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The one entrepreneur + VC story every biotech start-up should have in its DNA

The birth of the first biotech startup

The mid-70s was to biotechnology what the late 60s was to rock music (except no one knew that’s what it would be called). Crazy scientists were working on crazy ideas and getting crazy results. Among them Herb Boyer, Stanley Cohen, Arthur Riggs, and Keiichi Itakura (among others) were working on recombinant DNA – the art of splicing and combining DNA fragments from disparate species. Here’s the star example: human genes that express insulin could be spliced with bacterial DNA to “program” them to become lean mean insulin producing machines. Thus came about the birth of genetic engineering and biotechnology drugs. Now we know that synthetic insulin is perhaps the most influential biotech drug in history – having improved the lives of maybe a billion diabetics.

As crazy scientists go, these guys did not have much patience for anything other than their experiments. In fact, they did not even think about patenting Prof. Itakura’s maddeningly successful physical technique of cleaving DNA at specific spots. Mostly, the financial scope of technology that alters human history was beyond the scope of their thought. That is, except in one instance.

The one outlier

In 1976 (still years before the successful application of recombinant DNA was obvious), Prof Boyer teamed with venture capitalist Robert Swanson to found Genentech. He was convinced on the scope of the idea taking shape and had the special genius to act on it in the beginning. Genentech would win (over Biogen) in the race to make synthetic insulin and set the stage for the biotechnology revolution that followed.

In the years since, Genentech has not been above the short-sighted missteps and unethical actions that plague all large corporations. However, it remains biotechnology’s shining light, not least because of the way it was founded – on the promise of an idea and the courage of an investor to bet money on it.

Prof. Boyer and me

Since I went through my orientation in the building named for him at Biocon, I have read a lot on Prof. Boyer’s life – his upbringing in rural Pennsylvania, civil-rights activism, the single largest individual grant he made to Yale. And I’m yet to figure out how this vastly influential team did not win a biology Nobel.

As I’m building CRAMbridge, I’ve been interacting with VCs and angel investors to see who to partner with. I sometimes find it hard to keep my focus on the only thing that matters (ie: a partner who shares my vision and the scope of what I’m trying to do), but find much inspiration in Prof. Boyer’s story.

The birth of Genentech needs to be encoded into every biotech start-up’s DNA.


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