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Herbert Boyer

Modest innovator laid the groundwork for the biotechnology industry

by Lisa M. Jarvis
September 10, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 37

"We didn't have much time to think too far down the line as to whether this was going to be a new industry or not."
Credit: Douglas Lockart/CHF
Credit: Douglas Lockart/CHF

One might assume that Herbert W. Boyer, cofounder of Genentech, would have something of a swelled head. He's the man, after all, who helped to invent genetic engineering, then went on to establish the world's first biotechnology company, laying the foundation for an entire industry. The fame alone, few scientists can say they have graced the cover of Time magazine, as Boyer did in 1981, not to mention the millions of dollars he's made from Genentech, could have given him an inflated ego.

To the contrary, Boyer is an extremely modest pioneer. He is prone to playing down his role in jump-starting the biotech industry and instead seems truly in awe of the progress that scientists have made since the discovery of genetic engineering. "What's happening today is so exciting," Boyer says. "Advances are occurring at such a rapid pace compared with 30 years ago, it's staggering."

Despite his unassuming attitude about his importance to the field of biotechnology, Boyer has racked up an impressive list of awards, including the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology. This week in Philadelphia, the Society of Chemical Industry (American Section) will present to Boyer the Perkin Medal, considered the highest honor awarded to innovators in industrial chemistry.

The story of how Boyer and Stanford University professor Stanley Cohen discovered recombinant DNA technology, and how Boyer and a venture capitalist subsequently launched Genentech, has reached almost mythic proportions.

By both men's accounts, they first met at a conference on bacterial plasmids held in Hawaii in 1972. Boyer, at the time a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, had pinpointed an enzyme that could snip off bits of DNA carrying the precise code for a specific protein. That "restriction enzyme" also happened to have a sticky end that allowed it to glom onto other segments of DNA. Cohen, meanwhile, had figured out how to introduce antibiotic-carrying plasmids into bacteria, which would then clone the plasmid's DNA.

Over hot pastrami and corned beef sandwiches in Waikiki, the two devised a plan to insert Boyer's DNA segments into Cohen's plasmids, which would then be introduced into bacteria that would copy the DNA to its offspring. Within months, they had proven their theory in the lab, a development that opened the door to manipulating bacteria to produce useful medicines, such as human insulin and human growth hormone. Boyer and Cohen had, in essence, turned basic bacteria such as Escherichia coli into tiny drug factories.

That discovery spawned an industry when a 29-year-old venture capitalist named Robert A. Swanson approached Boyer in 1976 about commercializing the technology. Boyer agreed to a 10-minute meeting over beers; three hours later, as the story goes, Genentech was born.

Within a few years, other biotech firms, such as Chiron and Amgen, began to emerge. Fast-forward 30 years, and Genentech is a major player in an industry that boasted more than $60 billion in revenues in 2006, according to IMS Health.

Genentech has given that fated meeting between Boyer and Swanson its proper due at company headquarters in South San Francisco, where a statue of the two talking over beers sits in a courtyard. The idea of being so immortalized might give another person a huge ego trip; Boyer just chuckles that occasionally he'll take a friend down to "see what I used to look like when I was young."

He is similarly modest about his role as an industry pioneer. In the beginning, Boyer says, he and Swanson weren't preoccupied with the notion of starting the first "biotech" company. "We were so focused on doing what was in front of our noses, we didn't have much time to think too far down the line as to whether this was going to be a new industry or not," he says.

Indeed, the first few years after Genentech's launch were all about trying to make proteins that would help patients, he adds. There were tough times early on, when the partners had trouble meeting payroll or experiments didn't turn out as expected, but "we never stopped having fun," Boyer says. "We were just so full of excitement and energy in those days."

Boyer still seems strongly attached to the goal of helping patients and having a good time while doing it. He has maintained a position on Genentech's board of directors and has no qualms about interrupting his frequent fishing trips in Montana or daily hikes near his home in California to attend board meetings.

With more than 10,000 employees and annual revenues rivaling some of the leading traditional pharmaceutical companies, the Genentech of today is a far cry from the company he started 30 years ago, Boyer acknowledges. And as Genentech continues to grow, it will be a challenge to maintain the culture and vision Boyer laid out back then.

"It can never be the same as it was when the company was six or 20 or even 100 people," Boyer concedes. But, he adds, "the key is coming to work every day knowing that you're trying to do something to make people's lives a little better."



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