jobs, the firm will be looking for candidates with Ph.D.s. "We hire them fresh out of their Ph.D. programs, or we hire seasoned chemists with experience from other companies," Butler says. Jobs for technicians or research associates require a master's degree and industry experience.

What does Genentech offer to attract chemists? Part of the company's appeal is the sheer concentration of brain power at its headquarters in South San Francisco. The campus features the largest single-site biotechnology research facility in the world, according to the firm. Genentech also has a manufacturing facility at the site, with additional manufacturing facilities in Oceanside and Vacaville, Calif., and Porri??o, Spain.

But there's more to Genentech's attraction than numbers. The firm offers "enormous freedom to explore in a realm where science rules," says Michael D. Varney, vice president of small-molecule drug discovery.

In fact, Genentech has "done a really good job of trying to capture what academics have," says Janet L. Gunzner-Toste, a scientist in the medicinal chemistry department. "They really encourage novel ideas, and they give principal investigators the resources to explore beginning-stage, basic research that isn't yet related to pipeline research."

Researchers are encouraged to present proposals involving biological discovery to the Research Review Committee, which consists primarily of the leadership of the company's research department. The committee can allocate personnel, money, and lab space for projects that it approves. Such projects might involve investigations of a secreted protein, a signaling molecule, or a receptor.

Chemists and biologists who want to propose projects in the small-molecule arena must present their ideas to the New Target Selection Committee. As the projects move forward to the next stage, they are reviewed by the Research Review Committee.

Varney notes that Genentech selects research projects "to a large extent based on the science. In some respects, that keeps the decision-making relatively straightforward, because it leaves some other aspects that other organizations might bring in—say, the commercial value—for another discussion."

Chemists considering Genentech as an employer should realize that its origin as the world's first biotech firm means they'll be interacting with what Varney describes as "an ocean of cell biologists."

"What's really unique about Genentech chemists is that they have a very strong bond and collaborative relationship with the biologists," Butler says. "The chemists and biologists work extremely closely here at Genentech. So they must learn to work together, live together, eat, drink, and sleep together," she adds half-jokingly.

Credit: Genentech
Genentech's state-of-the-art facilities include this cold room.
Credit: Genentech
Genentech's state-of-the-art facilities include this cold room.

Varney notes that "some folks don't fully appreciate the differences between a chemist's perspective and a biologist's perspective. One of the things that I want to do is bring that chemistry perspective to the solving of biology problems."

Traditionally, a company biologist who identified a new enzyme and wanted to explore its inhibition would knock out the enzyme genetically. "But if you breed a knock-out mouse," Varney asks, "is that really indicative of what would happen if you block that enzyme in an adult animal?" Genentech's increasing reliance on chemical tools means that researchers can instead use a small molecule to block the enzyme in an adult mouse. The company is building up a library of small molecules that can be screened for such activity.

Just as Genentech carefully cultivates a nurturing atmosphere for the pursuit of outstanding science, it also pays attention to the social aspects of the workplace. "In a world where the employer and the employee tend to become increasingly distant, Genentech has worked very hard to prevent that from occurring," Varney says. "The relationship between Genentech and its employees is very close and personal."

That kind of ambiance holds a definite appeal for Varney, who began his career as a chemist at Agouron Pharmaceuticals in 1987. Agouron, a small-molecule drug discovery firm, had just 15 employees at the time. After Varney helped Agouron grow to some 1,200 employees, the company was acquired in 1999 by Warner-Lambert, which was itself acquired by Pfizer the following year.

After five more years running the Agouron-related research effort at Pfizer, "I was at a point where I wanted to build something again," Varney says. "The phone rang one day, and it was Genentech asking if I'd be interested in building their small-molecule drug discovery organization." He joined the firm in June 2005.

Like Varney, Gunzner-Toste also appreciates the intimate atmosphere at Genentech. "Unlike many pharmaceutical companies, Genentech's research is located at one site, and it's at headquarters," she says. "So we see members of our executive committee roaming around campus." She's had the head of research, Richard H. Scheller, approach her in the cafeteria to ask for her opinion about a variety of company projects or to chat about sports.

Olivero says that kind of accessibility gives Genentech the feel of a small company, despite its large size. Members of the executive committee are "down to earth," he says. Arthur D. Levinson, who was formerly a scientist in Genentech's research department and is now chairman and chief executive officer, "still comes to our research review committee meetings," Olivero adds. "He's still every bit the staff scientist. He's very much in touch, very approachable. All of the executive committee members are that way." On Halloween, the execs often dress in costumes related to a theme such as the Wizard of Oz and hand out candy to employees.

Olivero began working at the firm in August 1993. He'd previously worked at Henkel Research but decided to approach Genentech because friends who worked there spoke so highly of the company.

Gunzner-Toste, too, looked up Genentech as a result of a glowing recommendation. Following a postdoctoral fellowship, she had begun her career in the medicinal chemistry department at Merck in San Diego. After her husband, F. Dean Toste, landed a post as an assistant chemistry professor at University of California, Berkeley, she began looking for a position in the San Francisco Bay Area. She asked her postdoctoral adviser, Stanford University chemistry professor Barry M. Trost, for suggestions about companies in the region. "He told me his recent visit at Genentech was very impressive," she recalls.

When Gunzner-Toste visited Genentech for an interview, she was impressed "at how happy people were, and how long they'd been in the medicinal chemistry department." She joined the firm in June 2003 and now works with teams of chemists and biologists to design small-molecule treatments for cancer.

