Robert Swanson and Herbert Boyer

When Robert Swanson and Herbert Boyer met over a beer in 1976, little did they know that they would pioneer an entire industry: biotechnology. Swanson, a venture capitalist who was just twenty-nine at the time, wanted to splice DNA and create new, effective drugs. Boyer, a biophysics and biochemistry professor at the University of California at San Francisco, had the knowhow to give him exactly what he was looking for. At the heart of plan is recombinant DNA.

Although the idea behind recombinant DNA was first introduced in the early 1970s, no one had been able to commercialize it. Herbert Boyer was the scientist who perfected the technique of DNA splicing. Basically, he can take fragments of a DNA from one organism and combine it with another. The partners turned Boyer’s finding into a business venture. They incorporated Genentech, Inc in 1976.

Genentech's headquarters in South San Francisco (photo credit: Coolcaesar)

Genentech was the first company to receive approval for a genetically-engineered drug from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Competing firms followed suit. Nevertheless, Genentech, Inc. continues to maintain an edge as a pioneer with new innovations. The company also made it part of their commitment to share knowledge. Some of their research findings were published at the risk of exposing trade secrets.

The partnership between Robert Swanson and Herbert Boyer was mutually beneficial. Swanson worked as the CEO; he also reached out to potential investors to place more capital into their firm. Boyer oversaw the lab and was responsible for managing the scientists under him.

Today, there are over 1,400 biotech companies in the United States alone, accounting for $39.2 billion in annual revenue. Boyer has said both he and Swanson didn’t realize the impact recombinant DNA would have in the world and, of course, the lives of millions of patients who have benefited from it.


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