The Birth of Genentech was now 39 YEARS ago…so what was its significance to the Biotechnology Field?

Genentech_biotechnologyGenentech has had a tremendous impact on the biotechnology industry, and is often described as the pioneer in modern Biotech….Since being bought out by Roche in 2009 for $46.3Bn, Genentech’s success in the Biotech industry has only grown further, with their latest acquisition being in 2014 for Seragon (a San Diego breast cancer specialist) for $1.72Bn.

Now Genentech’s portfolio includes major Oncology blockbusters such as Avastin (for colorectal, renal and lung cancers), Rituxan (for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma) and Herceptin (breast cancer). Other famous brand names include Tamiflu (originally developed by Gilead for the awful 2009 Swine-Flu pandemic).


Genentech is also incredibly famous for its history in Synthetic bio, leading to the planting of the San Francisco Bay area biotech ecosystem. So – what are the figures? Who did what, where and when?


The San Francisco Bay view of the Genentech Campus (Source: Genentech)


Genentech proved that DNA could be recombined, which means that genetic material from one species could be successfully introduced into the gene of another species. Indeed, they realized that they could use sets of restriction enzymes to cut plasmid DNA, as well as DNA containing a gene of interest in order to combine the two.

This was done using “sticky ends” of each DNA section (i.e. un-even cuts of the DNA helix, so two ends can slot together) to join, known as “splicing” to make recombinant DNA (i.e. bacteria ­and human).


(Source: VWmin)


It all began with an experiment conducted by a team led by Herbert Boyer of the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), studying antibiotic resistance plasmids in E. coli, and Stanley Cohen of Stanford University, who was studying restriction enzymes.

It was through this research that Boyer was later approached by Robert Swanson (‘Bob’), a 29-year old who’s enthusiasm for Boyer & Cohen’s recombinant DNA work pushed the founding of Genentech.


As a Young venture capitalist, Boyer humored Swanson’s interest, later to become Director and CEO of Genentech until 1990. After a long 20-year business partnership with Boyer, Bob Swanson passed away in 1999 at the age of 52 from brain cancer.


Stan Cohen and Annie Chang in the Department of Medicine Lab at Stanford in 1975 (Credit: Stanley Cohen/Sally Smith Hughes)

For the full story in all its glory, Labiotech recommends the book ‘Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech‘ by Sally Smith Hughes (published in 2011). Compulsory reading for all new interns, we have two copies in the office…


In January 1976, Robert Swanson, who had been partner at the venture capital firm of Kleiner & Perkins, telephoned Herbert Boyer. Swanson believed that recombinant DNA technology could be employed to create commercial products in a relatively short time.

Swanson persuaded Boyer to meet with him for a few minutes. In fact, the meeting ended up lasting almost two or three hours, with the eventual agreement with Swanson on the commercial feasibility of genetic engineering, not in the distant future, but now.

Indeed, according to a posthumous interview on Swanson by Bloomberg, Boyer described the memory of meeting him for the first time as simply ‘life-changing’.


Boyer and Swanson co-founded Genentech with $500 each in 1976 (Source: Genentech)

How much?

By the time Swanson & Boyer’s initial meeting was over, the two had already made an initial agreement that they would each make a $500 investment into the new project. Boyer also came up with a name for the company, derived from GENetic ENgineering TECHnology.

And thus with no assets, rented equipment, or even a part-time secretary, the pair launched the enterprise on April 7th, 1976.


Pictured from left to right Steve Sherwin, John O’Connor, Jim Gower, Tony Lubiniecki, Gary Lyons, Yasanouri Kaneko, Eric Patzer, Rob Hershberg, Dave Estell, Tim Gregory, Art Levinson, Jack Obijeski. Founders of Genentech (Source: Genentech)

On December 2nd, 1977, national news media reported in The Wall Street Journal that ‘Scientists’ (aka Genentech) had produced a useful protein through genetic manipulation for the first time…and this was a hugely significant breakthrough in the medical research field, as it meant cheap and synthetic hormones could potentially be made using bacteria. Indeed, as the AAAS described it, this breakthrough would lead to a ‘Revolution in biology‘.

Specifically, Genentech had successfully produced the first human protein, somatostatin in 1977. The team did this by insertion of the gene into an E. coli plasmid for culturing en masse in a fermentation set-up.


Left: Insulin Drawing Board at the Rigg’s City of Hope Office 1978. Right: Herb Heyneker at Genentech’s First Biofermentor in 1978 (Sources: Sally Smith Hughes / Genentech)

Less than a year later, in August 1978, Genentech was able to announce that it had also successfully employed the new technology to produce human insulin – possibly the biggest breakthrough in modern Endocrinology, ever! The following year, a similar announcement was made about human growth hormone – another peptide hormone…

…then gamma interferon in 1981,  and tissue plasminogen activator (an acute treatment for thrombosis) the next year, followed by a new stream of rDNA products and more…

This was the evolution of an entirely new medical manufacturing field – INDUSTRIAL BIOTECHNOLOGY!

san_francisco_bay_genentech_biotechnologyWhere ?

Silicon Valley had a new neighbour move in – Biotech Bay.

The San Francisco area was covered on LaBiotech Bay Tour, and is one of the key hotspots for Biotech in the US (the other being Boston, Massachusetts). In part,  the areas popularity for Biotech start-ups is due to its proximity to Stanford and the UCSF.

It is also interesting Genentech is located here given the Bay area links to venture capitalists. In fact, Genentech was the first Biotech to be a product of VC investment. Today their Biotech empire as amassed some massive #biofigures, including it’s sale to the Swiss giant Roche in 2009 for a $46.8Bn pricetag.


Some more #biofigures

Worldwide Revenues: $17.3Bn            785K square feet devoted to research              13.3K employees

                                                35 medicines on the market           11.3K patents received

It’s been 39 years since the start-up of the company, which had an initial capital of only $1,000, has pharmaceuticals interaction with Academia and the Industry, and helped hundreds of thousands of patients.

Where will Genentech lead the field next?

A timeline of the multiple biotherapeutics, among the 35 medicines, brought to market by Genentech in the areas of oncology, immunology, ophthalmology, and metabolism (Source: Genentech)


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