Back in 1985, while researching my first book, Invisible Frontiers, I had a lunchtime appointment with Robert Swanson, then president and CEO of Genentech. While en route to the interview, I found myself snarled in one of those now-familiar traffic jams on southbound U.S. 101-traffic jams created in part by the biotech revolution Swanson helped launch. I arrived an hour and a half late, in an advanced state of mortification, but Swanson betrayed not the slightest irritation. We repaired to the cafeteria, where he recalled the early days at Genentech with passion and humor.
The passionate and patient aspects of this man came to mind with the tragic news last December that Swanson, who founded Genentech in 1976 with biologist Herbert Boyer, had died of a brain tumor just a few days after his 52nd birthday. There have been generous and entirely fitting testimonials to Swanson’s role as father of the biotechnology industry, but when I think back to the fitful start of our interview, I’m struck by a personality trait of Swanson’s that might well serve as a philosophical statement about innovation. I’m sure he was more peeved than he let on, but patience was the better part of valor. That is what I remember most about Swanson: a strategic patience.
His supply of patience, let me hastily add, wasn’t infinite. Having spoken with many of the scientists who formed the core of Genentech’s original research staff, I know that Swanson could hector and pester and hover and noodge with the best of them. In a nascent field where practical applications were still largely theoretical, he understood the need to have a product sooner rather than later, and he shrewdly chose two targets-insulin and human growth hormone-in part because they already enjoyed a large infrastructure of knowledge both in academia and at the Food and Drug Administration. But he also understood that recombinant DNA technology, and every unimaginable thing that might eventually flower from it, would ultimately transform both science and pharmaceutical commerce. It was just a matter of time.Hence, patience.
Patience is a word-and concept-increasingly quaint in today’s go-go high-tech agora. For several years now, we’ve read ad nauseam about the rags-to-riches sagas of twentysomething dot-com dervishes who have yet to produce a product,much less a profit, and often have nothing to sell but a frisky vision of the future. Compared to Web commerce, biotechnology products seem almost Victorian in the pace and fussiness of their creation:You not only have to deal with the humbling complexity and messiness of human biology, you have to, like, get it approved, dude.Why would a venture capitalist invest in an industry where the risk is so high, the endpoint so uncertain and the time horizon to product so distant, where the fate of an entire company can hinge on the whims of the FDA or the swoon of a single patient in a clinical trial, when staggeringly high returns are routinely available from the e-fad of the month?
That’s a very good question if, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, return on investment isn’t the most important thing-it’s the only thing. But at the risk of sounding like a socialist leftover, I keep coming back to a thought elicited by Bob Swanson’s death. If the system confers no reward for patience, no economic payback for waiting out the development of life-transforming biomedical products that take time to mature, then the landslide vote of venture capital for software,Web accessories and digital ephemera in effect establishes that there is less value, cultural as well as financial, in the creation of new medicines.
And yet intuitively we know that’s not true. The drugs that have emerged from the new biology required enormous patience (and, yes, capital), but they have been life-transforming in a manner altogether more rarified and precious than a better word-processing program or a faster chip. Protease inhibitors, monoclonal antibodies to fight breast cancer and leukemia, cytokines like interferon to treat cancer and multiple sclerosis, to name a few, have provided the ultimate in high-yield returns: lives reclaimed from imminent death. But the promised land in biomedicine is not for kids or amateurs precisely because of the amount of time it takes to get there. Not many have the patience, or courage, to tackle the road ahead when it winds through human biology.
I don’t want to sound naive about the kind of patience Bob Swanson exemplified. Modest and private as he was, Swanson was definitely in it for the money, as he made clear one summer night long ago when he stood before the imposing Northern California estate of the legendary venture capitalist Thomas Perkins with two of his young scientists. “This,” he told them, motioning toward the mansion, “is what we’re all working for.”
Still, his premature and tragic death is writ large over the intersection of innovation and value. If someone doesn’t reassert the essential value of patience and restore a little bit of nobility to the notion of risk, we may all find ourselves, like Bob Swanson, empowered with wondrously powerful search engines that unfortunately have nothing of value to find, especially if you’re in the market for something to save your life.