A capacity for teamwork is prized at the company. Although Genentech welcomes self-starters, it isn't a good home for "lone rangers," Butler says. Nor does it suit "folks who need a lot of structure and process or constant guidance and reinforcement," she adds.

"This is an environment of a lot of independence and free thinking. We hire you because you're very bright and you have a good background of solid science and collaboration," Butler explains. "We expect you to be able to come in here and get very turned on by the wonderful colleagues you have to work with. It's a place where we kind of wind you up and let you go."

Olivero adds that "Genentech has always had a reputation for being a great place for science. The culture is very dynamic; it's exciting, very science-oriented. It's rewarding in the sense of helping patients."

He says the term "casual intensity" captures the culture at Genentech. "It's a work hard, play hard kind of approach," he explains.

An example is the company's annual three-day retreat for researchers at the Asilomar Conference Center near Monterey, Calif. There, researchers spend their days hearing presentations from their colleagues. They even present posters about their work during happy hour. An expert from outside Genentech often speaks to the group as well. For instance, one year a Stanford physics professor gave a lecture about dark matter. "In addition to the great science, it's a chance to get to know people, relax, have fun," Olivero says. "We go to the aquarium; we have beach parties. We've even done a college bowl," where teams of people from different departments fielded trivia questions.

On its South San Francisco campus, Genentech hosts "Ho-Hos," Friday evening parties where staff members and their families can enjoy free food and "wind down after an intense week," Olivero says. "That's why Genentech feels a lot more like a family than a company you work for."

In fact, work-life balance is a theme that Genentech stresses. All full-time staffers can take a paid, six-week sabbatical after they've worked six years. Olivero has just taken his second sabbatical, which he and his family spent in Italy. For his first sabbatical, the family rented a beach house on the South Pacific island of Rarotonga.

Other benefits the firm offers include an employee stock purchase plan, eligibility for stock options and bonuses, a company-sponsored fitness facility, and a concierge service to help with personal errands. Genentech also provides tuition assistance, domestic partner benefits, adoption assistance, and discounted legal services.

Genentech surveys its staff every year to find out which benefits are working and which aren't and to assess what further benefits are wanted. For instance, the company plans to expand its on-site day-care center to accommodate continued growth in the number of Genentech employees, Butler says.


That's one benefit that has been particularly handy for Gunzner-Toste. She went on maternity leave in January 2005, a year and a half after she had arrived at the company. After giving birth, she says, "I was really eager to come back to work." But her boss encouraged her to take her time. Gunzner-Toste came up with a proposal to work three days per week for three months "to ease myself into motherhood and balance my career, and I found that to work really well. Everybody was very supportive," she says.

That flexible attitude may explain the company's success with respect to diversity. As of the end of 2005, half of its workforce and almost half of its officers and managers were female. In addition, 43% of its workforce and 31% of its officers and managers were minorities.

Genentech sponsors a number of employee groups to foster diversity. For instance, its African Americans in Biotechnology group aims to create more opportunities for African Americans through mentoring and professional enhancement activities. The group also promotes the development of drugs for a more culturally diverse patient population.

Genentech takes its other social responsibilities seriously, last year donating drugs with a market value of $200 million to uninsured patients and a further $40 million to other charitable causes.

Genentech stands out, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to Gunzner-Toste. Locally, "there are a number of smaller companies and a few that compare to Genentech. There's Amgen and Roche not too far away," she says. "But as far as big pharma, they're mostly located in the Northeast, Midwest, or in the Research Triangle [North Carolina] area. Overall, there aren't that many stable jobs with solid companies for chemists in the Bay Area," she adds, "and Genentech is the best."

Olivero agrees. "It's hard," he says, "to imagine working anywhere else."



1. Genentech, South San Francisco

3. Valero Energy, San Antonio

5. W. L. Gore & Associates, Newark, Del.

10. SC Johnson & Son, Racine, Wis.

20. Kimley-Horn & Associates, Cary, N.C.

32. Alcon Laboratories, Fort Worth, Texas

38. Milliken, Spartanburg, S.C.

39. Amgen, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

51. Genzyme, Cambridge, Mass.

52. Eli Lilly, Indianapolis

61. Sherwin-Williams, Cleveland

79. East Penn Manufacturing, Lyon Station, Pa.

80. CH2M Hill, Englewood, Colo.

95. Wm. Wrigley Jr., Chicago

97. Intel, Santa Clara, Calif.

98. General Mills, Minneapolis


Abbott Laboratories, Abbott Park, Ill.

AstraZeneca, Wilmington, Del.

Avon Products, New York City

Bayer Corp., Pittsburgh

Bristol-Myers Squibb, New York City

Colgate-Palmolive, New York City

Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

Dow Corning, Midland, Mich.

DuPont, Wilmington, Del.

Eli Lilly


General Electric, Fairfield, Conn.

General Mills, Minneapolis

GlaxoSmithKline, Philadelphia

Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, Calif.

IBM, Armonk, N.Y.

Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, N.J.

Kellogg, Battle Creek, Mich.

Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill.

Merck & Co., Whitehouse Station, N.J.

Motorola, Schaumberg, Ill.

Novartis Pharmaceuticals,East Hanover, N.J.

Pfizer, New York City

Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, Ohio

SC Johnson & Son

Schering-Plough, Kenilworth, N.J.

Wyeth, Madison, N.J.


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