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Robert Swanson (1947 - 1999)

Susan Wiegand

What's a venture capitalist doing in the Pioneer Profiles for biotechnology? Venture capital, and perhaps even more importantly, financial savvy and creativity, have competed strongly with the technology of genetic engineering itself for center stage in the field.

Robert Swanson was only 27 years old and working for one of the most influential and successful venture capital firms in Silicon Valley when he began thinking that there was gold in the cells that were being poked and probed so curiously in laboratories around the world and perhaps, most dramatically, right in his own backyard. He looked around and sought interviews with anyone who he thought could give him an idea of how these exciting developments in microbiology might prove marketable. His education had groomed him well for such an undertaking. He had a B.S. in chemistry from MIT and an M.S. from MIT's Sloan School of Business. He had also spent four years as an investment officer with Citibank.

Yet Swanson languished in that middle ground of awareness without precise knowledge. He didn't know that a brief interview he had scheduled with a UCSF scientist would introduce him to the man who had already transformed the possibilities of genetic manipulation into a potentially marketable technology. That is the nature of both science and business; luck combined with swift wits, characteristics that Robert Swanson would not deny. At the moment he scheduled the interview, he remembers the readiness he had to stake his whole future on the fledgling science of genetic engineering, to ditch his comfy job at Kleiner-Perkins and place all his eggs in the basket of a start-up company.

That 1975 interview, which proved to be a landmark both in his career and in the careers and lives of so many others who have benefitted from the commercialization of genetic engineering, was granted stingily by an overworked and underfunded Herbert Boyer at the University of California at San Francisco. As Swanson recalled, "All the academics I called said commercial application of gene splicing was ten years away. Herb didn't." Swanson's vision and enthusiasm impressed Boyer enough to keep his attention for hours, as the two men ate sandwiches and drank beer and talked about the future. Although he had pursued science with success, Boyer had also been drawn to the pursuit of business and entrepreneurship since he was a young man.

By the spring of 1976, Swanson had not only satisfied Boyer that there was sufficient soil to start a company, but he had convinced his boss, Thomas Perkins, of the idea. Perkins ponied up seed money and Swanson began to work in earnest, pulling the principles of industry, competition, and return on investment into alignment with the principles of molecular biology, a task to which he proved well-suited. The company set its sights on the synthesis of human insulin, a goal Genentech scientists achieved in 1978. After licensing the technology to Lilly, Genentech became the first biotechnology company to launch its own biopharmaceutical product in 1985, human growth hormone. Genentech has since maintained its leadership in the biotechnology industry and the health care community, a phenomenally successful commercial and scientific enterprise.

Swanson served as director and CEO of Genentech from the time of its inception until 1990, when he was named Chairman of the Board. He served as Chairman until 1996.

After retiring from Genentech in 1996, Bob formed K&E Management, a private investment management firm. He was also the current Chairman of the Board of Directors of Tularik, Inc., a biotechnology firm focused on therapeutics which act through the regulation of gene expression.

Go to next profile: Harold Elliot Varmus

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