Genentech: A Visionary Company

Sally Smith Hughes lays out the history of one of biotechnologies most important and influential companies, Genentech. From the founders early days through their most important discoveries the self explaining title Genentech, the Beginnings of Biotech, tells of how Genentech was founded in South San Francisco. According to Hughes “Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech is the story of a pioneering genetic-engineering company that inspired a new industrial sector, transforming the biomedical and commercial landscapes ever after”(VIII). By becoming the first in the industry to synthesize insulin and Human Growth Hormone, Genentech placed themselves in history. Hughes writing tells of a new creation,  “the entrepreneurial biologist” and the “intimate and people centered history traces the seminal early years of a company that devised new models for biomedical research”(xi). The importance of Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in the field of biotechnology is repeatedly emphasized in Hughes's words. This non-fiction history of Genentech is laid out for you by a leading historian of science and the University of California at Berkeley. Often, the existence of insulin for diabetics, or HGH for those who suffer from other disabilities, is taken for granted. Genentech tells the story of the struggle to recreate such complicated bio-medications.

When Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen decide to collaborate in their efforts to clone DNA in a Hawaiian deli, the idea of Genentech, the giant biotechnology corporation, is born. Their initial experiments in recombinant DNA were separated into two labs, transported back and forth by a research assistant (14). After their first major success, it was evident that the two were beginning something groundbreaking and exciting.

The next step was to align themselves with someone from the corporate world to help them form an actual business. Robert Swanson conveniently swaggered in, “[relating] his experience in funding and advising high-technology companies”, which made Boyer even more enthused about the project (35). Within the year, a business plan was fully developed and the company had a space to call its own, close to the beating heart of biotechnological development in Silicon Valley.

Genentech’s humble beginnings quickly turned to speeding evolution as the company worked to develop an artificial gene that coded for somatostatin, also known as a growth hormone. While not the original goal of the company (the plan was to develop human insulin as its first product), it was a simple enough task to be handled by the company’s small staff, yet complicated and advanced enough to be taken seriously and prove that Genentech would be a real competitor in the biotechnological corporate field.

After this, the company would face the typical issues that follow success. Questions of who really owned the materials and intellectual property arose after Genentech joined efforts with a researcher from the University of California, San Francisco. In addition to internal legalities, Genentech was heavily affected by the external political decisions at work, specifically the Supreme Court decision that “‘anything under the sun made by man is patentable subject matter’” (150). All of these forces pushed Genentech forward as it became a public corporation.

Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech thoroughly details the creation of Genentech, one of the world’s first hugely successful biotech companies, and all its early failures and successes. It gives credit to each and every scientist who helped with the development of recombinant DNA technology, the synthesis of somatostatin and human insulin and every other product created at Genentech--at times, it’s hard to keep all the names straight. Sprinkled throughout the book are diagrams explaining the various scientific processes, copies of documents important to the company’s history and development, and photographs of Genentech’s founders and employees, whether hard at work or just posing for a picture. It all comes together to really bring the history of Genentech alive.

The book is well organized too. Beginning with a prologue that gives an overview of the story Hughes is about to tell us, each chapter is devoted to one period of time in the company’s history: “creating Genentech,” “proving the technology,” “human insulin: Genentech makes its mark,” and so on. It makes the book easy to follow, and it also highlights the most important parts of Genentech’s history.

Whether you have a greater interest in science or business, Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech is an enlightening read. It’s really quite interesting to see how business and science can work together to create something as successful as Genentech, and this book shows exactly how they did it. And while it wasn’t easy, their struggles were certainly worth it in the end.
Genentech: A Visionary Company

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